Why There Should Never Be Another Columbus Day

Why There Should Never Be Another Columbus Day

Why There Should Never Be Another Columbus Day

By all historical accounts, Christopher Columbus was a father of genocide. So why does the United States still have a national holiday to honor him?

     
Why There Should Never Be Another Columbus Day
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Columbus Day has come and gone, and if it never comes again, that will be too soon.

The main force that has kept Columbus Day on the holiday map is one of the great, ignorant qualities of conservatism (which in this case is not tied to politics per se): retaining the status quo simply because it’s what we’re accustomed to and because it serves our selfish interests.

Why we’re accustomed to setting aside one day a year to honor a man who set in motion the first of the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Americas is a testament to how poorly and propagandistically we have educated our children in the United States over the generations. I know, because I was one of them.

The Orange County primary school I attended was typical of public schools in upper-middle-class areas in the 1970s: safe, well equipped, manageable class sizes, lacking in diversity. The curriculum was also typical, including what it taught about Christopher Columbus. He was a brave man, we were told, a man of vision. Unlike everyone else in the world, Columbus believed the world was round, not flat, and figured that if he kept sailing off toward the western horizon he wouldn’t fall off the edge of the world but would reach the Far East and its riches. He convinced the king and queen of Spain to finance his expedition, and in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue with his three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. After a long, arduous journey, he discovered America, which is why we celebrate him with a holiday.

That narrative is mostly horseshit from top to bottom. For starters, from the time of the ancient Greeks scholars knew the Earth to be round. Then there’s the patent nonsense of Columbus’s “discovering” anything—because how can you discover a land that’s not only inhabited by fellow humans but by entire cultures?

The message was unavoidable: non-White humans and cultures did not count. It was an apt message, not only because in the 1970s American society was far from providing equal treatment to Whites and non-Whites—an inequity that persists today—but because indigenous Americans certainly did not count to Columbus. To the supposedly great man, these cultures were nothing more than a means to an end—namely, a conduit for extracting whatever riches he could plunder. As he himself wrote, “As soon as I arrived […] I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”

Back in Spain, Columbus regaled the king and queen with tales of the natives’ generosity. “When you ask for something they have, they never say no,” he reported. “To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.” His response in the face of such people was to take as much gold and as many slaves as the king and queen could desire. “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” he wrote.

But Columbus wanted gold, too, and so on Haiti Columbus required all persons 14 years of age and older to provide him with a certain quantity of gold every three months, for which they would receive a copper token. Anyone discovered without a copper token would suffer his or her hands being cut off.

Within five years of Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New World,” over 125,000 of aboriginal persons on Haiti—a full half of the pre-Columbus population there—were dead. By 1650, there was not a single aboriginal descendent left. As Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison sums it up, “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

Such stuff befits a day of mourning, not of honor. The fact that we modern Americans may be happy to be here—which we wouldn’t be (at least as we are) without the genocidal acts of Columbus and his ilk, as well as those of the U.S. government against Native Americans and Mexicans—does not justify perverting the historical record. Putting aside the obvious moral issues in play, it’s an educational failing, and presumably we don’t want to (continue to) raise generations of ignorant, disingenuous Americans.

The move to abrogate Columbus Day—perhaps in favor of what is coming to be a popular alternative: Indigenous Peoples Day—is steadily gaining traction. This year, for example, Portland and Albuquerque joined a growing list of cities (e.g., Seattle and Minneapolis) that have done just that.

The arguments in favor of preserving Columbus Day are ludicrously weak. The National Organization of Italian Women (NOIAW), for example, came out against Seattle’s switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on the grounds that Columbus Day 1) “has deep roots in this country,” and 2) is a celebration of Italian-American heritage (ostensibly because Columbus was Italian, although the NOIAW does not state this specifically).

The “deep roots” argument can be dispatched simply by considering one of the great American sins: slavery. At one time slavery was among the most deeply rooted institutions in the United States, predating the founding of the nation itself. And yet no-one (with the possible exceptions of White supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan) would argue that the depth of these roots was reason not to complete eradicate the weed of slavery, even at the cost of the most ruinous war in American history.

The heritage argument is dispatched with equal ease by evoking a more recent national sin across the water: the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler was German, and yet no-one with German heritage (excepting White supremacists and neo-Nazis) would be caught dead defending Hitler’s legacy.

The NOIAW stance is part of the Save Columbus Day movement, “a growing coalition of Italian American organizations and others concerned by the denigration of Columbus' legacy.” But a legacy is the actions of an individual or group and what those actions have wrought, not simply the stories we tell. And the validity of our ideas and customs should not be judged by how long they have been around. When we set aside a day to honor someone, it ought to be because the honoree is truly worthy of the remembrance, not because we are accustomed to honoring the person or because we happen to share his ethnic extraction.

As the historical record plainly shows, Christopher Columbus was an avaricious, torturous, murderous conquistador. His arrival across the ocean blue in 1492 was not only the bane of the existence of many aboriginal peoples, it was their complete destruction. As with all subjects, we should teach our children only the truth about Columbus. And the truth about Columbus is that he was not a man worthy of celebration.

(Note: This article draws heavily from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present.)

 

Image By:  Architect of the Capitol


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Sunday, April 24, 2016