Sunday, October 11, 2009

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

Columbus Day is tomorrow, so I thought a brief blog post on the often conflicted history of Christopher Columbus, his voyage and his life in general would be of interest.

517 years ago, on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon) made landfall on a small island in the present-day Bahamas, which he later named San Salvador. Upon his arrival, Columbus proudly declared to the native people of the island -- the Taino Indians -- that the land was forever more the domain of Spain and the Catholic Church.

As we all know, Columbus was certainly not the first person to "discover" America. Instead, Columbus came along at the perfect time. As historian Alan Taylor points out in his book, American Colonies:
Thanks to the newly invented printing press, word of Columbus’s voyage and discovery spread rapidly and widely through Europe. Eagerly read, his published report ran through nine editions in 1493 and twenty by 1500. Publication in multiplying print helped to ensure that Columbus's voyages would lead to an accelerating spiral of further voyages meant to discern the bounds and exploit the peoples of the new lands (Taylor, 35).
Thanks to the dramatic discovery, coupled with the even more dramatic tales of his journey, Columbus has been catapulted to the status of a national hero in American popular culture. In many religious circles he is seen as a pious man of God who never flinched in his quest for a New World. The following cartoon helps to demonstrate the current pop=culture interpretation of Columbus and his journey:



However exciting it may be for us to remember Columbus as a pure-hearted explorer, the historical record cannot be ignored. All surviving evidence makes it abundantly clear that Columbus was not the benevolent explorer we often consider him to be in American popular culture. Instead, Columbus was very much a tyrant who used religion to justify his acts of violence towards the native peoples of the "New World." Again, Alan Taylor points out what Columbus' real intentions were when it came to the native people of the "New World:"
Columbus hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity and to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth to reign over a millennium of perfect justice and harmony (Taylor, 33).
Columbus took his newfound religious quest to another extreme when he chose to rename himself by adopting the first name of "Christoferens," or "Christ-bearer." Under the banner of a Christ-bearer, Columbus began his work of death throughout the Americas. Alan Taylor captures just how horrible these atrocities were when he writes:
Columbus distributed Indian captives among the colonists to work on their plantations and to serve as sex slaves. By 1496, Hispanola's surviving "free" natives had been rendered tributary -- obliged to bring in a quota of gold for every person over the age of fourteen.

Columbus's slaughter and enslavement of Indians troubled the pious Spanish monarchs, who declared in 1500 that the Indians were free and not subject to servitude...

...In addition to killing and enslaving the Taino, Columbus antagonized most of the colonists, who bristled at his domineering manner and hot temper. As a result, violent mutinies and more violent reprisals by Columbus induced the monarchs to revoke his executive authority in 1500.
(Taylor, 37).
With such a horrible record of enslavement, brutality and death, I again pose to you all the following question: should we celebrate Columbus Day? The historian in me is conflicted. Of course Columbus' discovery is a monumental event in world history, however, the fact remains that this discovery led to mass murder. I also am of the belief that all historical events -- both good and evil -- should be remembered. However, does this mean that Columbus deserves his own national holiday?

With a demonstrable history replete with examples of tyranny, enslavement and murder, I am forced to declare: ABSOLUTELY NOT! Perhaps a "Discovery Day" or a "Native American Day" (like is already celebrated in South Dakota) would be appropriate. But a Columbus Day? Sorry, I'm not on board.

Your thoughts...

11 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yeah, Columbus was a jerk and a tyrant, that's a fact. But if he weren't monomaniacal if not semi-delusional, he never could have sold his bad math about the circumference of the Earth to Ferdinand and Isabella, who bought that the riches of Asia were only a few thousand miles away.

We dig such folks, and we sometimes even elect them to the presidency. But in the end, Columbus was fired by the Spanish crown for his incompetence and all-around assholiness.

It's certainly difficult to honor the man, and of course these days, multiculturalism dictates we believe that all cultures are equal, so the New World was just fine if not better off before the arrival of Western culture and Christendom.

[And perhaps simply true. See "1491," a provocative article in the Atlantic.]

However, when historian Alan Taylor writes

Columbus hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity and to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth to reign over a millennium of perfect justice and harmony...

a) I dunno about that last sentence, making it sound like Columbus was into some sort of end-times Hal Lindsey pre-trib milleniialism, or whatever those folks call it. Mebbe he was, but it wasn't as freakish in that time as it seems today when we see it on religious cable channels.

Because b) converting the savages to Christianity was certainly a noble goal for any believer then or now, and c) the sword of Islam was definitely a real concern, and was no doubt feared just as much as world domination by Nazism or Communism were in the past century.

[In fact, to its shame, the RCChurch's initial theological opposition to the enslavement and rape of the New World gave way to more pragmatic popes who saw Islam's profits soar with the slave trade, and the Vatican began to turn a blind eye to competing with Islam's tactics.]

Because we must keep in mind that Spain was still under partial Muslim control, and it wasn't until that very year of 1492 that the new unified Spanish kingdom of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile finally wrested Grenada from Muslim control.

