Celebrating Brutality: Reflections on Columbus Day

There are only four men—and, perhaps reflecting our society’s sexism, no women—who have a national holiday in the United States. In January, we have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In February, we have what is officially recognized by the federal government as George Washington’s birthday, but is colloquially referred to as “President’s Day.” Christmas is for Jesus’ birthday. And sandwiched between George Washington and Jesus is Christopher Columbus. Today is Columbus Day. I cannot think of anyone in my lifetime for whom the public view has changed so drastically. When I was in elementary school in the late 1990s, Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, and King were treated as the four great historical heroes from different eras. The way we were taught, Columbus discovered America, Washington founded the country, Lincoln freed the slaves, and King ended segregation. I remember back when I was in first and second grade, wondering, How could Columbus have discovered America if the Indians [I hadn’t learned the word ‘Native American’ yet] were already there? And isn’t it kind of weird to claim land for Spain when there are already people living there? By the time I started high school, the well-deserved scholarly spanking that Columbus had received in A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told Me had settled into the public mind. However, I will provide a recap of Columbus’ transgressions. The first tribes that he encountered on Hispaniola were the Arawaks. Deciding that the Arawaks were easy picking, Columbus left some Spaniards behind, headed back to Spain, and persuaded the king and queen to give him more ships, supplies, and men. However, when Columbus returned, he discovered an inconvenient development. Probably thinking that the Arawaks would not fight back no matter how badly they were treated, the Spaniards had enslaved them and forced to them to pan and mine. Pushed to the breaking point, the Arawaks had finally killed and possibly eaten Columbus’ men, as well as destroying his fort. Rather than acknowledging that his men had brought their unhappy fates upon themselves, Columbus reacted savagely. Some Arawaks were sent to slave markets. Of those who remained on the island, each was enslaved and forced to find enough gold every three months to fill a quota. If they did not find enough gold, their hands were cut off, and they died from blood loss. As if this body of evidence was not enough to demonstrate the moral turpitude of the Spanish voyage, it is known that Columbus’ men raped native women. When Native Americans’ rights activist Russell Means said that Columbus made Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent, the statement was wrong only because it understated the crimes of Hitler. Columbus is basically for Native Americans what Hitler is for Jews. Now, we have the matter of the national holiday. There are hundreds of phenomenal individuals in both American and world history who do not have a national holiday in the United States. Let us look at John Brown. John Brown has been castigated for taking part in killing. Why, pray tell, did Brown take part in violent killing? Because he hated slavery. He let himself be hung from the end of a rope so that millions of slaves could be free. Do we have a holiday for John Brown? No. The Governor of Virginia has not even sit fit to issue a posthumous pardon for him. Yet every year, we have a special day marked off for a man who enslaved other human beings and butchered those who resisted. How on Earth has Columbus Day not been abolished yet? Most students now know what a loathsome, vicious human being he was. Are we really so glad that he “discovered” America for white people that we are just willing to overlook the matters of slavery and slaughter? What, indeed, did Columbus’ “discovery” lead to? More outrages inflicted on indigenous people: enslavement, murder, rape, loss of land and culture. We should indeed mourn the fate of the Arawaks and other Native American tribes. There were admirable aspects of their cultures. Chattel slavery was often less prevalent, women often had more rights, gay people were often less stigmatized, and children were often treated more humanely. But more importantly, nothing gives someone the right to invade a land and treat the indigenous people the way that Columbus treated Native Americans. If we celebrate Columbus Day, then based on what it says about us as a nation, we should not just mourn the horrors inflicted on Native Americans; we should mourn ourselves.

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