Columbus Day is one of two American holidays named after an actual person; the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Christopher Columbus must have therefore been a highly revered historical figure, possibly on par with Dr. King himself. Growing up in the U.S. and attending public schools certainly includes the customary narrative regarding Columbus — an account resembling a fairy tale or a mythology in which our main character is practically deified. We are told with great enthusiasm that Columbus not only “discovered America”, but that he was an honorable, noble, brave, and talented explorer.
As children, we are forced to memorize the names of his ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. There are streets, schools, and even cities named after this supposed “hero”. But the gruesome aspects of Columbus’s legacy have until quite recently remained largely omitted from history textbooks and the mainstream narrative in the United States, which canonizes the Italian explorer as something comparable to a founding father.
But who was the real Columbus?
During his first voyage, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, attempting to find an alternate trade route to Asia. He had used crafty public relations methods to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to fund his voyages. Columbus himself was seeking fortune and fame, while Spain was seeking a colonial empire, so the Spanish authorities came to an agreement with him: he could govern over any territories he discovered and would be entitled to ten percent of the profits. Simply put, Columbus was looking for gold. However, since he was a fanatical and pious Christian, Columbus also saw this conquest as an opportunity to convert foreign peoples to Christianity.
Columbus was basically a con-man. He had little knowledge of sailing or exploration, and in fact, his understanding was often inaccurate. As history professor Joel Helfrich explained:
“Educated Europeans believed the world was about 24,000 miles in circumference, meaning 10,000 miles separated Europe’s west coast from Asia’s east coast (too far to sail in the small ships of the time). Columbus, using his understanding of the Bible and other ancient sources, argued instead that the world was much smaller, and that Asia was only 3,000 miles away. In fact, his misunderstanding of geography motivated his voyage.”
Columbus proceeded to offer a large cash reward for the first crewmember to spot land (the equivalent of about $1,500 in today’s currency). But when a man named Juan Rodrigo Bermejo spotted an island, Columbus rescinded the offer and claimed he himself had actually saw the island a few hours earlier. Columbus and his men first landed at what is now called the Bahamas, though he thought they had arrived in India. He met the indigenous people (including the Arawak and the Taíno peoples) and mistakenly referred to them as “Indians.”
Columbus wrote the following account of this initial encounter:
“They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest — without knowledge of what is evil, nor do they murder or steal…they love their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest talk in the world…always laughing.”
But what he wrote next revealed his true character and intentions:
“With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
And that’s exactly what he and his men proceeded to do.
In 1495, during his second voyage, after landing at what we now know as Haiti, Columbus and his men then abducted 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children and took them as captives. Of these, 500 were put on the ships and forced into cages. Of those 500, only 300 survived the journey back to Spain where they would become slaves. This is recognized as the origins of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which is the true legacy of Christopher Columbus.
Indigenous people who were not transported back to Spain were forced to search for gold on the islands, and those who collected enough gold were given a copper token to wear around their necks. This signified that they had done their duty, so to speak. But this also meant that those who were later found without this token were punished.
Here are some disturbing examples of the sadistic brutality that ensued:
- Indigenous people who did not deliver enough gold had their hands cut off
- Those who ran away were hunted down by dogs
- Prisoners were burned to death
- Villages were raided
- Columbus’s men raped indigenous women, who were often sold as sex slaves
- Indigenous people were dismembered simply so Columbus’s men could test the sharpness of their swords
- The corpses of indigenous people were used as dog food
We are often told not to judge the past by the standards of the present. But the shocking sadism of Columbus and his men was recognized even during this seemingly unimaginable era. For instance, Bartolome de las Casas, who was a Spanish priest at the time, wrote a first-hand account in which he opined, “What we have committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [the enslavement of indigenous people] as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them.”
In the subsequent years, this vicious venture amounted to genocide; de las Casas estimated that, in less than two decades, 3 million indigenous people had been killed or died due to the conditions of enslavement.
In addition to the brutality, mass murder, and slavery, Columbus also fabricated reports of the resources he discovered on these voyages. He claimed to have found useful plants and products — misidentifying some and exaggerating the abundance of others.
Knowing how absolutely horrific, repulsive, vile, and even unprofessional this man was, some might find it strange that there is a federal holiday to commemorate him. To make a long story short, here is how Columbus Day came to be:
A Catholic fraternal organization called The Knights of Columbus lobbied Congress in the 1930s to recognize Columbus Day. In the 1800s and early 1900s there was substantial xenophobia directed toward Italian immigrants, who were not yet perceived as “white.” This effort was therefore partially motivated by a desire to frame Columbus — and by extension Italians— as having a crucial role in the foundation of America and thus improving the image of Italians in the eyes of other Americans. President Roosevelt was convinced to make a proclamation recognizing Columbus Day in 1937, but it didn’t officially become a federal holiday until 1968.
Columbus’s ghastly voyages to the Caribbean initiated global European colonialism, as well as the ruthless slavery and genocide that continued for centuries. Nevertheless, Columbus Day remains a federal holiday. Thankfully, this is beginning to change. In recent years many cities around the U.S. have essentially abolished Columbus Day and recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. These include Denver, Phoenix, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Seattle, as well as the entire states of Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Vermont. This effort began in 1992, and was led by Native American groups in Berkeley, California, which is the city that first officially adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday that same year.
The growing prevalence of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an important step toward Americans becoming more educated and knowledgeable regarding the horrifying realities of colonialism and white supremacy. This knowledge is also useful in recognizing how this legacy influences modern events, such as the rise of white nationalism and right-wing domestic terrorism. Broadly speaking, an openness to confronting this troubling history is crucial in our road toward indigenous sovereignty and decolonization.
Columbus Day, a commemoration of brutal colonialism, slavery, and genocide, has only been on the books for five decades. It is time to abolish this monstrosity and embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
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