In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and the rest is, as they say, history. Columbus Day has been a topic of indignation for a long time now, and those disturbed by the annual memorial of his journey only grow louder with each passing year; 21 states no longer recognize Columbus Day, and cities in at least 16 states have renamed it Indigenous People’s Day. Like the recent toppling of Confederate statues, proponents’ reasoning to commemorate a day for Columbus is, as they claim, purely ‘historical.’ Well, if we are candid about the ‘history’ of Columbus, the facts most people think they know are inaccurate, demeaning and downright painful for many groups of people.
Columbus Didn’t ‘Discover’ America
We were told that Christopher Columbus, Cristoforo Colombo or Cristobal Colón (he changed his name when he moved to Spain and became a citizen) discovered America. In actuality, he was simply the first European to explore the America(s) since the 11th century Vikings. In fact, Columbus never even set foot on North American soil, or what Americans perceive to be ‘America.’ Columbus sailed to various Caribbean islands (the Bahamas and the island later called Hispaniola, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as well as the Central and South American coasts, where the not-so-minor fact that he was met by millions of Natives makes for less of a ‘Discovery,’ and more of a colonization.
The Rape and Slaughter of Men, Women and Children
When Columbus reached the beaches of the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he was met by the Lucayan, Taíno and Arawak tribes, who greeted Columbus and his men in kind. “They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned,” Columbus writes. It’s no secret that Columbus viewed those he encountered as less than human. He documented it quite well in his journal: “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 out of ignorance . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” Which he did. In a letter to King Ferdinand, Columbus wrote, “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, in 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.”
Slavery was only the beginning. Columbus allowed his men to do whatever they pleased to the natives they took by force. Michele da Cuneo, one of Columbus’s men and a childhood friend, detailed in a letter how he was “given” a woman, and proceeded to rape her:
“I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.”
Soon Columbus started rewarding his men with not just women but young girls, some as young as nine and ten: “A hundred castellanos (Spanish gold coins) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.” Columbus wrote these words to a friend matter-of-factly, aptly depicting just how despicable he was. Not even pedophilia was out of the question when it came to those native to the lands he claimed to have discovered.
Stereotypes and Dehumanization
Catholic law forbade the enslavement of Christians, so Columbus simply didn’t baptize them. Instead, they were hunted for sport and their remains were fed to dogs as food. The bodies of the natives were sold in butcher shops like common cattle, and even infants were thrown to the dogs for sport—sometimes in front of their horrified parents. This dehumanization of the native people, coupled with the many stereotypes depicting natives as savage, godless creatures, led to these revolting acts to continue unabated.
Despite this barbaric treatment, Columbus noted in his journal that the Arawaks were incredibly hospitable: “They offered to share with anyone and when you ask for something, they never say no.” And when the Santa Maria was wrecked, the Arawaks worked side by side to save his crew and cargo, according to Columbus himself.
The Argument That Native Americans Are Also Violent
Unfortunately, many look at the facts surrounding Columbus’ history and find it necessary to defend a murderer, citing that some native tribes were also violent. Native Americans didn’t displace one another, then declare national holidays celebrating said defeat, however. Killing off a race of people and bringing in slaves from Africa is quite different than disputing rights to hunting grounds. We also don’t have a holiday that commemorates Aztec human sacrifices, which comes to an estimated 80,400 people. According to Bartlome de Las Casas, who eventually worked to free the natives from slavery, between 1494 and 1508 more than three million people died from war, slavery and the mines. There is no denying that Columbus and his men are guilty of genocide. A little after 1516, every last person of the Arawak tribe was dead—an estimated 8 million people—and sixty years after Columbus landed, just a few hundred of the 250,000 Taíno (Arawakan-speaking) people were still alive.
Not Celebrating Is ‘Anti-Catholic and Anti-Italian’
When anti-Catholic and anti-Italian sentiments were common in the U.S., Columbus served as an uplifting symbol for their communities. Columbus Day was later named a national holiday in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a push from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. Just as Confederate flags and the statues of slave owners are demeaning to the black community, Columbus Day parades and a day of remembrance are devastating to the native community. These requests are not about any one group being more important than another; they are about being knowledgeable and compassionate to those still reeling from a painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination and poverty faced by indigenous communities today.
The American Indian Holocaust
For those who claim anti-Catholic or anti-Italian rhetoric, even when faced with the fact that Columbus may not even have been Italian, are there no other Italian Catholics better suited to celebrate? The American Indian Holocaust death toll is an estimated 95,000,000 to 114,000,000 between Columbus’ arrival in 1492 to the end of the Indian American Wars in the 1890’s, when less than 250,000 remained.
To ask whether later generations accept an invitation to share in the “success” of Columbus Day is cruel. It is time to acknowledge the grotesque truths of our history and, as a country, continue to make right those wrongs. This starts by listening to the indigenous communities disturbed by the holiday, getting rid of Columbus Day and celebrating the cultures affected instead.