Monday, October 13, 2008

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

516 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 -- 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 video helps to demonstrate the 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. As a result, it is plainly 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 people 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 says yes, since I believe all historical events -- both good and evil -- should be remembered. However, does this mean that Columbus deserves his own national holiday? With a historical record that is replete with examples of tyranny, enslavement and murder another side of me says absolutely not.

Your thoughts...


Lindsey Shuman said...

Should we celebrate Columbus Day? Absolutely, positively NOT!

What would people think about celebrating a Jefferson Davis Day, an Aaron Burr Day or a Benedict Arnold Day? Yet these men are only seen as mere traitors. None of them (except maybe Davis due to his owning slaves) was involved in the kind of brutality and destruction that Columbus brought upon the natives of the New World.

Why do we continue to revere this man? Think about the people who have a holiday in this country: G. Washington, A. Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and...Christopher Columbus??? Why do we put him on the same pedestal as these other great men? My guess is that most Native Americans would be more willing to give Andrew Jackson his own day before they ever gave Columbus a day od recognition. This is a ridiculous holiday.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Dear Brad,

A slightly different question from yours comes to mind for me.

Whereas our national Columbus-mania looks suspiciously like post-revolutionary defiance of England, and whereas we are now on better terms with Britain and less in denial of our English heritage, might we not substitute a national holiday celebrating John Cabot for the one celebrating Christopher Columbus?

Just a thought...

Brian Tubbs said...

I would support renaming Columbus Day for the reasons cited in Brad's post and in Lindsey's and Kristo's comments.

However, I want to make clear that I believe the discovery of the New World is worth celebrating. And by 'discovery,' I mean not only stepping foot on New World soil (which Columbus was NOT the first to do), but the PUBLICIZING of the New World to the REST of the world (for which Columbus DID play a part).

I understand and deplore the brutalization of those who inhabited the New World, prior to Columbus' arrival. But...I am not willing to go so far (as some, like Howard Zinn have) as to say that the European discovery, settlement, and colonization of the New World is a bad thing. In my opinion, it was NOT a bad thing, though it was sometimes conducted in a bad way.

Brad Hart said...

Brian states:

"I understand and deplore the brutalization of those who inhabited the New World, prior to Columbus' arrival. But...I am not willing to go so far (as some, like Howard Zinn have) as to say that the European discovery, settlement, and colonization of the New World is a bad thing. In my opinion, it was NOT a bad thing, though it was sometimes conducted in a bad way."

I am in complete agreement about Howard Zinn. His history is not only ridiculous but also completely wrong. As for the New World discovery being a good thing, I am in at least partial agreement with you. I think we should clarify, however, that European colonization of the "New World" was not a very good thing for the millions of Native Americans who suffered from disease or subjugation at the hands of the settlers. Also, let us not forget that the African Slave trade exploded upon the discovery of the New World. As a result, millions of Africans suffered terribly under the yoke of slavery.

I think I know what you are saying though, Brian and I agree. The discovery of the New World was a remarkable turning point in world history and we would all do well to remember -- both the good and bad -- history of that era.


I would be more in favor of a John Cabot day than a Columbus Day. What do you think of a Native American Day? There is a petition before the president and Congress to change Columbus Day to Native American Day. Here is the link:

Brian Tubbs said...


I concur that there were definitely bad aspects to the discovery and settlement of the New World, just as - I suppose - one could say that there have been "bad" aspects (and "good") in most of the major turning points in world history.

I think your post is excellent, though, in that it forces us to confront an important question. I linked to it from over at my American Founding blog.

Kristo Miettinen said...


You support a day in my honor? Really, you shouuldn't... [:-)

Or do you mean "aboriginal American" when you say "native American"?

I think it rather unAmerican to elevate one group of Americans demographically above other Americans, so I don't see anything desirable in a "Native American Day". That said, I'll grant you that I don't really mind labor day, and so I could be persuaded to support a day of remembrance of slavery, but only on a racially comprehensive basis, not as a black-slavery-only remembrance.

Also, let's not forget our history. As best we can tell, aboriginal Americans themselves came over from Asia in many waves, the later waves extinguishing descendants of the earlier ones, and there was much savagery and slavery all around.

Explicit Atheist said...

It is our choice as a society, a country and a civilization to decide for who and for what and how we declare and celebrate holidays. Our choice of holidays indicates what we value. Do we value historical accuracy? Do we care about the historical victims of cruelity and brutality? As long as we celebrate Christopher Columbus as a hero for "discovering" America then the answers to those questions are no. This is a completely unecessary holiday. No one person or one voyage discovered America as if it didn't have a prior existence, America is not the United States, and as a choice for a holiday it reflects poorly on us.

