"In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
Nursery rhymes are great, as long as we do not confuse them with history.
Unfortunately, we have had a tendency to take myth as fact, and in the process whitewash the ambiguity and nuances of real world history.
Recall the speech by then president George H.W. Bush in 1989, about Christopher Columbus: "Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith."
So in President George H. W. Bush’s reckoning, Columbus was a model of “perseverance and faith.”
Yet one wonders how many today would come to associate the actions of Columbus with “faith” if we knew the real history.
There are always multiple sides to every narrative, different points of view. We cannot let the “victors” to write the history books Instead, we also have a humanistic responsibility to look at life through the experiences of those who have been weak and marginalized. There are of course multiple narratives about Columbus, from a crusading missionary to a slave-exporter to a megalomaniac. What is important for our purposes is that the debate about Columbus cannot be had without also telling the story from the point of view of the native peoples who bore the brunt of Columbus’ “exploration” on their bodies and in their lives.
Here are a few of the aspects of Columbus’ treatment of the native population that do not often get a full treatment:
*Columbus immediately engaged in slavery.
Columbus writes about this in his own words, and justifies it according to his understanding of his faith.
"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."
*Columbus sold native girls, as young as nine or ten years old, into sexual slavery. This information is from his diary:
"A hundred castellanoes [Spanish coins] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand."
*Despair among indigenous people
The native people, such as the Taino, faced such a situation of hopeless and despair as a consequence of slavery that some of them resorted to mass suicide as the only means of escaping their dilemma. [see the letter from Pedro de Cordoba to King Ferdinand in a 1517. ]
*population impact was one of a mass-scale genocide
The late historian Howard Zinn offers us an overview of what can be called nothing short of a genocide:
“In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.”
For another account, see here.
Fortunately, the response of the European Catholics was not uniform.
While many of the Spanish explorers engaged in this slavery and genocide, some spoke against it.
Columbus’ cruel treatment of the indigenous peoples was already denounced in his own lifetime. One of the explorers who arrived in the Antilles, Bartolomé de Las Casas, wrote a devastating work called “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.”
De Las Casas recounts horrifying acts by Columbus’ crew, including the Spaniards cutting off the legs of children to see how sharp their swords were, and taking wagers to see who could cut a person in half with one motion. De Las Casas recounts the death and rape of three thousand people in a single day. De Las Casas, who turned to priesthood as a way of atoning for what he had seen, states:
"Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel…
My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”
Columbus’ discovery (and by now the absurdity of that term should be obvious to all) forever changed the balance of world power.
It sent a massive amount of wealth and slaves to Europe, and fully ushered in the era of European colonialism of Asia, Americas, and Africa.
Any attempt at understanding global history of the last five hundred years without accounting for the pivotal nature of colonialism is futile.
I go through these accounts, not to insult the dead. (I am not unmindful of the way that the legacy of Columbus has been especially dear to the Italian-American population.)
Insulting the dead does nothing to redeem their sins, and can actually send our rage towards the past when we need our resolve here and now in addressing the injustices of today.
My intention is to remind us that the injustices we see around us today, from the appalling condition of most Native Americans to the situation of African-Americans and the working poor has to be confronted with eyes wide open.
our histories—all of our histories—are tainted, combinations of extraordinary accomplishment with unfathomable cruelty. We are all heirs to such a mixed bag. There is no point in whitewashing or denying this history. The only moral response is confronting it, addressing it, and figuring out how to deal today with the legacies of this injustice.
If there is a way of restoring a sense of honor to Columbus Day, this repentant approach with eyes-wide-open would seem to be a necessary start.
We can start by reading Howard Zinn’s masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States of America. Or David Stannard’s American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Alongside that, addressing the ongoing plight of Native Americans, five centuries after first contact with the Spanish explorers, would be the necessary next step.
Then someday, perhaps, our children can sing a nursery rhyme not based on a myth, but on reconciliation through justice, on a forgiveness that was earned after brutal exploitation and injustice.
We work today, so that our children can sing a true song tomorrow.