Columbus Day celebrates a legacy worth forgetting

“Columbus: The Four Voyages” by Lawrence Bergreen, left, “Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus” by James W. Loewen and “Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus?” by Jean Fritz all portray the Italian explorer from various perspectives. Penguin Publishing Group, The New Press, Putnam

Opinion: Columbus Day honors a man who used extreme violence and brutality to enslave the original inhabitants of a land where millions of indigenous people lived for 100’s of years prior to his arrival. He killed them, took their riches and forced them to convert to Catholicism for his own personal gain and recognition. His deeds are a travesty and his legacy a disgrace–eliminating Columbus Day in the United States, is long overdue.

This year, Monday, October 12 commemorates the journey of Christopher Columbus, who “Sailed the Ocean Blue” and purportedly discovered the Americas in 1492–or so the story goes. For decades, this federal holiday has been a way for many to honor Columbus’ achievements and celebrate their Italian American heritage.

Yet, like with all stories, separating myth from the truth can be difficult. Understanding how history has been shaped by those who have vested interests can be eye-opening. Delving into Columbus’ background, we see a vastly different picture of the “friendly explorer” than we have been conditioned to know throughout our lives.

Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, and had a passion for the sea. He began his career as a merchant marine, traveling extensively as a seagoing entrepreneur. He became determined to find a more direct trade route to Japan, China and the East Indies that was easier to navigate and could prove to be immensely profitable with fabled gold and spices.

At the time, there wasn’t a direct sea route to southern Asia from Europe, and the route via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed to Europeans by the Ottoman Empire, as were many land routes.

He approached the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella for help in financing his voyage. They finally agreed to sponsor all four of his journeys in hopes that Columbus’ success would bring great wealth and power to Spain and spread the word of christianity.

Columbus set off on his first journey, with his crew on three ships, the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta. One of the sailors of his crew spotted land, which of course Columbus claimed he saw first. They landed in what would become the Bahamas having miscalculated his route to the West Indies—never setting foot on the North American continent.

On the island, he encountered the natives, the Lucayans, a branch of the Taínos who had a highly developed society with their own language, government, religion, craft traditions and extensive trade routes. They inhabited most of the Caribbean Islands for over 800 years before Columbus arrived.

They greeted him warmly and offered his crew food and water, he mistakenly believed he had reached the East Indies calling the Taíno people Indians. In return for their hospitality, he offered them glass beads and pottery, then in October 1492, Columbus claimed the land for Spain.

Columbus kept a journal of his four trips and the entries paint a picture of a man who saw that the peaceful inhabitants were not familiar with weapons of steel. He believed that he could easily take possession of them in the name of the monarchs and the Holy Trinity, with little opposition; stating “we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Afterward, he kidnapped a few inhabitants and sailed away to explore other islands occupied with indigenous people. In March 1493, he finally returned to Spain bringing gold, spices and Taíno captives. This was the first of three journeys in which he continued to lead more brutal and sadistic acts.

On subsequent trips, he explored Antigua, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, and other islands before landing at Hispaniola. There he and his crew committed horrendous atrocities against the indigenous people. They rounded up 1,500 men, women and children and put them in pens to be shipped back to Spain and sold, many died en route.

Columbus’ reputation for cruelty had no limits. In his desperate pursuit of gold, he ordered all natives 14 years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months—those who didn’t would have their hands cut off, even though there was virtually no gold around.

A priest, Bartolome de las Casas describes how the Spaniards rode on the backs of natives and thought nothing of stabbing them and cutting slices off their flesh to test the sharpness of their blades.

Indians that were taken captive were hung or burned and eventually because of the torture they endured, they began committing mass suicides. Even fed cassava poison to their infants to save them from the Spanish.

Columbus’ future trips to the Caribbean Islands brought about more cruelty, murder, mutilation and suicides that decimated the Indigenous population.

History of Columbus Day

Columbus was not the first explorer, almost 500 years before the birth of Christopher Columbus, a Norse explorer from Iceland named Leif Eriksson charted and led a voyage to North America.

The Library of Congress documents the first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States on October 12, 1792, commemorating the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. It was organized by the Society of St. Tammany, a fraternal society which was also known as the Columbian Order.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage which inspired the first official Columbus Day holiday in the United States and destigmatized Italian Americans who had been discriminated against. During the anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used the day to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic teachings were framed around themes of support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation and celebrating social progress.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely in part because of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization. Since 1971, Columbus Day has been designated as the second Monday in October and is now recognized as a federal holiday.

Change is in the Air

Since the 1977 United Nations conference on discrimination, groups have sought an alternative holiday to the controversial Columbus Day, which has become known for the mistreatment and colonization of Native Americans. Now, Indigenous Peoples Day has been adopted and observed by at least 14 states, 10 universities and more than 130 cities across 34 states.

In the last six months, a wave of anti-racism protests has occurred after George Floyd’s death and numerous other cases of police brutality against African Americans. Activists have torn down or vandalized many of the Columbus statues across the country claiming that they glorify acts of slavery and colonialism.

In 2019, Gavin Newsome proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day to take the place of Columbus Day in California, however, it was just for one day and did not rewrite state laws. In June of this year, California legislative leaders removed a statue of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella from the Capitol rotunda where it was installed 137 years ago.

Columbus never set foot on what would become the United States and was not the first person to find the Americas. He took the land and riches from the inhabitants of the Indigenous people, killing thousands and enslaving countless others. His journey encouraged centuries of exploitation, and torture of Native Americans and brought diseases that almost decimated them.

Yet, Columbus is still honored as a hero. It is time to take a stand for what a hero means in our country and honor the lives of the Indigenous individuals who suffered from his cruel, barbaric actions and pay respect to their descendants who continue to fight for a change.

In my opinion, the facts speak for themself, renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is the only way to correct centuries of misinformation.

Learn more about Indigenous Peoples Day and find ways to celebrate, plus enjoy one of the many online events or virtual events from the comfort of your home.