Monday, October 20, 2008

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

I realize that Columbus Day is more than a week in the past, but I thought it might be a good way to kick things off anew here at the American Revolution Blog.

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...

1 comment:

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