Yes, it is that time of year again. Good ole’ Columbus Day. The man who is one of the only two people to have a national holiday named after him in the U.S., at least since Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday were combined into Presidents day. But before I start discussing why I think Columbus Day is a farcical holiday for us to celebrate let me first touch on two of the worst myths to stem from our modern understanding of his voyage.
Myth #1 “The People of 1492 Thought the World was Flat”
It is very unlikely that anyone on either side of the Atlantic believed the world was flat in 1492. The myth was created by Washington Irving’s 1828 biography of Columbus wherein he described Columbus’ supposed defense of this round-earth theory before the flat-earth savants at Salamanca University. Irving himself admits the story is fales. (see Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by Jeffrey Burton Russell).
In truth, the elite did not resist Columbus because they thought he would fall off the earth’s edge; rather, they thought he had underestimated the size of the earth and would never be able to sail so far in open water (a quite reasonable concern had there not been an unanticipated land mass upon which Columbus could stumble).
For additional evidence I ask you to look at this picture of a classical statue of Atlas holding a celestial globe from sometime between 150 and 73 B.C.E. (Before Common Era). Notice how ancient Greeks knew the world was a sphere, why else would they have a statue holding a globe instead of say…a discus?
Still need more proof? Here is a story about the classical scholar Eratosthenes who determined the circumference of the world in the third century B.C.E.
“In the third century BC, in the greatest metropolis of the age, the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Here there lived a man named Eratosthenes…he was an astronomer, historian, geographer, philosopher, poet, theater critic and mathematician…. He was also the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene … at noon on June 21 vertical sticks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. The sun was directly overhead.
Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow.
Consider a map of ancient Egypt with two vertical sticks of equal length, one stuck in Alexandria, the other in Syene. Suppose that, at a certain moment, each stick casts no shadow at all. This is perfectly easy to understand—provided the Earth is flat. The Sun would then be directly overhead. If the two sticks cast shadows of equal length, that also would make sense of a flat Earth: the Sun’s rays would then be inclined at the same angle to the two sticks. But how could it be that at the same instant there was no shadow at Syene and a substantial shadow at Alexandria?
The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in the shadow lengths. The Sun is so far away that its rays are parallel when they reach the Earth. Sticks placed at different angles to the Sun’s rays cast shadows of different lengths. For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the surface of the Earth; that is, if you imagine the sticks extending down to the center of the Earth, they would there intersect at an angle of seven degrees. Seven degrees is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth.”
This is pretty close to the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks and his eyes but he managed to deduce the Earth’s circumference within a few percent over 2,000 years ago far before Columbus’ voyage.
So it is unlikely that people truly thought the world was flat. That being said, we still have plenty of people in the U.S. that think the moon landing was a fake so it is quite possible that such people did exist, it is just unlikely that such beliefs dominated.
Myth #2: “Columbus Discovered the New World”
Columbus did introduce two phenomena that revolutionized the world—the taking of land, wealth, and labor from the Western Hemisphere and the transatlantic slave trade.
What he did not do is “discover” the Western Hemisphere. For one, there were already people there so it can hardly be called a discovered land. At best we could say that the Europeans finally found their way there but it is now believed that people from other continents had reached the Americas many times before 1492. For example, we have evidence that Europeans were fishing off of Newfoundland in the 1480s. Heck, two American Indians shipwrecked on Holland as early as 60 BCE so perhaps we should be celebrating the Indian discovery of Europe (see The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America by Wyn Craig Wade)? In a sense his voyage was not the discovery of America as much as it was the “last discovery of America” because whereas in the past previous discoveries did not lead to increased travel to the “new world”, Columbus’s voyage did but it is far from clear whether that is something to be celebrated.
Back to the man himself:
When Columbus set sail, he was not a noble explorer, he was promised 10 percent of profits, governorship over new-found lands, and fame that would go with his new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He was in it for power and money. Not for science or the good of the world.
When his they “discovered an island” and they met a group of Indians Columbus and his crew would read the following, “I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves…the deaths and injuries that you will receive here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor the gentlemen that serve him.”
Having satisfied their consciences by offering the natives a chance to convert to Christianity, the Spaniards felt free to do whatever they wanted with the people they had just “discovered.” It did not seem to matter than the natives could in no way understand what Columbus and his men were saying.
When Columbus first landed in the Bahamas on October 12th , the day we are celebrating as a national holiday, he wrote about the Arawaks in his diary, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…they would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” He continued by writing, “As soon as I arrived in the “indies,” on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts” (see The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America by Oliver Dunn).
The information he wanted was simply put—where is the gold? For the Arawaks, unfortunately, had small pieces of gold in their ears but even more unfortunate little actual supplies on the island itself.
After killing many of the Arawaks for not supplying sufficient gold he left behind a small crew at the military base named Fort Navidad and left for Spain with native prisoners to show Spain.
