The Western Hemisphere cannot get enough of Christopher Columbus. In his name, there have been 14 cities, 5 counties, and a national holiday. Many recall his image with pride, for he discovered the Americas. But yet with just the smallest amount of research, the “minor” character flaws of Columbus begin to unfold, and they don’t stop anytime soon. Behind the glamorous euro-centrism are the remains of a land exploited, a culture abused, and long withstanding superiority complex. By continuing to revere Christopher Columbus as the heroic and adventurous “discoverer of the Americas”, we are ignoring the false pretenses of Columbus’ character and his establishment’s massacre onto the indigenous people while allowing them to be oppressed in the present day as well.
During primary school, one of the very first things we are taught is that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue: a rhyme we associate with the discovery of “The New World.” We knew that he believed it at first to be the Indies, and that he found gold and land and people whom he named “Indians”, a name that even after realizing they were not in India did not change until hundreds of years later. We were told that he asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella very nicely for the money to find a new route to the Indies. Christopher Columbus wanted to sail West because he loved adventure! “Just because” is how Bill Bigelow described this rudimentary explanation in his book, Once Upon a Genocide. He found instances where Columbus’ curiosity was brought on through religious faith, that he was merely doing as he thought God wanted him to do (Bigelow, “Once Upon a Genocide” 108). Soon it was realized that this was also incorrect, but little has been done about it.
In reality, Christopher Columbus wanted to go West strictly for the wealth and the fame that would come with discovering this new route. By however means necessary, he would take whatever treasures he could get out of the place, never minding whoever it may have previously belonged to. The deal he had struck with the king and queen of Spain was that he was to have 10% of all profits made from his voyage from anyone who used his route indefinitely (Bigelow, “Once Upon a Genocide” 108). This would mean that generations of Columbus’ family would be receiving the wealth brought to Europe. He also was in it for the notoriety. After discovering the Americas, he returned with the title of viceroy and governor of all the new land by the king and queen of Spain (Churchill 87), as well as a hereditary title of “Admiral of the Sea” (Bigelow “Once Upon a Genocide” 108).
Children’s book do a fantastic job of painting Columbus to be caring, pious, and kind sailor with a heart of a natural born leader and adventurer. In David Knight’s I Can Read about Christopher Columbus, Columbus’ “dream had come true” when he became a sailor. He is also held is higher regard from the average man when he was enthused to sail west while everyone else was scared of the journey (Knight). In other stories, his sailors are basically thoughtless and only good at following orders, when in reality they worked twice as hard as Columbus on the voyage and slept in miserable conditions while Columbus leisured in his luxurious suite (Bigelow, “Once Upon a Genocide” 111).
Columbus was anything but civil to the native people of his new territories. In his lust for gold, he required that every Taino male over the age of fourteen has to supply him with a “hawk’s bell of gold” every three months. Once they turned in their payment they were given a token to wear, if a Spaniard saw one without a token, they were required to cut their hands off. Many were left to bleed to death in this fashion (Churchill 87). Churchill even compares Columbus to Heinrich Himmler in A Little Matter of Genocide. Heinrich Himmler was a leader in the Nazi Party that is given credit to creating and implementing the “Final Solution” to murder European Jews (“Holocaust Encyclopedia: Heinrich Himmler”.) Both were the cause of death for millions of innocent people, but one can even go so far as to claim that Columbus was actually worse.
The Holocaust had killed about five to six million Jews in a period of a little more than four years (“40 Questions, 40 Answers”). Focusing solely on the Taino population, “a subgroup of Arawakan Indians” that lived around the Greater Antilles (“Taino Indian Culture”), Columbus and his settlement had killed nearly five million in just three years. But what separates this particular genocide to the Holocaust is the fact that it continued long after the first couple years. By 1542, not even 50 years after Columbus invaded, the population was recorded at 200 people, and have been considered extinct from then on. Excluding the intensity and momentum in which he slaughtered with an almost urgency, the number of indigenous people that died during his time with the Americas is astounding: roughly 100 million (Churchill 86). It is even more alarming to think that this massacre is being celebrated with its own holiday, something one would never imagine seeing about the historical genocide of the Jewish people in Germany today.
And if he didn’t kill them directly, he either worked them to death or sold them to slavery. Sugarcanes plantations were booming in the Caribbeans thanks to Columbus and his son, Diego. They worked the local natives until about 1505, when most of them around the area had died due to either being “overworked, disease, murder, and suicide” (Bigelow, Rethinking Columbus 22). One of the first things he did as he arrived to the Caribbeans for the second time he rounded up 500 Taino Indians to ship back to Spain as slaves. He had even wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold” (Bigelow, “Once Upon a Genocide” 107).
Columbus’ expansion alongside the Spanish Inquisition that will follow him have left scars on the indigenous people of America that are still very much in effect currently. Treating the native population like they are heathens and therefore lesser than Europeans has lead to the continuous discrimination and ostracization of Native Americans throughout the entirety of history. It is beyond doubt that the dehumanizing impression Columbus had on natives like the Taino Indians made it almost easy to treat them as secondhand humans for the rest of America’s colonization and long after it. Even today, Argentine schools often discriminate against Argentians with a darker skin color because it means that they come from native Incan descent compared to the lighter skinned, Spanish descended Argentians (Wooten). Living conditions on tribal lands have been “comparable to Third World” with infant mortality 60% higher than the Caucasians in America and a suicide rate on reservations at a devastating 82% more likely (“Living Conditions”).
Many believe that the indigenous people’s view of Christopher Columbus is too critical and they should acknowledge the “positives” of his enterprise. But the response to this offends first Americans even further. Susan Shown Howard, president of the Morning Star Foundation, claims that there is no reason for them to celebrate “the invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people and is still causing destruction today”. It self-explanatory for Howard, who simply adds at the end of the her answer, “The Europeans stole our land and killed our people” (Bigelow, Rethinking Columbus 12).
America seems to be blatantly ignoring the Native Americans and the problems caused by Europeans. There tends to be a romanticization of Native Americans, though it comes across as mostly outdated and/or stereotypical. If one googles the phrase “African Americans” or perhaps “Asian Americans” and go to their images, one will see pictures of modern families and maybe some designs that display pride for their ethnicity. But if one googles the term “Native American”, homogenous illustrations of the traditional Native Americans appear on the screen. What is that saying about our perception of Native Americans? Have we left them behind in the past with all their ancestors we had prosecuted?
What does it mean to “discover” a land that has already been inhabited for thousands of years? According to Columbus, it means exploiting an entire continent for riches, plaguing their indigenous people with death, humiliation, and poverty. There was obviously no regard for the American people or their rightful claim to the land they had owned. There is no reason that Europeans owning land is any more valid than indigenous people owning land, yet here we are years later with such a contempt for natives to the Americas that we have a nation holiday to celebrate the man behind the massacre.
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