I’ve always loved history. It was one of those things that got me excited as a kid, and it still does now. I almost majored in it until I met with a professor in a windowless, wood-paneled office that smelled of old lunch meat and despair to discuss a “career” in the subject. He told me that there are two job options for history majors, the museum and the classroom, and neither paid well. I’ll never know if he talked me out of it on purpose. Maybe I didn’t have that history major vibe, maybe he saw too much life in my eyes. Either way, I switched my major to religion and had a similar experience—it’s either the church or the classroom, and neither pays well—hence my degree in communication.
So when I ordered a just-for-fun history read this summer, a decision my high-school-self would make fun of my today-self for, I cracked it open before bed one night. The opening chapter was about Columbus, and the facts were pulled directly from Columbus’s journal entries and letters, as well as from the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas, the priest who transcribed Columbus’s journal. I didn’t realize my long-held beliefs about Columbus Day were about to drastically change.
Before I dive in, let me answer the question: what’s the party line on Columbus Day? Most on the left believe that Columbus isn’t worthy of a federally recognized holiday and some on the right agree, but there is still a portion of the population that disagrees.
As we speak, two Republican Senators, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, are working to pass legislation that replaces Columbus Day as a federal holiday with Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Dozens of states and municipalities have already replaced Columbus Day with another holiday, but these two Senators want it done at the federal level. Even so, there are still those on the right that believe this act is a radical left-wing attempt at rewriting history despite the fact that the two senators I just referred to are Republicans. That’s the gap I’m hoping to bridge.
Back to my history book. As I seethed in bed alongside a husband who didn’t understand why I was getting so revved up and mouthing curse words while reading 15th century journal entries, I realized that celebrating Columbus Day was not a partisan issue for the following three reasons:
- He is the only “American Hero” who has successfully committed genocide on an entire population.
- His violence and cruelty were unprecedented, even for the time.
- He never set foot on US soil.
To be clear, I will only use Columbus’s own words and the words of his personal transcriber and priest, as well as well-documented history, to make my case. No speculations necessary.
When Columbus first set sail, he led his expedition with boldness, skill and charisma. He was the first in a long line of explorers, paving the way to progress, but historians have skillfully excused the darker side of his legacy for centuries. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a distinguished Columbus scholar and author of his multivolume biography, wrote:
He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship.
Yes, Columbus overcame his predetermined fate as a boy from the Italian middle class to become a wealthy and world-renowned explorer, a narrative arc Americans guzzle down like light beer or overpriced lattes, but that’s only part of the story. Historians have excused away the “defects of the qualities that made him great” by focusing on and praising his success. Thankfully though, Morison couldn’t totally neglect the facts without being dishonest. He also wrote:
The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.
Genocide. What other American heroes have initiated policies that resulted in the annihilation of entire races of people or, as Morison writes, complete genocide? Zero. In less than 158 years, the native Arawak population on Hispaniola was killed. Their culture is gone, along with their stories and descendants, and this is only one of the many native populations affected.
Republicans hate genocide. Democrats hate genocide. And regardless of one’s successes, being responsible for this type of mass-murder kind of poisons the water, doesn’t it? The acceptance of genocide as a byproduct of one’s success is not a partisan issue.
Secondly, Columbus’s “dark side” included an unprecedented violence and cruelty. Sure, Columbus wasn’t the first European to set sail, show up somewhere, and say “mine,” but the way he dehumanized the natives from the moment he arrived is noteworthy as it set the tone for the relationship between the natives and the Spanish for centuries. Columbus wrote:
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts…They willingly traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
From the beginning, he viewed the natives as lesser, and after five months in the Caribbean, Columbus and his men sailed home. With little to show from his first expedition, he had to get creative fundraising for the second one. To gain support, Columbus told King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he would bring them “as much gold as they need…and as many slaves as they ask.” They agreed, and he returned that same year.
Columbus had written of fields of gold, and in an attempt to collect it, he initiated one of his cruelest policies: all natives over the age of fourteen would be asked to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. If they fulfilled their quota, they would have a copper token hung around their necks. Anyone without a copper token would have their hands cut off and bleed to death. There simply wasn’t enough gold on the island to meet their quotas.
When Columbus found little gold during his second expedition, he decided to load up the boats with as many slaves as possible. He started by rounding up 1500 men, women and children. They were placed in pens surrounded by guards, and the 500 best specimens were loaded onto the boat. Families were split up, children taken from their mothers, husbands from their wives. These people would never see their loved ones again. On the voyage back to Spain, two hundred died, and the remaining were sold upon arrival.
Columbus and his men began setting up large estates to run in their absence when it became apparent that no gold was left on the island. They began working slaves on farms and in mines at a ferocious pace that killed them by the thousands. And if they ran into the hills to try to escape, they were chased and killed.
Bartolomé de las Casas, who gave up his own plantation and slaves as he felt convicted by his people’s cruelty, wrote that the natives “suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.” After six to eight months of work in the mines, which was required of the men to work at one time, a third of them died. He writes:
Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides…they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7,000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk…and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile…was depopulated…My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.
