This is a repost from last year, but since I always enjoy exposing the fallacies we learn as facts in school, here is my Columbus Day post again:
Today is Columbus Day. I’m sure we all learned it in school: “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” That’s probably the only true part of the story we were told.
He didn’t do it to prove the world is round, as that was already pretty widely accepted at the time. He did it to find a sea-based trade route to China. And he didn’t “discover” America. A) The Natives technically discovered America first, and B) Even other explorers, like Leif Ericsson for example, got here first, and C) At best, he landed in The Americas, not North America. And even after he arrived in the Americas, he refused to believe he hadn’t actually reached Asia, despite his utter inability to find any of its great cities. And on top of all that, he was kind of a terrible person and a horrible racist, and his “discovery” unleashed all kinds of horrors on the so-called New World, with the men under his command raping and robbing the natives, and ultimately enslaving them. He even took natives back to Europe as a sort of “show and tell” (because of course, he didn’t think they were really human), and many of them didn’t even survive the voyage.
And before we excuse him based on the fact that tons of people of his time found his behavior, and the behavior allowed under his command, perfectly acceptable, I have to mention a guy truly worth celebrating today. Bartolome de las Casas. De las Casas was originally a participant in the system of exploitation that was quickly set up under Spanish rule in Hispaniola, but he later became a priest, and became convinced that this exploitation was contrary to his Christian faith. Now, this was truly unique, as everyone at the time was a Catholic, and here he was telling them that they were all wrong, and that they were understanding this Jesus guy all wrong. De las Casas became an advocate against slavery, and largely thanks to his work, Pope Paul III forbade slavery in 1537 (shocking how much earlier that happens than it did in the US), and Emperor Charles V followed suit in 1542.
Here are some of the horrors de las Casas saw in the New World that made him such an anti-slavery advocate:
The Spaniards did not content themselves with what the Indians gave them of their own free will, according to their ability, which was always too little to satisfy enormous appetites, for a Christian eats and consumes in one day an amount of food that would suffice to feed three houses inhabited by ten Indians for one month. (37)
The most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer. (37)
They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor the pregnant women nor the women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them, but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. (37)
They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victims’ feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and his Twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. (37)
With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them around the victim’s neck, saying ‘Go now, carry the message,’ meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. (37)
It’s enough to make you sick at your stomach, right? What Columbus unleashed on the New World is not worthy of celebrating. He should not be made into a hero for children, because he was a corrupt man pursuing his own wealth at the expense of the lives and suffering of others. Instead, we should celebrate people like de las Casas, who came to realize what he was participating in was deeply deeply wrong, and took action that actually led to change. That’s so much more exciting and rare than a Columbus Day Sale.
All quotes come from Bartolome de las Casas’ “The Devastation of the Indies” in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume A.