What we forget, what we remember about Christopher Columbus & Columbus Day: The man, the myth, the holiday

How much do you know about Christopher Columbus? To many Americans, Columbus was none other than the daring explorer who “discovered” the New World while “sailing the ocean blue” in 1492, on a quest to reach the East Indies for the king and queen of Spain. Though we know, of course, that he did not end up reaching Asia, his three voyages in effect began the massive European colonization of the Americas catalyzed the start of the world we live in today.

Such a simplistic understanding of Columbus obscures the fact that he remains a far more controversial figure than who most of us learned about in elementary school. In the eyes of his modern-day critics, he is better seen as a ruthless perpetrator of genocide rather than the heroic sailor who ushered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus is accused of brutally treating and enslaving the native inhabitants of the Caribbean islands he visited, as well as forcibly converting many of the indigenous peoples he encountered to Christianity.

The late historian Howard Zinn describes how Columbus and his men treated a tribe of Arawak Indians:

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, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. 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.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

While reading an account such as this is difficult to stomach, it’s also a stark reminder of the brutality of the times that Columbus lived in, where slavery was a widespread industry of trade among many civilizations around the world, including the Americas. (Abolitionist ideas didn’t begin spreading in Europe until the Enlightenment, roughly two centuries after Columbus’ death.)  Not surprisingly, however, Columbus’ behavior provokes strong reactions from those who believe that the actions of a mass murderer have been whitewashed out of the public’s consciousness, especially by our continued commemoration of his name day.

Every year, a debate over Columbus’ life and legacy reemerges at around this time in early October, as Columbus Day gets observed throughout much of the United States on the second Monday of the month. (A select handful of states — Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota — choose not to celebrate the federal holiday.)

Echoing the move by those four states, some cities have also elected to no longer recognize Columbus Day given the charges against the holiday’s namesake. Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council announced their unanimous decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, with one councilman explaining that it was necessary to “fully recognize the evils of our past” for the city to be more successful in the future.

Several Italian-American groups — and even Italy’s ambassador to the U.S. — responded by condemning the council’s decision, which they believe unfairly maligns Americans who are proud of their Italian heritage, and who wish to recognize the achievements of the Italian-born Columbus. The holiday has been celebrated by Italian groups for decades, who believe that Columbus’ contributions to world history — for good or ill — are still worthy of remembrance.

“We empathize with the death and destruction of the Native Americans. But we think right now this is almost going too far in terms of political correctness,” said Seattle resident Ralph Fascitelli.

What do you think of the debate over Christopher Columbus’s legacy and the propriety of the day we call Columbus Day? Do this man’s actions deserve to be condemned, or was he simply a product of his time who doesn’t deserve to be judged through a modern lens? We’re interested in hearing from you, so please feel free to chime in with your thoughts. John Oliver already did… Which you can see right here: