Rethinking Columbus Day
It’s not easy to score a federal holiday. There are only ten of them, and only two are named for a specific individual: Martin Luther King, Jr. and today’s celebrant, Christopher Columbus. (Although the holiday "Washington’s Birthday" still remains on the federal books, it is more commonly referred to as "President’s Day," since it symbolizes the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln.).
Given this high honor bestowed upon Columbus, today is a fitting time to explore both Columbus’s legacy and our own commemoration of the late explorer. A deeper look reveals that it may be time to reassess this annual celebration.
Most everyone knows why it is that we honor Columbus: He "discovered" America. But this claim only holds water if we don’t count the natives already on American soil at the time. The claim also fails to pass muster in light of research and scholarship that casts doubt on Columbus being the first European to smack into America, and which also suggests that others outside of Europe may have beaten Columbus to the punch. Evidence suggests that Europeans may have made it over to the Americans in the early 15th century (which is to say nothing of Leif Eriksson’s journey in the 11th century). Gavin Menzies, in his book, 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America, argues-albeit imperfectly-that the Chinese made their way to America 72 years before Columbus.
Although the evidence isn’t conclusive (understandably), it is at least as strong as it is weak, and historians ought to know better than to stake such ground on such shaky data. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know who discovered America, and we should resist the temptation of historical certainty, and exchange opt for the truth by conveying the evidence of other discoverers that we do have, and what conclusions we can, or cannot, draw from that evidence.
What makes Columbus’s voyage unique isn’t that he was the first to bump into America, but that he was the first (thanks to the powerful and wealthy monarchy backing him) to be able to take advantage of his trip by colonizing the new land for imperial gain. He wasn’t the first to discover it, but he was the first to discover it for the people that mattered at the time: Europe.
If the case for Columbus’s discovery isn’t water-tight, then, are there other reasons to honor him? Probably not. Columbus’s behavior (and that of his subordinates) upon landing on shore sticks out as some of the most repulsive and vile in all of American history. This isn’t revisionist history: we have Columbus’s own journal to tell the tale.
He describes the overwhelmingly hospitable greeting he received from the natives upon his arrival. "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 in a letter he later wrote to a friend back in Spain, Columbus revealed his true feelings during the first encounters with the natives.
"With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."
And so he did.
So appalling were the exploits that Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who accompanied Columbus on his voyages, later wrote, "What we have committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [Indian slavery] as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them." Natives 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. Las Casas wrote that his countrymen "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." To avoid such treatment, many natives committed suicide, and mothers killed their children to spare them from such an abject life.
Within a very short period of time, virtually the entire native population of Hispaniola had been decimated. Las Casas said, in 1508, "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?"
History, as always, has two sides. Columbus was certainly under enormous pressure to bring back-at any costs-wealth, gold, and imperial conquests to the King and Queen. Failure to do so would have cost him his head.
Yes, his journey was a bold and dangerous one (but on the other hand, should federal holidays be dispensed like Fear Factor trophies?)
And, true, Columbus can’t be blamed for killing millions of Native Americans simply because he and his crew brought diseases with them from Europe from which the natives had no immunity (how could he have known?)
Lastly, history is plump with imperfect icons and examples of the high and tragic price of humanity’s march.
In the final analysis, however, Columbus’s disputed discovery claims, his horrific behavior towards the natives, and our increasingly enlightened and embracing culture suggests that we may be doing more harm than good in our praise of him.
A nation’s soul can be seen in whom it chooses to revere. By celebrating Columbus-with our nation’s highest possible gesture-we honor the history of some at the expense of others, and we bestow praise on a man who never possessed, what we like to consider, traditional American values. Indeed, a closer examination of the evidence, Columbus’s life, and his heritage, proves that the annual celebration is outdated, unjustified, and un-American.
On Columbus Day, we shouldn’t discard Mr. Columbus and his voyage, but we should be honest with ourselves and our children about the true happenings of 1492 and use this holiday to celebrate not just Columbus, but all of our early visitors. Call it, "Explorer’s Day."
Patrick Gavin taught history for three years in Princeton, New Jersey. Currently, he is a writer living in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org