On Columbus Day

Belfast, N. Ireland

In light of the U.S. holiday of Columbus Day, I find it prudent to pause and revisit the ‘American hero’ who my country of origin celebrates today. Some businesses and schools
close down for the day, folks grill out (if the weather permits), and in this technological age, Facebook statuses and tweets offer the occasional praise of Columbus and what he meant for the progress of civilization in the ‘discovery of the New World.’ Indulge me a few moments as I share with you some thoughts. Much of what follows is the result of research done for my undergraduate thesis comparing European colonialism and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Now, shall we revisit Columbus?

Columbus arrived on the shores of the Bahama Islands in 1492 and there met a welcoming group of Arawak men and women. They brought him and his men gifts of food, water, and possessions for trading. Columbus later recorded in his log that the natives exemplified extreme hospitality and bore no arms or iron with which to make such weapons. His conclusion: “They should be good servants,”[1] “with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”[2]

Columbus came looking for gold and riches, and he quickly began capturing the indigenous population to extract information as to the location of such items. The natives quickly realized that Columbus and his men did not come for coexistence. The conquistadors wanted the land the natives sat on and everything the land yielded. Claiming their mission as a divinely sanctioned conquest, the Spaniards began dispossessing the natives from their land, subjugating many into slavery. With this belief in the righteousness of their cause, the Europeans also assumed an inherent and complete superiority over the indigenous population they sought to colonize, a common theme to be sure among colonial powers.[4]

Spanish cruelty plagued native life. Much of this savagery was exposed in the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas. Once a slave owner himself, Las Casas gave up his slaves and became an impassioned, outspoken critic of Spanish imperial practice in the Americas. In his multivolume work, History of the Indies, published in 1561, Las Casas documented the horrors he witnessed of the Spanish persecution of the Native Americans. The Spanish conquerors “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas went on to tell how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”[5] Conditions were so unbearable that one Spaniard recorded that Native American mothers left their children behind in order to flee from the Europeans.[6] Controlling the movement of the indigenous peoples, the Spaniards forced them to do grueling labor, separating the men and women into work camps miles apart.[7] Though, heretofore, they had enjoyed free roaming of their homeland, the natives now had to share it with conquerors who seemed very disinterested in sharing the land with the natives.

After discussing the horrors of the Spanish invasion and colonization of the Americas under Columbus, Native American historian Jack Forbes regards the Spanish leader as an insane killer and perpetrator of genocide, the likes of which was not paralleled until the days of Hitler. Like Hitler, Columbus sought to consume an entire culture and people, enslaving thousands and eradicating thousands more. Forbes aggressively questions the rationale for honoring such a man with his own holiday. Forbes concludes that Columbus is important to the United States because Columbus perfectly exemplifies imperialism. According to Forbes, the West, and especially the United States, still thrives off imperial practices, and thus, Columbus is exalted as a hero of that cause. The arrival of Columbus is seen as progress because it “paved the way for white conquest of the Americas, provided Europeans with cheap labor, helped to finance the economic development of modern Europe, and set the stage for five centuries of rule by white and near-white elites in the America.”[8] Columbus, according to Forbes, epitomizes the American system, i.e. cannibalism.

Just this brief look back at the history of Columbus, a history we are rarely taught, should give us significant pause, causing us to reevaluate the justification for participating in a major holiday honoring Columbus as an American hero. Such reconsideration forces
redefinitions of ideas such as progress. We speak of the arrival of Columbus as essential to the progress of the West and of civilization, as it eventually led to the creation of the United States. But as Forbes so astutely observes, this simply exposes, all too disturbingly, our ideologies and formative myths about the progress of Western power and white dominance.

If we instead strive to see the events of world history “from below,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, all notions of progress become quickly altered, or so one hopes. If we consider U.S. history from the perspective of the natives and slaves, for instance, we must ask whether the “progress” associated with U.S. history is actually progress, whether Columbus’ candidacy for sainthood in 1866 is justified, or even whether the U.S.’s yearly celebration of Columbus Day should continue, a practice Forbes claims rivals neo-Nazi commemorations of Hitler’s notable achievements.[9] One must now ask if all the destruction that occurred – all the death and mutilation, all the enslavement and deceit – were actually necessary to progress humanity from “savagery to civilization.” The same we can argue is true for the Palestinians. What Zionists and the West claim as progress in the Middle East (that is, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948) also meant the genesis of the world’s largest refugee population. So the question becomes, who should determine the rightness or progressive nature of an action – the powerful and wealthy, or the powerless and the poor, those who suffer the brunt of such actions?

[1] Albert L. Hurtado and Peter Iverson, ed., Major Problems in American Indian History, 2nd ed. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 58.

[2] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Volume 1: America’s Beginnings to Reconstruction (New York: The New Press, 2003),3.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Qtd. in Zinn, 8.

[6] Jack Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals, 2nd ed. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008), 33.

[7] Zinn, 8.

[8] Forbes, 34.

[9] Ibid., 28-29.

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