Columbus Day is a strange American holiday and historically controversial. As an avid history buff, I find our celebration of Christopher Columbus rather disturbing on several levels. American history books largely celebrate the Italian explorer as a hero, an intrepid entrepreneur who discovered America—even though he never set foot on U.S. soil. As children, most of us learned of Columbus through a simplistic little rhyme…as a rote learning tool, employed to remember an otherwise arcane, yet important historical date. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Cute, clever and effective. But shallow and simplistic nonetheless.
Over the years we chose—as an entire nation—to somehow glorify and elevate Columbus to near mythical status, while ignoring the reality. Instead of acknowledging the man’s many, many flaws and outright cruelty to native peoples (remember, he never actually reached what we think of as “America”), we allowed ourselves to be deluded. Not only do we remain largely ignorant of the facts, but we actually celebrate that ignorance with a national holiday, declared in 1937.
“Columbus Day” was promoted by the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal religious order, founded in 1882. The holiday was designed to help overcome Italian and Catholic bias in the United States during the great influx of European immigration in the late 19th Century and–through New York’s Ellis Island–in the early 20th Century. There is now a little known effort to rename the holiday as “Exploration Day,” which seems to me a more rational solution to the historical contradictions.
I know…it’s not popular or even politically correct to question or challenge popular misconceptions, but here goes:
- Christopher Columbus was not a very nice man. Oh sure, his four voyages were fraught with great peril. And yes, there is little doubt that he was an accomplished mariner, able to negotiate the stormy, unforgiving Atlantic Ocean with the most rudimentary navigational aids. Admirable that he could control and motivate the fearful, uneducated crews of his wooden ships…puny in comparison to anything we know today…barely capable of traversing an unknown, poorly charted ocean.
- He killed and enslaved native Americans, who he mistakenly named “ Indians.” Columbus brought with him an unforgiving Catholic religion and European diseases for which the simple native populations had no defenses or immunity. Being a disease vector may not have been intentional, but the millions of deaths that resulted is hardly a cause for celebration.
- He was a notorious self promoter and not nearly as adept at management on land as he was at sea. He sought riches and fame through self-enriching greed, uncertain discovery and deceit, giving a good name to what actually amounted to genocide by today’s metrics.
Here’s just a brief ‘ unvarnished’ glimpse of the real man we celebrate today, from history.com. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
In an era in which the international slave trade was starting to grow, Columbus and his men enslaved many native inhabitants of the West Indies and subjected them to extreme violence and brutality. On his famous first voyage in 1492, Columbus landed on an unknown Caribbean island after an arduous three-month journey.
On his first day in the New World, he ordered six of the natives to be seized, writing in his journal that he believed they would be good servants. Throughout his years in the New World, Columbus enacted policies of forced labor in which natives were put to work for the sake of profits.
Later, Columbus sent thousands of peaceful Taino “Indians” from the island of Hispaniola to Spain to be sold. Many died en route. Those left behind were forced to search for gold in mines and on plantations. Within 60 years after Columbus landed, only a few hundred of what may have been 250,000 Taino were left on their island.
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