Upon his return to Spain he reported that “The “Indians” are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has witnessed them would believe it” and he promised that on his next voyage he would bring “as much gold as they need…and as many slaves as they ask”
As such, on his second trip he returned with not three but seventeen ships and more than 12, 000 men to get as much gold…and slaves as possible. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. When they found Fort Navidad deserted, because the Indians had killed those left behind, Columbus and his men formed gangs to roam the island taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
During the course of their occupations, when an Indian committed even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent back to his village as living evidence of the brutality of the Spaniards. Even Indians who “behaved” lived in fear as they hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food (see A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn).
Columbus even rewarded his lieutenants with native women to rape (see Conquest of Eden, 1493-1515. Other Voyages of Columbus: Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Virgin Islands by Michael. Paiewonsky).
Columbus once wrote in 1500 that, “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”
In 1495, from his base in Haiti, he rounded up 1,500 Arawaks (men, women and children) and selected the best 500 to ship to Spain. Those not shipped to Spain were released but not without fear, as a Spanish eyewitness described the event: “Among them were many women who had infants at their breast. They, in order to better escape us, since they were afraid we would turn to catch them again, left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people” (see Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise by Kirkpatrick Sale).
Of those 500 shipped to Spain only 200 survived. As he was gathering the slaves he evoked his religion by stating “In the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves to us that can be sold.” Religion has almost always been used as a means to condone slavery.
Unfortunately too many slaves died en route and Columbus was desperate to pay back his debts to his investors…so he needed that gold. In Haiti he insisted that all person 14 years or older collect gold of a certain quantity every month. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. Since gold was actually scarce on Haiti the Indians tried to flee and were hunted down and killed.
To escape the Spaniard the Indians committed mass suicides and infants were killed upon birth to save them from the Columbus and his ilk. In two years through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
Because the Indians died, Indian slavery then led to the massive slave trade the other ways across the Atlantic from Africa. This trade also began on Haiti, initiated by Columbus’s son in 1505 (see The Columbus Dynasty in the Caribbean, 1492-1526 by Troy S Floyd).
“Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves—about five thousand—than any other individual” (see Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen).
When it was obvious there was no more gold left, the remaining Indians were put to slave labor. By 1515 there were 50,000, by 1550 there were 500, by 1650 none of the original Arawaks or their descendents were alive on the island.
Bartolome de Las Casas, a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba and wrote, “Endless testimonies…prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…but our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…the admiral (Columbus), it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians” (see The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account by Bartolomé de Las Casas).
According to Las Casas, the Spaniards “grew more conceited every day” and after a while refuse to walk any distance. They “rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry” or were “carried by Indians in hammocks” They “thought nothing of knifing Indians by the tens and twenties and or cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of blades.”
La Casas recorded how husbands were sent to work the mines while women worked the soil. They were together perhaps once every eight or ten months which limited procreation. “As for the newly born, they died early because mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them and for this reason, 7,000 babies died in three months in Cuba.” Some mothers drowned their babies rather than let them starve to death.
When he arrived in Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, “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.”
“As for the vast mainland, which is ten times larger than all Spain” La Casas estimated, “very surely and truthfully that in forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number slain is more like fifteen million. The reason for the killing and destroying of such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold. Only after the Spaniards used violence against them, killing, robbing, torturing, did the Indians ever rise against them.”
We Spaniards “took infants from their mother’s breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil.” Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone who happened to be nearby.”
Per Las Casas, “They usually dealt with chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them…”
All these gruesome facts are available in primary-source material—letters from Columbus and by other members of his expeditions—and in the work of Las Casas which I have quoted throughout this article.
Some people may attack me for presenting such a negative portrait of Columbus but it is important to realize that neither morality nor immorality can be conferred on us by history. Just as our merely being part of the U.S., without regard to our own acts and ideas, does not make us moral or immoral beings, so to is history more complicated than good versus evil. And yet, when we glorify Columbus we are identifying with the oppressor and thus offend all whose people have felt his brutality.
Have you ever noticed that Columbus is not a hero in Mexico, even though Mexico is much more Spanish in culture than the U.S. and as such, might be expected to take pride in their Spanish history? Because Mexico is much more Indian than the U.S., Mexicans perceive Columbus as white and European thus not a hero of their people.
“No sensible Indian person can celebrate the arrival of Columbus” (see Seeds of Change: Five Hundred Years Since Columbus by Herman J. Viola). Cherishing Columbus is a characteristic of white history, not American history.
To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity, but an ideological choice. It services—perhaps unwittingly—to justify what he has done. The quite acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress—creates a learned sense of moral proportion that allows us to accept modern atrocities as necessary and is thus quite deadly.
Columbus Day celebrates a dominant Columbus arriving on a shore and claiming everything he saw. When we celebrate this process, we imply that taking the land and dominating the natives was not only an inevitable but a necessary good.
Columbus’s conquest of the Caribbean can be seen as an amazing feat of courage and imagination but it is also a bloody atrocity that left a legacy of genocide and slavery that in some degree endures today. Is that a day that we truly want to celebrate?