In the early morning hours of October 12th, 1492, a sailor named Rodrigo De Triana in the crow’s nest of the La Pinta, one of a fleet of ships commissioned by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, spotted the island of Guanahani, one of what is now known as the Bahamas. In doing so, he assured himself of a reward of 10,000 maravedis for life. He would never receive this pension as Christopher Columbus, captain of the expedition, would claim he’d seen something the evening prior, something “so indistinct that he did not dare to affirm it was land”. Columbus collected the pension.
The thoughts recorded in Columbus’s journal after a friendly greeting from the Arawak natives show a European civilization obsessed with gold and power; unwilling to negotiate or waiver from a mindset of colonization and brutality. Only hours earlier having received gifts of goodwill, Columbus noted of the Arawaks, “They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who translated Columbus’s journals and took part in the conquest of Hispaniola, reflected on the immediate impact Europeans had in the Americas, “There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.” The genocide was not limited to Hispaniola or the Caribbean.
On Monday, October 12th, 2020 falls the national holiday “Columbus Day” or as it’s known in Wisconsin, “Discoverer’s Day”. Fifteen states, Wisconsin included, also acknowledge this day as “Indigenous Peoples' Day”. Equal treatment for the genociders and the genocidees is only fair.
Historian John Warner wrote about the origins of Columbus Day and Catholicism as the main catalyst. Pope Pius IX hoped for canonization of Columbus into sainthood and “by the 1890s seventeen cardinals and almost eight hundred other higher clergy had given formal approval to the initiative. Even among Catholics who believed that proposal to be imprudent, it became normal to write of Columbus as a man whose discovery was impelled by spiritual motives alone, as one who, indifferent to wealth or fortune, had set out on his voyages with the sole aim of carrying the blessings of Christianity to those who lay in darkness.” Columbus would write in his journal, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” The “blessings of Christianity” indeed.
It was this push toward sainthood in Europe that led to the American Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus. Within the knights was born a sub-order, “’the Fourth Degree’, whose emblem was a dove carrying the Cross to the New World.” Their purpose became to nationally recognize October 12 as “Columbus Day” and they did so rather effectively. It was 1907 – 1919 when the Fourth Degree had their most success as over thirty states recognized this new legal holiday.
Columbus’s place in history has been debated for nearly two centuries. No time period featured more scholastic work on Columbus than the quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’s sailing. Late 1992 and early 1993 produced a number of scholastic pieces on Columbus and his place in history. Carla and William Phillips’s piece in The History Teacher pointed to the contrast of the already existing scholarship. “Depending on who is writing, Columbus can be a saint or a genocidal maniac, a converted Jew or a French corsair, an ecological rapist or a self-absorbed navigator…Without a mature foundation of knowledge about the man and his times, it is possible to believe nearly anything.”
The context we have is different, by an order of magnitudes, than the context Columbus had, therefore it would be imprudent to judge Columbus’s actions using our context, or so the argument goes. Historian Lillian Handlin highlights a major reason why Americans, even to this day, are so willing to blind spot the genocide of the natives in her piece, “Discovering Columbus” for the Winter 1993 journal The American Scholar. “In popular perception, his European background vanished; Columbus had become the first American.”
Columbus’s identification as American and the dismissal of his terrible morals as a product of his time puts him in the company of many American icons. Andrew Jackson is on our currency. Christopher Columbus gets his own day. Confederate heroes have statues.
To identify Columbus as a hero willingly dismisses atrocities of immense proportions. From Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, “Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town.” This is not what “blessings of Christianity” looks like in 2020 and it’s fair to say so.
Christopher Columbus was an architect of genocide and should take his place in history as such. It should not be possible to condemn the evils of the Uyghur genocide in China while defending Columbus’s actions as either irrelevant or justified. Yet, for many it is.
Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day.