I was going to school in the early days of the wane of Columbus Day as a holiday. For the first few years of grade school, we got the day off. After the second grade, we suddenly stopped. Instead it became a day for teachers to trot something out about how, “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and not much else.
In sixth grade, my teacher split the class into groups. Each group was assigned an explorer that reached North/South/Central America, and we had to put on presentations for other classes to explain why our explorer was the first to find America. The other students would then vote on who they thought was correct. (The Magellan group won, because they were the funniest and the last to go and 11-year-olds don’t have the best attention span. My group was Leif Erikson, and I will die on the hill of vikings being the first European explorers to North America. Plus I had a cool fake fur cloak. Weirdly, “the indigenous people who already lived here/discovered the place obviously first” were not a group that you could choose to be in.) The Columbus group obediently recited the same facts we had all learned throughout school: Columbus thought the world was round, but no one believed him! He was cruelly mocked in his native Italy, and it wasn’t until Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain believed in him that he had the chance to prove his theory. He took three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and after a harsh journey and mocking from even his own sailors, he discovered America! And that’s why we have Columbus Day today. This was the Truth According to the United States education system.
And then I got to the tenth grade, and my world was rocked.
My tenth grade US History teacher assigned us chapters from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in addition to chapters from our textbook. I can still remember sitting at a table in my high school cafeteria during a free period, pressing hard on the book so that the thick text would stay open, and learning that Columbus was a genocidal fuckhead.
I learned that pretty much everyone in the world knew that the world was round in his time.
I learned that Columbus was after gold and spices, not knowledge.
I learned that Columbus was trying to find a way around the Turkish control of the land route to Asia.
I learned that Columbus was terrible at math, and if he’d actually had to sail to Asia, he would have definitely died. But he lucked out and hit the Americas instead.
I learned that Columbus was promised ten percent of his profits and rule over the lands he found.
I learned that Columbus lied to shortchange the man that actually sighted land first, so that he could receive the reward for first sighting instead.
I learned that Columbus and his followers raped, enslaved, and murdered the natives they came across.
I learned that Columbus and his men made impossible demands of the native people, demanding gold that didn’t exist, and cutting off the hands of those that failed to get the nonexistent gold.
Like I said, my world was rocked. Somehow, in the many years of being taught every few years that all of the previous things I’d learned about history were a lie, I’d never learned about the massive lie around Columbus Day. And as I grew older, things only got worse. I learned more and more, and what I knew about Columbus grew worse and worse.
The Washington Post has an article on Columbus’ time with the Taino, and a from a contemporary account roughly ten years after Columbus first landed.
From the article,
So Columbus tried again for gold, but this time he and his men didn’t go looking for it. They ordered all Taino people 14 and older to deliver a certain amount of gold dust every three months. If they didn’t, their hands would be cut off. At this point, the Taino were refusing to grow crops, and those that didn’t bleed to death after their hands were removed began to die of famine and disease. When they fled into the mountains, they were hunted down by dogs. Many killed themselves with cassava poison.
Columbus and his men also continued to sexually abuse Taino women and girls. In 1500, Columbus wrote to an acquaintance that, “there are many dealers that go about looking for girls; those from nine to 10 are now in demand.”
And from the contemporary account by Bartolome de las Casas in 1502:
They [Spanish explorers] forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow from their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by their feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders, shouting, ‘Wriggle, you little perisher.’
Between direct actions and smallpox, 90% of the Taino population was killed following Spanish conquest. Columbus is also indirectly responsible for the growth of the slave trade. When the original Taino and other indigenous people that he transported over to Europe and that he forced to labor on their original land proved to be too “weak” and died too quickly from mistreatment, they began to import African slaves en masse.
In short, Columbus was a monster. He’s directly or indirectly responsible for the maiming, enslavement, rape, and death of thousands and even millions of people. He was, in the words of Eddie Izzard, “a genocidal fuckhead… with bunny rabbit ears.”
Which is why I find it so goddamn confusing that efforts to replace Columbus Day (which never should have happened in the first place, and is a mix between the inventive mind of Washington Irving and a desire by Italian Americans to be a little bit less hated, aka start being considered white) with Indigenous Peoples’ Day often get met with indifference at best and hostility at worst.
Trying to rename Columbus Day in honor of the people that he slaughtered has been labeled a volley in the “culture war.” Throwing paint on statues of Columbus has been compared to ISIS destroying cultural monuments. The people who want Columbus Day renamed have been called hysterical SJWs, cultural terrorists, and idiots.
Notably, almost all of the people slinging that mud are white.
I genuinely can’t imagine the kind of cultural trauma caused by a figure like Columbus, let alone the additional trauma of having a holiday named after him. And I also can’t imagine having people shrug off or even insult that trauma.
It isn’t hysterical to point out that Columbus was a genocidal monster unworthy of celebration. It’s history. And even though his misdeeds happened hundreds of years ago, the results of his actions are still reverberating today. And what we decide to celebrate, whether it be in the form of statues, media, or holidays, says a lot about who we are and what we value. We can’t move forward if we are still glorifying the most terrible parts of our past.
Signed: Feminist Fury
Featured image is a “the more you know” meme reading “Columbus was a Genocidal Fuckhead.”