–by Joanna Hallac
**Please note that this is my own commentary and opinion and is not meant to try and convince anyone that my argument is the correct one, but simply to provoke a little thought and conversation.
Having taught high school World History prior to moving down to D.C., I’m familiar with the many arguments for and against celebrating Christopher Columbus’s contributions to navigation and exploration in the late 15th century. In the district where I taught in Fairfield County, Connecticut, we did have the day off from school, and many of my students never gave much thought as to why, since the Age of Exploration was taught at a much earlier age and therefore wasn’t something that made it into their already busy brains. I would, however, bring up, not every year but occasionally, some of the controversy surrounding Columbus Day, namely in regard to the native American peoples who were subjugated and even killed by Columbus on his second trip back to the Americas. My somewhat lame attempts to bring up the idea that maybe we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day (and I say lame not because I didn’t think the issue was important, but it was more a time factor than anything else) remind me of a scene from the classic slacker movie, Dazed and Confused, which was set in 1976. The scene comes at the beginning of the movie, just as school was about to let out for summer; as the high school students and teachers alike were waiting impatiently for the bell to ring so they could get out of there, one history teacher reminds her students as they’re rushing out the door that when they celebrate the bicentennial that 4th of July that they’re really just celebrating a bunch of rich, White men who didn’t want to pay their taxes—so too did I remind my students as they walked out the door on that Friday before the long weekend that perhaps we should revisit whether we celebrate Christopher Columbus for some of the morally questionable things he did to the native peoples of the Americas. I received little response from any of them on the issue. They liked having the day off, and admittedly I did too. Does that, though, justify continuing to celebrate Columbus Day as a national holiday? I’m not sure. At the very least I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the history of the man and the holiday and the seemingly endless controversy that surrounds them as a way of perhaps trying to answer that question.
History, to me, is everything, and the most important question in history is “why?” The where, the what, the who, and the how are just props in the bigger story of the why. So, following this logic it seems like a good idea to first look at why we care about Columbus in the first place? We all know we’re supposed to know about this guy and celebrate his accomplishments, but are we even sure that the story we learned about Columbus was accurate? If we do not first answer these questions then the rest of this is meaningless.
I suppose it makes sense to start by looking at what we think we know about Columbus versus what we either do not know or wish we did not know about him and his treatment of the indigenous tribes of mainly Central and South America, as well as the many Caribbean islands he visited. First of all, to say that Columbus discovered America 1492 is a vague and largely inaccurate statement. He would eventually, on his third voyage to the New World in 1498, discover the continent of South America not, however, mainland North America above the Tropic of Cancer, which some consider to be an unofficial cut-off point between North and South America (the Vikings were the first to discover North America, with Leif Erikkson originally landing in what is now Canada in the early 11th century). On his first voyage, Columbus did come upon a number of places throughout the Caribbean (which is technically N. America, but as I just said, N. America had been discovered 500 years prior to Columbus’s arrival and therefore it’s inaccurate to say he was the first to discover America) on his first two voyages, specifically landing on San Salvador Island on October 12, 1492, the day we celebrate as Columbus Day. Additionally, even when Columbus “found” South America, he refused to believe it was a new continent and was convinced that all of the lands he found on all of his voyages were part of Asia—specifically the Indies—which is what he was attempting to find in the first place, and he believed that he had done just that until his death in 1506. His insistence upon that very idea likely cost him getting the new continent named after him, as Amerigo Vespucci did when he came upon the Americas just a year after Columbus. Another misleading bit of information that many of us were taught about Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic is that in 1492 many people were still convinced the world was flat and that he ran the risk of falling off the edge on his trip. This simply wasn’t the case, as most educated and literate people at that time had known for a long while that the world was round not flat.
But while what he did or did not discover on his multiple trips or his motivation for even going in the first place are worthy of clarification, neither are what really makes Columbus and his holiday so controversial. The controversy arises from Columbus’s treatment of the many indigenous tribes he encountered throughout his voyages to what we now know were to Central and South America. In particular his subjugation, enslavement, and killing of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Native Americans is what, justifiably, makes it difficult for many to want to celebrate his accomplishments at the expense of ignoring his many terrible acts as well. However, is it fair for us to judge Columbus without putting him in the context of the times in which he lived? That is a question that many historians and educators continue to ask themselves about many historical events, and one they should continue to ask.
