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Columbus Day Should Be a National Holiday

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The story of Christopher Columbus is one of great controversy and mystery, as historical accounts and myths are often used interchangeably by individuals without consciously knowing so. Children’s biographies function as a prime example of the confused custom of myth, misconception, and legend surrounding Columbus; more often than not serving as primers of prejudice and colonialism. Commonly using blissful tones and phrases such as “great adventurer” and “greatest sailor of his time”, biographies written for children frequently tell a story of heroism and flawed perspective. Yet, behind this narrative of bravery, chance, and discovery lies the messy reality of greed, intolerance, and unrelenting intervention. With the original version of Columbus’s diary missing from public sphere, historians are left only with an inadequate abstract of Columbus’s accounts in the new world. From his remaining accounts, however, it can determined that, “Yes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue – but he did much more than that.”

From the get-go of his voyages, Columbus’s motives for exploration consisted of wealth, power, and fame. By successfully convincing Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon to finance his ambiguous journeys, Columbus accomplished a task of great difficulty while additionally demanding ten percent of all the wealth brought back to Spain along his state-of-the-art trade route to Asia. To further his outrageous orders, Columbus commanded that his family is to inherit all his prosperity, and required that this agreement be upheld and honored by the Spanish monarchs for all eternity. In want of unfathomable amounts of wealth that could be guaranteed through a secured western passage to the Indies, the Spanish monarchs complied with Columbus’ requests, granting him the authority to explore and conquer whatever he may “discover” on his voyages. For a man such as Columbus, land is money. It did not matter to him that the lands he came across were already inhabited; if Columbus “discovered” it, he took it. On account of nearly all slaves dying in route to Spain, finding that slavery was not as lucrative as he had hoped, Columbus focused his attention on the quest for untold riches of gold. In regards to his search for gold, Columbus ordered the native peoples of the islands he invaded to surrender a consistent quota or be punished for failing to meet these set expectations. As a result of Columbus’ decree, hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from these islands lost their lives, unable to satisfy Columbus’ demands for their gold and resources.

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Children’s biographies of Columbus acknowledge his unreasonable requests, going as far as praising his greed and selfishness as objectives of adventure. “Of course [Columbus] wanted a lot! What was wrong with that?” James de Kay tells young readers in his work, Meet Christopher Columbus. Columbus “would claim the new lands he found for Spain, and would convert the peoples he found there to Christianity.” But this expedition for wealth as a motivating factor for his voyages is deemphasized in light of Enterprise and adventure. “Exploring” meant traveling to “unfamiliar places” where “stories of untold wonders” could be found. Essentially ignoring Columbus’ motives of wealth, greed, and power for himself and the Spanish empire, Columbus literature for elementary aged students emphasizes the themes of religion, adventure, and curiosity; causing children’s understanding of international affairs to be immensely flawed. It should be noted, however, that all of these highlighted aspects of Columbus’ journeys are irrelevant without the power and economic desires of the Spanish Crown. These books also encourage children to misunderstand the fundamentals of foreign-policies, discouraging the analysation for a “less altruistic explanation” of why the United States is involved in issues abroad. Throughout the bibliographies analysed, it can be determined that the majority of Children’s literature that mentions Columbus avoids the “dirty” details of his voyages and the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean. On the contrary, these books for young readers paint Columbus in an erroneous light, one of affection and admiration, even referring to him by his first name. “It was lucky that Christopher was born where he was or he might never have gone to sea.” “There once was a boy who loved the salty sea.” “Yes, [the Queen] would help Columbus!” “After all these years, Columbus would get his ships!” Structured as a conversation between father and son, Gleiter and Thompson’s Christopher Columbus portrays Columbus as a kind and compassionate Admiral of the Ocean Sea, illustrating him with white, straight teeth and a bold jaw. Ironically describing Columbus as an actual human being with real thoughts and feelings, children’s literature accounts do not bother to mention the native peoples of these invaded islands and what they might have wanted. With each biography cheering him on towards the Indies, children are consistently being presented the story of Columbus from his point of view; with the “most unhappy part of his great adventure” being that of his crews delayed arrival on the islands. If one of Columbus’ men had asked the Indians, they would most likely disagree, arguing that the liquidation of the majority of their people was slightly more “unhappy” than an inconvenient time delay.

