It’s too easy today to get romantic about history. Since first inundated with that sing-song phrase, “In 1400 and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” early in our childhood, we’ve grown up with the notion of the European explorers coming to America as romantic travelers who tamed a “new world,” despite heart-wrenching trials of character and will.
Unfortunately, history wasn’t quite that nice.
What I can’t understand is how the United States seems to love to propagate this revisionist and idealist history. It’s a blatant snub at the people who suffered the real abuses at the hands of our white, aristocratic past; these people are marginalized even today.
A case in point is Columbus Day. We’re taught in school how Columbus was given money by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to sail his Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria intrepidly across the Atlantic Ocean, with hopes of hitting India. We all know the anecdote where Columbus, thinking he had in fact landed on the Asian subcontinent, referred to the natives he encountered as “Indians.” But I think our celebration of Columbus Day is more a reflection of what we don’t know.
[jay3]At the end of the 15th century, Ferdinand and Isabella, for example, were rosary-deep in the Spanish Inquisition, forcing the Muslims they had just conquered in the Iberian Peninsula and their own Jewish citizens to either convert to Catholicism or be burned as heretics in some inane fealty to a God they must have feared. They later expanded their criteria to include Protestants.
Columbus took the royal duo’s funds, set sail from Spain and landed five weeks later in the Bahamas. There, he met the peaceful people most commonly known as the Arawak. Similar to the way Native Americans in the United States would do a couple hundred years later, the Arawak ran to Columbus’ boats bearing gifts. About them, he wrote in his journal:
“They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…They would make fine servants…”adding,“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
The first thoughts Columbus had upon his arrival in the Bahamas were not to try to learn about or understand the people whose land he had claimed. He instead contemplated how easily they could be indoctrinated with religion and forced into servitude.
But when Columbus discovered the Arawak had gold, that’s when he got really heroic.
He returned to Spain with exaggerated reports of “great mines of gold” and promises of large numbers of slaves. As a result, he was given supplies for a second voyage, including 17 ships and more than 1,200 men. Arriving once again in the Caribbean, Columbus and his men began to take slaves. When word of his intent spread, many Arawak abandoned their villages.
Not finding the vast amounts of gold he had anticipated, brave Columbus decided that any Arawak more than 14 years of age must bring him a certain amount of gold every three months. When gold was delivered to the Europeans, a token was hung around the Arawak’s neck. Any Arawak found without a token had his hands removed. When it was realized large amounts of gold were not going to be discovered, the Arawak were enslaved by the thousands, and any who resisted were violently slaughtered. Women and children were taken for sex and work; babies were chopped to pieces; men were tortured and killed. Thousands of Indians died from the harsh working conditions imposed by slavery, and thousands more died in mass suicides.
[jay5]To celebrate Columbus as a hero and set aside a day which we recognize his “accomplishments” is to completely ignore the horrors of genocide. The details of Columbus’ escapades provoke questions about our assumptions the history we’ve been taught is relatively objective. We need to inform ourselves of what really occurred in our past and go beyond the romantic accounts recalled with affection by history’s victors.
But the celebration of genocide shouldn’t be surprising in a country founded upon a Declaration of Independence penned in hypocrisy by a man who kept and slept with slaves. It’s the same country where the most celebrated historical figure and very first President was lauded until he became legend (see: cutting down a cherry tree) while the fact he owned slaves is conveniently ignored. This is the country that massacred Native Americans with gunpowder and small pox blankets, stole their land and then made reparations for it by giving them near-worthless tracts of land where their people could attempt miserably to maintain their heritage while riddled with social problems we initiated. If Christopher Columbus were alive today, he’d say, “God Bless America.”

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