De las Casas wrote that the Spaniards “grew more conceited every day,” and that, when they were tired, they would ride “the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry.” They had slaves shade them from the sun with large leaves and fan them in the heat with goose wings. They became their own form of royalty. De las Casas writes:
(The Spaniards) thought nothing of knifing Indians by the tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades…two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.
Rape was another form of violence the Spanish committed, including the rape of young girls. In one account, De las Casas said, “’One day … the Spanish dismembered, beheaded or raped 3,000 Indian people. They cut off the legs of the children that ran before them. They poured people full of boiling soup. I saw all the above things … and numberless others.” In 1500, Columbus wrote of the Spanish demand for sex slaves:
…there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.
As word spread about the Spanish, the natives began committing mass suicide when their attempts to fight back were futile. After all, the spaniards had armor and swords and muskets, they had spears. So in an act of desperation, they used cassava poison to kill themselves en masse.
So was every knifing, beheading, and malnourished newborn Columbus’s fault? Was he responsible for every heinous act committed in his absence? I guess that depends on your view of leadership. One hundred years after his first ship landed in the Caribbean, cruel acts were still happening. So no, not everything was his personal idea, but the way the Spanish dehumanized the natives was a tone set from the beginning.
Howard Zinn, an American historian, writes, “One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts.” Rather than writing about the “the defects of the qualities that made him great,” this part of Columbus’s story was largely untold until recent decades. So when Columbus Day supporters conclude this is an attempt to rewrite history, the reality is that the anti-Columbus sentiment is a reaction to more information becoming well-known.
And since establishing justice is one of the first objectives mentioned in the Constitution, I’m curious: Now that we have a more rounded view of Columbus’s place in our history, what is just?
What other American Heroes have personified violence and cruelty in this way? I’m sure there could be some debate here, but ask someone on the other side of the aisle if they think it’s ok to cut off the hands of 14-year-old boys. Ask them if showing up somewhere where the people are vulnerable and weapon-less and subjugating them by force to fill pockets with gold is violent. Ask them if beheading and raping children is a partisan issue.
Can’t we agree that his dehumanization of the natives led to violence and cruelty that was both unnecessary in the name of progress and downright wrong? I believe this is something Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
For my final point, I’ll be quick. Geography, that sophomore social studies class that kicked everyone’s ass, would like to have a word.
Columbus landed in the Caribbean seven years before Amerigo Vespucci. John Cabot landed in North America in 1497, then Ponce de León landed in Florida in 1513. It’s true, Columbus was the first in a long line of 15th century European explorers, and again, his boldness and seamanship should be applauded for what it was, but he didn’t “discover” the continent wherein resides the United States. He also didn’t step foot on any land that later became the United States. And if we’re having the boldness, seamanship, and discovering America conversation, the unspoken hero might be Leif Erikson, who showed up in North America 500 years before any of these guys. Sorry Leif, for some reason your voyage took a back seat in history class. Try being more Catholic next time.
So Columbus wasn’t the first person to arrive in the Americas (the ancestors of the Native Americans were), he wasn’t the first European to voyage to the Americas (where you at Leif?), and he wasn’t the first European to set foot on land that would later become the United States? For real? Yes. So then Columbus wasn’t the “first” anything, except maybe the first European to sail across the ocean and act like a complete dick…I guess I’ll have to read up more on Leif Erikson before I can give out the award.
I digress. These geographical facts can be agreed upon across the aisle once again. God bless you sophomore Geography, filling our brains with state capitals and saving us once again.
It’s not our job to rewrite history, but we can reemphasize it. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Now that we know better, what’s next?
As a society, we don’t always get it right. Hence the constitutional amendment, commuted sentences, and confession—I did not mean what I said about my sister-in-law, I take it back, God…you know how much I hate her though. Columbus is a part of our history regardless of his dark side, and I don’t think he should be erased from it. This is one of the major reasons why we study history in the first place: to remember the context and the nuances of the bad decisions we’ve made in the past, to observe their effects, and to study and choose better alternatives. History helps us navigate a better future.
Who we celebrate as a nation defines us. There are only 10 federal holidays, 3 of which celebrate individuals. Who is another American Hero who committed less genocide that we can celebrate? One who was less violent and cruel? One who actually walked on US soil? It would be healing to refocus our celebrations in the spirit of unity with our Native American neighbors.
Before I wrap up, which I swear to do in 250 words, I’d like for us to come together around the long term effects of Columbus Day on Native Americans. Could you imagine if your German friend told your Jewish friend that Hitler wasn’t all bad? He unified a country, made Germany a superpower, loved art, and was a vegetarian—really? Eating meat is where you draw the line? Additionally, without him, the allies wouldn’t have united as strongly against authoritarianism and many useful treaties and accords wouldn’t be in place today. But again, your Jewish friend would likely consider you less of a friend if you were pro-Hitler. His policies resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews, Columbus’s policies resulted in the deaths of millions of Native Americans. It isn’t an exact parallel, but it’s similar enough.
So what are some better options for a Federal Holiday? Let’s start a national conversation, let’s rally around a figure that makes every American feel proud. Celebrating Columbus Day is not a partisan issue.