Let’s do away with Columbus Day

I know this past Monday marked the observance of Columbus Day, but traditionally it’s been October 12 in keeping with Columbus’ historic landfall in the New World in 1492. Like many of you, I grew up on the Columbus lore, right down to his three ships, the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta.

I’ve been thinking about the guy a lot in the last 24-hours after watching Thom Hartmann’s TV talk show on Monday. Hartmann, by the way, is America’s foremost talk host for the political left, or the progressives as they increasingly call themselves. Hartmann doesn’t like Columbus one bit. In fact, he calls Columbus a pathological killer guilty of genocide. Is this simply another revisionist history from the Left? What are the facts about this man anyway?

The truth is we may never know, as a lot of embellishment has occurred over the 500 years since his “discovery” of America. While we grew up learning the names of his ships, we now know we got the names wrong on two of them.

Nor was Columbus the first European to discover the Western hemisphere. The viking Leif Ericson voyaged here centuries earlier. There may have been others still earlier such as the Irish voyager, St. Brendhan of Clonfert.

And Columbus didn’t prove the world was round either. Virtually all the intelligentsia of the time held to a spherical view. It wasn’t his point anyway. His motive was to line his pockets by offering an alternative trade route. Land routes to China and India via the Middle East were proving hazardous, given Arab marauders.

Anyway, he was considerably off in charting the distance to India. Originally, he had offered his services to Portugal, but they glimpsed an easier route around the horn of Africa, and they were right.

At an earlier point in his life, he lived as a pirate, plundering Moor ships.

We’ve grown-up, thinking he was Italian. Evidence, however, may point to Corsica. As for his parents, it’s conceivable they were converted Jews.

We don’t even know where Columbus is buried, since his remains have been moved several times.

But what do we know about the man? I wish he could stay on my hero list in this age of debunking, but I’m afraid he’s grown suspect in the light of recent, more astute scholarship, which you can pursue in any good history on Haiti or in books by Madison Smart Bell.

It’s clear from his journal he was a devout Christian Catholic, but this didn’t keep him from looking upon the Indians on Hispaniola as slave fodder. By he way, it was the intervention of a priest arguing the potential for converts that finally won Ferdinand and Isabella’s ’s consent for the undertaking. On arriving on Hispaniola, he was met by friendly Taino; on his second visit, however, Columbus and his men took nearly 2000 of them captive. In the words of one of his literate crew, Miguel Cuneo,

when our caravels were to leave for Spain, we gathered one thousand six hundred male and female persons f those Indians, and these we embarked in our caravels on February 17, 1495. For those who remained, we let iet be know (to the Spaniards who manned the island’s fort) in the vicinity that anyone who wanted take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.

In fairness to Columbus, however, Hartmann is over-the-top in alleging genocide. Yes, the Indians were decimated and disappeared from Hispaniola within 50 years, but due to diseases such as small pox, against which they lacked immunity. (Ironically, in one of fate’s paybacks, they introduced the Europeans to syphilis.)

On the other hand, Columbus and his brothers were ruthless exploiters, plundering the wealth of indigenous peoples for their own gain like so many subsequent colonists the world over. With his brothers, he established a family dynasty and was despised. Several assassination attempts were made, and ultimately he would be sent back to Spain in chains, though later released.

Moreover, Columbus set into motion the subsequent arrival of the cruel conquistadors in the New World.

All of this marks a horrendous chapter in the history of the Americas, and in own nation’s participation in its legacy by way of our Indian wars.

Some argue that Columbus was simply a man of his time and culture. I don’t buy into this easy acceptance of crimes against humanity. Neither do the just in all generations, however few, in their vehement protest against the criminality of a culture.

This is one holiday we should do away with.

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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