The real story of Christopher Columbus.
During my school years, and perhaps during yours, whenever October rolled around, we started learning about the ‘great explorer and discoverer of America,’ Christopher Columbus. We talked about how Columbus discovered America, how he made friends with the Native Americans. We drew pictures of ships sailing across the ocean. We learned those familiar names: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
But we’d been lied to. None of the story was true. Columbus wasn’t some great discoverer- there were already people in America, and there had been for thousands of years. He wasn’t even the first European to journey to the Americas- the Norse had already travelled and built settlements on the east coast of Canada. So what was left? Why still celebrate this day? It’s okay, some said. We celebrate it now, not because he discovered America, but because his arrival in the Americas was a significant moment in history- one which opened up the world and brought the two hemispheres together making one harmonious, global society.
Dr. Jack Weatherford, an American anthropologist and ethnographer, said it best when he noted that when we as a people celebrate Columbus Day, we celebrate a man “who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history.” Columbus may not have been the father of slavery, but he certainly expanded it. How?
It has to do with how he financed his voyage. Remember, he was on his way to India, or so he thought. When he proposed this to the Spanish monarch, his journey was underwritten and away he sailed. But that money would have to be paid back, and he had promised payment in the form of spices or gold. He found little of this in Hispaniola, where he actually landed. In a panic, and knowing he needed something of value to take back with him, he took the only thing he could find in abundance- humans.
Slavery was nothing new to the world.
In fact, the history of slavery goes back to the beginning of socially stratified societies- perhaps as far back as 10,000 years or more. But when Columbus started to bring natives back to Spain, it opened up a whole new source for forced human labor. It was one from which they would seize so many that the people he encountered in Hispaniola, the Taino, are thought now to be extinct. Even after Columbus’ death, and despite the abolition of slavery in Spain, human labor was still in demand in Europe and those who sought to fulfill the demand continued to look to the Americas and to Africa as a source of slaves, thus perpetuating what Columbus started with that one voyage.
Despite the fact that we spend an entire weekend in October celebrating a man who does not deserve our celebration, the fact that we get a day off of school and work, and the fact that those Columbus Day sales make the stores quite a bit of money, means that we will probably keep celebrating this day. It doesn’t mean, however, that we have to make it about Columbus or about discovery. Many places actually observe the holiday differently. For example, in South Dakota, the day is celebrated as “Native American Day.”
That sounds like a good change to me.