On October 11 we in the United States celebrate the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Italian immigrants and their descendants in the U.S. consider Columbus to be a great hero. Others disagree. After examining history books for a bit, I wonder why we have a national holiday celebrating this explorer, thief, and murderer.
In the United States, Columbus Day became a Federal holiday in 1934. In 1892, the four hundredth anniversary, the celebration was taught in rituals and speeches of patriotism. In some states, such as Hawaii and Nevada, it is not a legal holiday. In Berkeley, California, October 11 is celebrated as "Indigenous People's Day" and in South Dakota it is known as "Native American Day".
Christopher Columbus (or Christoffa Corombo in the 15th century Genoese dialect of the Ligurian language or Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) was born in Genoa, son of Domenico Colombo, a middle-class wool weaver who later also had a cheese stand where Christopher was a helper, working both in Genoa and Savona. In one of his writings, Columbus claims to have gone to the sea at the age of 10.
In his early travels Columbus is known to have reached Bristol, England; Galway, Ireland, and possibly Iceland in 1477. He also traded along the coasts of West Africa, reaching the Portuguese trading post of Elmina at the Guinea coast.
One myth many of us believe today is that Europeans of Columbus' time believed the world to be flat. In fact, most educated Europeans had known the world was round since the time of Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BC. Numerous scholars followed Aristotle by making similar claims in a number of books, and Aristotle's theories were known and believed far and wide.
Columbus himself used celestial navigation in his voyages, which always assumed that the world was round.
Christopher Columbus was commissioned by the Spanish king and queen to find a westerly route to the Orient. He and most everyone else involved believed that he would find a direct route to Japan and China. What he didn't know is that there was a continent between the Orient and Europe.
The reason for his voyage is that Spain wanted to find treasures that were rumored to be available for the taking in other parts of the world. Spain would use any means necessary to take these riches, including war, murder, or any other means available. The Spanish king and queen were nearly bankrupt from years of war and wished to fill their coffers with more money and to extend their empire to other parts of the globe.
Columbus set sail with his 3 ships. We have many recorded traditions of what happened, although few source records exist other than Columbus' own diaries. It is believed by historians that he first landed somewhere in the Bahamas. Columbus had no idea where he was, other than he was about 3,000 miles west of Spain, and it didn't look like China or Japan. In fact, Columbus himself always insisted that that lands that he visited in his voyages were part of the Asian continent, as previously described by Marco Polo and other European travelers.
He then headed for what is now Cuba and then to the Island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
Columbus wrote in his log about the natives that he encountered: "They do not bear arms, and do not own 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 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want".
In 1495 during his second voyage, Columbus kidnapped some of the Indians and forced them to go to Spain as slaves. Many of them died en route. An entry in his journal from his fourth voyage in September 1498 reads, "From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold...".
A Catholic Priest wrote in his multi volume History of the Indies that the Spaniards were driven by insatiable greed, killing, terrorizing, afflicting and torturing the native peoples. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature and now I tremble as I write."
The natives were not immune to the diseases of the white Europeans. Some estimates indicate fatality rates of 80-90% in Native American populations during smallpox epidemics. Columbus apparently didn't care as he was after gold and other treasures. He was ruthless in his conquest of the lands that he "discovered".
Ironically, the Indians also killed many of the Europeans by disease. The soldiers took advantage of the native women; they raped them, and soon many of Columbus' men died of syphilis.
There is modern scientific evidence that Columbus' men also brought syphilis back from the New World. Many of the crew members who served on this voyage and survived later joined the army of King Charles VIII in his invasion of Italy in 1495, resulting in the spreading of the disease across Europe and as many as 5 million deaths.
Columbus was a social climber and self promoter who stopped at nothing, not even exploitation and slavery, to advance his ambitions. He may have been the first, but he certainly was not the last to enslave and kill the native peoples as if their existence was not important. Waves of other explorers came to North, South, and Central America from other European countries. The English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and others came to further plunder the New World that they had discovered.
Admittedly, Columbus lived in harsh and cruel times. Atrocities were common. Yet, even the contemporary priest mentioned earlier who lived in the same environment and watched many atrocities of the time still had a difficult time accepting the extreme brutality of Columbus and his men.
Should we celebrate Columbus Day as something to be proud of? Or should it be a day of mourning for the exploitation and extinction of native peoples in the Americans and elsewhere?
Our history books teach us that despots such as Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein were evil men who killed thousands of people. Yet I see little difference between them and Christopher Columbus.
We can't change the past, but we should learn from it. The history of the killing and exploitations by our ancestors has not been a pretty picture.
I will not be celebrating Columbus Day this year.