Perhaps the most evasive and misleading children’s literature accounts of Columbus are those of Jean Fritz’s Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus? and Sean J. Dolan’s Christopher Columbus: The Intrepid Mariner. Diving into the core focus of his rationale on the second page of his work, Dolan emphasises the influence religion played in Columbus’ life stating, “[Columbus] believed that the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounded him could only be the handiwork of the one true God, and he felt secure in his Lord and Savior’s protection. ‘If only my crewmen shared my belief,’ Columbus thought.” Dolan’s account continues on this ‘Columbus as a Saint’ tangent for one hundred and seventeen pages, nearly strangling his readers with Columbus’ virtuous halo. Similar to Dolan’s religious portrayal of Columbus’ expeditions being motivated solely by his faith, Fritz also misleads young readers through her use of euphoric language; claiming that Queen Isabella “was such an enthusiastic Christian that she insisted everyone in Spain be a Christian too…Indeed, she was so religious that if she even found Christians who were not sincere Christians, she had them burned at the stake.” Although adopting a somewhat skeptical tone, Fritz’s implied critique is likely lost on upper-elementary school students; her book’s targeted audience. The recurring theme of Christianity, along with the close associations made between God and Columbus throughout children’s literature, discourages young students to criticize any of Columbus’ wrongdoings. “Columbus marveled at how God had arranged everything for the best.” This statement alone indirectly encourages children not to question the conduct and motives of the Columbus Enterprise. Setting religion and Biblical references aside, Columbus biographies written for young students do not promote children to critically think about or analyse texts; rather they are just to sit and absorb the information like incompetent sponges. Once again, the opinions of the indigenous people, along with their feelings towards the Spaniards’ pillaging of their homes on the islands, are left out of these accounts; making the Columbus expedition one of the first encounters “between two peoples – Us and Them – where children will learn that ‘God is on our side.’”

Existing at the foundation of the Columbus tale is the conception that he and his crewmen “discovered” America. During the process of researching for their book, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, written by William D. Phillips and Carla Rahn Phillips, the two authors reviewed more than two hundred and forty history textbooks used in schools across the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their study concluded that American children’s literature has seldom painted a uniform picture of Columbus and his voyages abroad. The same is found true within most children’s books mentioning Columbus; it could be assumed that the same author wrote every book, just with ever so slightly different details in each edition. In his work, Meet Christopher Columbus, de Kay tells the story of Columbus’ arrival on San Salvador and his encounter with the natives stating, “He tried to talk to the people…but they could not understand him.” Obviously, Columbus could not understand the natives, either, however, the “inability to understand is attributed to the Indians alone.” Yet again, authors of Columbus literature written for children offer a subtle injustice towards the natives of the islands; implying to young readers that the ignorance of the Indians is what allowed strange, armed men to invade their land and claim it as their own in the name of a kingdom found halfway across the globe. Although inserting indirect bias, at least some authors managed to mention the existence of the native people inhabiting the islands. Unlike the others previously specified, Robert Young avoids the controversy of the natives altogether in his work, Christopher Columbus and His Voyage to the New World, failing to educate his young readers on the indigenous inhabitants on the islands at all. Within his work, readers will only find illustrations of palm trees and empty beaches – land with no people. This scene of Columbus’ interactions with the native Indians – more likely than not, one that nearly every American child has read or been taught in school – creates an incredibly moving metaphor regarding the relationships between nations and their people; one that not only teaches about the world more than five hundred years ago, but also one that teaches about the world today. “Modernized,” Christian, light-skinned men armed with “advanced” weaponry from a more developed country “discover” a land inhabited by “uncivilized,” non-Christian, unarmed, naked, dark-skinned men – and claim it in the name of their mother country or hierarchy. Although not directly telling young readers that this kind of behavior is acceptable, Columbus literature for children implies to them that white people should rule over colored people, Christians should “civilize” non-Christians, and more developed nations should control less developed nations. Each indirect answer students could pick out from their books’ language and imagery indubitably points to and rationalizes colonialism and prejudice: “it’s acceptable for one people to determine the fate of another people; it’s acceptable for white people to control people of color.”