Jonathan Rowe said...

My 2 cents: What we did to the Indians was indefensible; but the Howard Zinn influenced historians have a way of making it seem as though Indians were nice and peaceful folks living at one with nature (this mythology goes back even to the Founding era and the notion of "noble savages," or the idea that they might be lost tribes of Israel; indeed the idea that the Indians' "Great Spirit" might be the God that Jews and Christians worship supports the myth).

The truth is Indians -- as most indigenous people around the world -- were extremely backwards both in their technological developments and at times brutal and barbaric sense of morality. Doesn't justify what we did to them. But if we are going to "deconstruct" Columbus and the Founders for their mistreatment of Indians, we should also look at the Natives' practices thru the same hold no bars lens.

Brian Tubbs said...

Well said, Jon.

Lori Stokes said...

What's surprising and heartening to me is that my 7 year-old daughter just learned about Columbus in 2nd grade and got a very accurate account (for second grade--no explicit details on smallpox, slavery, or rape). She learned that Columbus was not the first to discover America, that he was hosted by the Taino, that he took Tainos back to Spain "like they were parrots", and that he just wanted to find gold and he didn't care about the people.

So that's a million miles from the laudatory version I got in 1972 when I was in second grade. And this is just an average public school, no special curriculum was used. Progress is being made! and the holiday is more and more becoming an opportunity for thoughtful discussion of our heritage.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I do think there's a leftover European chauvinism in honoring Columbus. European, white = good.

What does Columbus have to do with the United States of America? Not much. I'm not in favor of any affection or fealty towards Europe on the part of Americans. Europe was what all our forebears endangered their lives on rickety ships to escape! [Except those brought here by the slave trade, of course, so thanks for that too, Europe.]

For the record, Columbus was a jerk, and Europe was a hellhole. A very interesting article from several years back called 1491 that argues, on the whole, a person would have been better off in pre-Columbian America than as a citizen of Europe.

Oh, and for the record, I quite agree that the aboriginal Americans weren't all that great either. Everybody and everywhere sucked back then.

Explicit Atheist said...

Teaching history correctly in school is one thing, making a federal holiday to celebrate the leader of an expedition who sets a very bad ethical example is something else entirely. Its not necessary to have a federal holiday named for a person who inextricably linked his own historical achievement with his ruthless and brutal cruelity when there are so many other historical personalities and events that would better reflect on us to everyone, including to ourselves, the values we should seek to associate ourselves with by our choice of celebratory federal holidays.

Regarding Jon Rowe's comment about the incivility of the American Indians, we don't have a federal holiday celebrating an Indian Chief or an Indian tribe, and they weren't philosophical naturalists, they were worshippers of the supernatural like theists, so his comment is just not relevant at all. Indian religion is something that is not taught in most public schools but it should be.

Anonymous said...

The truth is Indians -- as most indigenous people around the world -- were extremely backwards both in their technological developments and at times brutal and barbaric sense of morality.

I would argue that "backwards" and barbarism are in the eye of the beholder and, as stated, is in no way a defense of wanton enslavement, slaughter and brutality. I would point to the Iroquois and the later Iroquois Nation as an example that not all "Indians" around the world were inherently more brutal, ignorant or uncivilized savages than the European interlopers at the time of America's "discovery" and European settlement period.

That this and other N. American indigenous tribes/nations were not technologically advanced in the European sense has no bearing on their successful adaptation to their environment, including political organization, religion inter-tribe relations.

Was there bloodshed within and between tribes/nations? Of course. But on a European scale the overall brutality was much more limited - not having the luxury of losing hundreds or thousands at any given time. It should come as no surprise that many, if not all, N. American "Indians" considered the "civilized" European to be offensive and ignorant and brutal.

I believe that even Washington recognized the inherent rightness of treating the tribes with respect and in fairness.

The fact is that European superiority in weapons and warfare and European-style institutionalized suppression of "weaker" indigenous peoples exceeded the ability of indigenous populations to resist. And it couldn't be clearer that much of this was and today remains fueled by religious/cultural exceptionalism with Christianity playing a central organizing role (at least in the west).

No, there should be no Columbus Day. How about an American Day that includes the contributions and sacrifices of indigenous and non-indigenous alike and repudiates violence against one another? Maybe we could also initiate an on-going dialogue designed to weed out the stereotypes - would honest appraisal and construction of a more honest national myth be too much to ask?

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