Islam's theopolitical threat to Christendom was no mere abstraction, and so I find this excerpt from Alan Taylor's American Colonies unnecessarily politically correct and shallow when taken at face value. [I do hope that my objection is only due to the fact that it's out of context, and that the rest of his work shows a deeper understanding of not only the perceptions in 1492 Spain, but its realities.]

But yeah, Christopher Columbus was a dick, and entirely full of himself and of his vision and of his future place in world history. These days, they give Nobel Prizes for that in advance, but that's another discussion.

jimmiraybob said...

I dunno about that last sentence, making it sound like Columbus was into some sort of end-times Hal Lindsey pre-trib milleniialism, or whatever those folks call it. Mebbe he was, but it wasn't as freakish in that time as it seems today when we see it on religious cable channels.

By all accounts that I've read, Columbus was very devout and was more than willing to make sure those around him towed the line. This doesn't seem out of character for him but then again he may have been playing to the tenor of his times in Christian (RC) Spain. In addition to being high tide of the Spanish Inquisition there was also the Spanish Reconquista to finance (via the uber pious Isabella and Ferdinand and the blessings of the RC Church). In addition, those damned Portuguese sailors/explorers were gobbling up a lot of territory.

By appealing to the royal egos and their pious pretensions to claim the world for God and Spain, Columbus eventually got what he wanted. He was first and foremost an entrepreneur regardless of what drove him.

PS. SE Utah was great. Wish I'd had more time to explore. I must work harder to become independently wealthy.

J said...

should we celebrate Columbus Day?

No. Unless it was altered to something like a Columbus-Human Sacrifice day, wherein someone dressed as an Aztec high priest symbolically sacrifices the xtian Oppressor...




Columbus's slaughter and enslavement of Indians troubled the pious Spanish monarchs, who declared in 1500 that the Indians were free and not subject to servitude...

That's actually an important point. Columbus may have thought he was doing the work of God and King, but the spanish nobles thought otherwise. Jesuits may have been capable of atrocity at times, but they should not be mistaken for the conquistadores (like Columbus or Cortes) themselves.

CybrgnX said...

This is the day I celebrate...'the Native American's terrible immigration policy Day'. But then again if Columbus wasn't such an ass WE may well be still in europe looking to the United Confederated Native American Nations for aid.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...there was also the Spanish Reconquista to finance (via the uber pious Isabella and Ferdinand and the blessings of the RC Church). In addition, those damned Portuguese sailors/explorers were gobbling up a lot of territory.

Yes, "reconquista" was the term I was missing, taking back Spain from the Moors [Muslims].




Also that the Spanish-Portuguese rivalry in the New World led to the 1493 "Line of Demarcation"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tordesillas

drawn by the pope to smooth out Christendom's conflicts of entrepreneurialism.


And welcome back from Utah, JRB. Hope you found enough booze under the wire to make it worthwhile. I wouldn't visit the most byooful place in the world without a beer, meself.

And to our new friend "J," his mercy toward the Jesuits is hereby acknowledged. "J" occasionally writes things that are really and starkly insightful, and that's why he still gets an ear around here---like that as bad as the Jesuits were back in the day, they still weren't as bad as the racist assholes who routinely tyrannized the New World and the black folk imported to it, even into their own houses.

Like Thomas Jefferson's, that incredible asshole. Didn't even free his slaves like GWashington did at his death...

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the comments!

In my opinion, one of the most bizarre tidbits of Columbus' life and history is the dichotomy between his incredible "God-given" will to succeed v. his blatant stupidity, which can be found in his understanding of navigation, leadership qualities and insistence on the belief that he had indeed discovered Asia.

If you read some of the Columbus/discovery stories that circulated Europe, it's no wonder why he and his journey became enveloped in divine intervention. And the same can be said of the stories written over the course of the past 500 years. In fact, it wasn't until 1992 (the 500th anniversary) that historians and society in general began judging Columbus with a more critical eye. Prior to that, the Columbus story (especially in 1792 and 1892) were clothed in an American patriotic blanket of sorts.

Anonymous said...

You cite an "Alan Taylor" throughout this post to base your argument. Historians are humans- which means that they can form their own opinions on what they read or hear. This article would have been worth the read if it presented more than one man's opinion on what he found- which of course there is. History records that Columbus had moments of greed, I have yet to see actual proof that "innocents" were disposed of or abused at his sole and arbitrary discretion. The telling of a story is NOT complete when you only tell one side of it. Perhaps reading about the mass torture of Europeans and early American settlers by indigenous Indian tribes would remind us that all was not hunky dory and peaceful for those who came to America. For all who say that we should not have come- if you truly believed that you would not live here out of principle. If you do, you are no different than those who came before you- you are an opportunist. Just my opinion on the subject. As for celebrating this day- I don't really see the point in it being about Columbus. Fourth of July encapsulates the real idea of this day.

Anonymous said...

lovely

Anonymous said...

nah hes stuped as hll

Anonymous said...

f him

Anonymous said...

ya i aint kar sht al rigt so... ya'l;l quite down idiot