In most cases, children’s literature regarding Columbus and his journeys to the New World presents the natives on the islands as “mere background noise.” While the indigenous peoples inhabiting the islands are mentioned in most the children’s books, the values of their thoughts and lives are left unaccounted for. Columbus literature for children conveniently only speaks of Columbus and his thoughts on the native peoples, not vice versa. Demonstrated in Mary Pope Osborne’s Christopher Columbus: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Osborne states that Columbus “thought [the Indians] could easily be brought under control and that they had no religion of their own. He wrote that they would make ‘good Christians and good servants.’”Again, although mentioning the Indians, Osborne fails to create a critical text that young readers could analyse by neglecting to raise the question of how the Indians felt about the actions of Columbus and his men. Like the majority of Columbus literature for children authors, Osborne’s Indians do not have thoughts, feelings, or verbal communication. Present across much of children’s literature on Columbus, these silent Indians consequently imply a message most would find unfavorable to young readers; whites in technologically “advanced” societies have consciousness and representation, but people inhabiting Third World places are absent-minded and voiceless objects. The consistent language and imagery students are exposed to in these texts inevitably leads to their assumption that “they are not like us.” Ideas of dissociation and seclusion develop in their minds that we are more qualified than they in terms of deciding what conditions are best for them socially, economically, and politically. Interventions worldwide including Vietnam, Chile, Grenada and Panama, Nicaraguan and Angolan, and countless more convey to young students that the right to determine what is best for others is the primary conduct of our nation’s foreign policy. The “classic” Columbus tale told to children across the United States as their initial exposure to foreign policy fosters young people to acknowledge the uneven dissemination of power throughout the globe and accept it as valid.

With some of the Columbus literature for children ignoring the Indians’ existence at all, others conveniently finished their narratives with the end of Columbus’ first voyage. As a result, these authors have escaped the confrontation of slavery and genocide – ignoring the fate of the Indians all together. This clever avoidance of detail allows the Columbus myth to remain simplistic and pure in young reader’s minds; uncomplicated and unstained by violence to keep the traditional story pristine and wholesome. By eluding Columbus’ second journey in February of 1495, authors of children’s literature neglect informing young readers about the Taino slave raids of Hispaniola where unnecessary violence and barbarism inflicted on the natives by the Spaniards lead to the liquidation of almost an entire ethnic population. Acting out of greed and a false sense that we should control these people because they are not like us, the Spaniards behavior towards the Indians cost the natives untold amounts of land, resources, and most importantly, their lives. Although mentioning the downfall of Columbus by taking slaves from the islands, their critiques are subpare, as no children’s book account educates its young readers about what slavery specifically entailed for its undeserving victims. One account in particular, Monchieri’s Christopher Columbus, mentions that forcefully taking natives away from their island resulted in “a great failing of Columbus…He saw nothing wrong with enslaving the American Indians and making them work for Spanish masters.” Additionally, Mary Pope Osborne’s Christopher Columbus: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, states that “this terrible treatment of the Indians was Columbus’ real downfall.” Both Monchieri and Osborne’s accounts fail in displaying the horrific and unjust aspects of slavery that Columbus and his men willingly took part of. Furthering her unwillingness to denounce Columbus for his inhumane actions on the Indians, Osborne goes as far to justify his actions by saying, “Since Columbus felt despair and disappointment about not finding gold in the Indies, he decided to be like the African explorers and try to sell these Indians as slaves.” In both cases, neither author bothers to critically analyse the retelling of their story to account for the character of the slave.

In most cases, that is when the native peoples are mentioned even at all, authors of children’s literature on Columbus consistently justify the unfavorable aspects of the white man’s actions in the New World. In her work Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus?, Jean Fritz defends Columbus’ taking of the slaves by saying, “African explorers were always sending Africans back to Spanish slave markets…besides, the natives were all heathens. It wasn’t as if he were selling Christians into slavery.” Once again not presenting the readers with a direct critique of Columbus’ wrongdoings, authors for young readers are promoting the ideas of racism and imperialism. This notion is especially highlighted in Dolan’s account, “Because the Indians were not Christians, Columbus believed that they could be enslaved and converted without the Spanish feeling any guilt.” Dolan continues by stating, “Given the attitude of the men at large, however, [Columbus] had little choice but to give his approval to the slaving sorties.” This statement can be condemned alone, however, each account that acknowledges the Indians in the slightest still manages to fail in speaking for the them at all. On the contrary, each children’s story only identifies Columbus’ rationalizations for his actions committed on the natives in the New World. “Between 1494 and 1496 one-third of the native population of Hispaniola was killed, sold, or scared away.” Although Fritz does manage to talk about the punishments of Indians that did not meet Columbus’ daily gold quota, her use of passive voice in the previous sentence functions to shelter the perpetrators from actions of misconduct. These accounts written for young readers prompt no questioning of conduct by Columbus and his men, nor the economic and social systems they represented. These atrocities affected hundreds of thousands of real people with real feelings who are left unaccounted for because they are portrayed to readers as the others. According to the majority of children’s literature on Columbus, students are to value courage, deviousness, and diligence over human beings’ right to live and autonomy – we over them.

