Around the time of Columbus Day, we are constantly told by the media and our leaders that Christopher Columbus represents what is truly great about America: adventure, discovery and the courage to be different. However, the true history of Columbus reveals that his so-called discovery is nothing to celebrate if one cares at all about the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas and their ancestors.
Columbus was not the first to discover America: When Columbus landed in the Bahamas in October of 1492, there were already millions of peoples living throughout North and South America. He was, however, the first to bring European imperialism, slavery and genocide to the Americas. In his diary, he wrote of the native inhabitants, “They would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” He proceeded to do just that by kidnapping 25 natives and taking them back to Spain. When Columbus returned to Hispaniola in 1493, he had an unquenchable lust for gold and violently forced the native Arawak Indians to provide impossible amounts. He enslaved 1,500 inhabitants and required all persons 14 years and older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. To ensure the cooperation of the Indians, Columbus made examples of those who refused his demands by cutting off their ears, hands and noses. These cruel deaths and mutilations were evidence of the brutality of the Spanish. Any resistance on the part of the natives was met with violent massacre at the hands of the Spanish. Prisoners were hung or burned to death.
Columbus sent nearly 5,000 Native American slaves across the Atlantic to Europe, more than any other individual in history. In two years, he and his men were responsible for the deaths of 125,000 natives of Haiti through murder and mutilation. His actions in the Americas can be called only one thing: genocide.
Columbus also began a wave of similar invasions by other Europeans; the detrimental effects of these invasions are shown in the post-Columbian population of Hispaniola. When Columbus arrived in 1492, there were 8 million people living on the island. By 1496, that population had contracted to 3 million. Fewer than 200 natives were still alive in 1542, and by 1555 they were all gone.
Contemporary American society seems to neglect this instance of genocide, especially Columbus’ role in it. In fact, the United States celebrates it with a national holiday. A man responsible for the destruction of a culture and a civilization is revered as a hero and United States law venerates his actions. Some people might claim that Columbus Day does not celebrate Columbus’ atrocities, only the knowledge of the Americas he brought to Europe. But this fact is nothing to celebrate either.
People in Europe used that knowledge to continue Columbus’ legacy of barbarism and genocide. Columnist Jeffrey Hart once wrote, “To denigrate Columbus is to denigrate what is worthy in human history and in us all.” What exactly about Columbus is “worthy”? Disregard for human life? The use of force and terror for economic gain? The destruction of an entire society and way of life? The founding of a transatlantic slave trade? If these are characteristics of a “worthy” person, Columbus is one of the worthiest.
Americans do not deserve to be lied to about their history and told that the person who opened the Americas to European colonization was a hero. Native Americans do not deserve to have the genocide of their ancestors represented as a positive step toward the creation of the United States. History does not deserve to be manipulated and neglected for the achievement of ideological and nationalistic ends.
Bartolome de Las Casas, who participated in the conquest of Cuba, writes that the actions of the Spanish in the West Indies, which began with Columbus, stand out “among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against mankind.” I agree with him and will not be celebrating genocide this October.
Andrew Fenelon is a junior geography major.