Although Columbus was directly violating the wishes of Ferdinand and Isabella–both of whom wanted these various peoples to be converted to Christianity not turned into slaves–by enslaving and subjugating the Taino and other Native Americans, he actually believed that since his goal was to bring back a number of profitable resources and raw materials from his voyages, including gold, that the use of slave labor would be more profitable overall for Spain, an argument that many citizens of the United States of America made well into the 19th century. It was perhaps his brutal treatment of many of those slaves—such as cutting off the hands of those Indians who did not meet their quota of gold—that have many saying this went beyond what was appropriate for the times he was living in and that it was simply morally wrong. The Taino and other Indian tribes that encountered Columbus did not have the means to defend themselves against newer and more efficient weapons, nor against the small pox and other European diseases that would, along with the inhumane and brutal tactics of Columbus’s men, ravage them as a people, drastically reducing their population, if not altogether wiping them out. Upon hearing what Columbus was doing to these indigenous peoples, Isabella ordered Columbus arrested and brought back to Spain—she wanted, as I mentioned, Christian (specifically Catholic) converts, not slaves. Columbus, however, would ultimately be freed and allowed to go on one final voyage where he once again employed his brutal tactics. Finally, on May 20, 1506, Columbus died in Spain, going to his grave still believing that he had reached the Indies, never realizing that he actually found new lands and helping to open the door for European colonization of the vast majority of the world for centuries to come.
Upon his death, Columbus’s children worked hard to repair his damaged reputation and they succeeded. By the time the 400th anniversary of his initial voyage came around in 1892, he was firmly entrenched in the role of hero to many in the USA, especially Italian-Americans, most of whom still revere him today. In 1892, Benjamin Harrison urged all Americans to celebrate and observe the 400th anniversary of his initial landing; in 1937, FDR, after pressure from the Knights of Columbus, declared Columbus Day, October 12th, as a federal holiday; and finally, in 1971, Richard Nixon officially made Columbus Day a national holiday to be observed on the 2nd Monday of October every year. Until 1980, no one questioned the origins of Columbus’s status as a hero to Americans and as the one who discovered America in 1492. Once Howard Zinn first published his book, A People’s History of the United States, the revisions of Columbus and his voyages began in earnest. Some states in the US have stopped observing Columbus Day all together, while some localities throughout the country have renamed it Indigenous People’s Day. Even Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela, changed the name to Day of Indigenous Resistance in 2002 to commemorate those native peoples who were enslaved and killed as a result of Columbus’s actions (in much of Latin America, the day has been and still is called Dia de la Raza, or Day of the Race). When a Latin American pseudo-dictator has the good sense to consider a name change for Columbus Day, perhaps it is at least worth a good conversation here in the United States.
Did Columbus make positive contributions to the Age of Discovery? Of course he did, and those positive contributions deserve to be highlighted. Are there other, extremely disturbing and negative outcomes from his discoveries? Yes, there are, and they also deserve some attention and discussion. Whether it’s a matter of changing the name to pay homage to those indigenous tribes who were negatively affected by his actions, doing away with the holiday completely, or just using it as a means to open an honest dialogue about everything—good, bad, and ugly—that happened as a result of Columbus’s actions and discoveries, something needs to progress on this front. Just as we cannot hide from our own dark past with slavery and our treatment of Native Americans, nor can any other nation afford to ignore its history, for we all may be forced to go back down those horrible paths should we allow that to happen. The best thing for all of us to do is face our pasts, embrace them, learn from them, and then move forward vowing to be a little bit better tomorrow than we were today.
Please feel free to agree or disagree with my take on Columbus Day! I believe Columbus deserves credit for the positive contributions he made to navigation and exploration, but I also think we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending he did not do many questionable things that led to the enslavement and death of millions (something which he decided to do without the consent of the Spanish crown, mind you). I welcome an open, honest, and respectful dialogue on important topics. And to all of those who have Monday off, as I do, enjoy it, but maybe also take a minute to think about why you’re not at work or school that day and what you really think about that.