Through the strategic use of euphoric language, playful tones, and avoidance of the gruesome details, authors of children’s literature on Columbus “encourage a passive relationship between reader and text.” With these accounts only elaborating on Columbus and his point of view, the natives’ perspective is left out entirely, deeming them, as well as their lives, invaluable and irrelevant. Rather than encouraging young minds to think critically about Columbus, his motives, his actions, and the social, political, and economic systems he represented, children’s literature accounts of Columbus promote young readers to just sit, listen, and absorb the information as indisputable fact. This presentation of “facts” within a story accomplishes the opposite of what American Universities across the country ask of their higher level education students: to analyse and think critically about the past as well as texts, media, and other sources of news. Why, then, do authors of children’s literature train young readers to simply listen to the story and “absorb others’ historical interpretations”? Taking into consideration the immense volume of inadequate and faulty accounts of Columbus’ voyages accessible to the public sphere, there is no simple solution to this issue. In order to improve the education of America’s young people on controversial topics, teachers and educators need to equip and prepare students with the appropriate resources and skills necessary to critically analyse texts and materials presented to them. By conveying to young students the importance of interrogating their textbooks, biographies, research articles, and novels for bias, educators better prepare their students for the expectations of higher level education and the real world. All the studies previously mentioned would make excellent resources for educators to utilize in their classrooms to teach their students about the necessities of reading for both social and literal interpretation. Educators could instruct students to analyse the “typical portrayal” of Columbus accounts in children’s literature versus the accounts Columbus personally recorded in his letters and journals. Emphasizing the perspective of the Indians; how they felt towards, thoughts of, and impressions towards the Spaniards prompts children to think about the Columbus story from a perspective other than that of the “authorized” white man. In this way, educators are encouraging their students to ask themselves questions about the conduct of Columbus and his men, and how these actions affected the Indians both short and long termed. Some examples of these questions include: “What is left out of certain accounts that would help paint a more complete picture of Columbus and his encounters with the indigenous cultures? Who is portrayed as the more favorable race/group in this account and how is the author successful in accomplishing this view? What role do the illustrations play in constructing readers’ comprehension of the Columbus voyages? Of these presentations, who in society benefits and who is harmed? Why is the story told this way?” By prompting students to question bias and injustices ingrained in their text resources, educators inevitably lead students to question the injustices ingrained in society fundamentally.Finally, educators teaching about Columbus could assign their students biographies to retell the “traditional” story using details they think should be included to encompass the full account of Columbus and his journeys to the New World. If educators want a more personalized response from their students, they could instruct students to draw from their personal experiences to write about themes suggested by the Spanish invasion of the New World such as racism, conflict/hostility, theft, justice, or language barriers. Through this activity, young students are positioned to make lasting connections between their lives and the lives of those involved in the Columbus story; essentially the target objective of educators when informing students on a topic or event.

Some would argue that the story of Christopher Columbus teaches meaningful and significant values to young readers. “Here was a young man who, despite tremendous adversity, maintained and finally achieved his objectives. Fear and narrow-mindedness kept others from that which he finally accomplished.” When analysing children’s biographies on Columbus, however, these favorable and gracious values quickly get entangled with biases against people of color, working-class groups, and Third World nations. Perhaps best summarized by reporter Don A. Schanche in the January 28, 1990 issue of the Los Angeles Times,

To Columbus contemporaries, the island quickly became inconsequential as the action of exploration and conquest moved to the rich mainlands of the Americas. To scholars, its location paled in comparison to the political, social, and moral effects of the great navigator’s four voyages of discovery at the cusp of the 15th century…the journeys spawned centuries of bitterness concerning colonialism, slavery, genocide, exploitation, and despoliation while opening the way to seemingly endless opportunities for human development.

It may be possible that the celebrated man United States citizens have known Christopher Columbus to be surfaced out of Americans want for a non-British hero. It is simple, then, for one to analyse the history of Columbus and denounce him as an extensive “ethnocentric capitalist pig,” however, this portrait of Columbus only represents one side of the story. The best course of action in regards to teaching about Columbus to children going forward would be to recognize Columbus as a mediocre man who nonetheless accomplished something revolutionary for his time, and as a result, sparked various modifications and transformed the course of history. In order to fully understand the history of the United States and the world alike, America’s young people should be exposed to both perspectives of Columbus to determine for themselves what kind of title he deserves. 

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