- Holidays and Celebrations
Columbus vs. Indigenous Peoples Day - Is it Time to Change the Calendar?
I don't get the hype behind Christopher Columbus. The truth is that I never did, and it isn't completely about politics or human rights violations. Yes, he did commit unspeakable atrocities against indigenous peoples, but it pains me to say that all sorts of similar atrocities occurred in the United States of America, and which famous guy do you point the finger at first? This is not to say I am good with such deeds or advocate them, it's just that I recognize their ugly reality in American history.
No, my real beef with Columbus is that he gets too much credit for accomplishments he stumbled upon by accident. He was a horrible geographer and navigator who miscalculated the size of the planet. Even the ancient Greeks knew the size of the Earth to within a respectable margin of error, but Columbus thought the globe was significantly smaller than what learned people throughout the world knew to be true. That was why he was looking for India in a place that India wasn't, and as should have been expected he didn't find it there. It is true that we all lived happily ever after because of his miscalculation, but to say he was a groundbreaking visionary whose wild ideas were ultimately vindicated is just laying it on too thick.
Christopher Columbus"s true skill was as a snake oil salesman. Simply put, he sold King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella a bill of goods, by somehow convincing them to finance a voyage that would find the riches of India halfway around the world from it. In this fashion he accidentally discovered America, and that is why we name movie studios, universities, state capitals, even entire countries after him; even progressing to the insanity of giving him his own day. I'll confess I enjoy getting this paid federal holiday off as much as the next guy and don't want to jinx it. All the same, whether it be white man's guilt or recognition that there is a significant component of our American heritage that has been left unfairly ignored for centuries, I have come to support the idea that we should redirect this day toward the indigenous people that this highly overrated European so brutally pushed aside.
If Christopher Columbus was alive today we would call him a conspiracy theorist, classifying him in the same category as the Apollo moon mission debunkers or Hollow Earth advocates. He was not a trained scholar, but he read a lot of books, and read them wrong. In his befuddled interpretations of ancient texts he confused the 7,091 Arabic nautical mile for the 4,856 foot Roman one, a misreading that reduced the planet's circumference by roughly 5,000 nautical miles, in Columbus's overly optimistic scenario. Without doubt he wasn't very good at the chart making job he used to support himself prior to being Admiral of the Ocean Sea, but he possessed the redeeming quality of arguing loudly enough and long enough to drown out reasonable people who disagreed with him. In this fashion he gained an audience with the King and Queen of Spain and managed to force feed them his half baked theories on terrestrial geography.
Columbus may have been a keen proponent of Nostradamus as well if the famed seer had not been born only three years before the explorer's death, because he used prophecies as part of the basis for his proposed explorations. As part of his attempt to sell his scheme to the monarchs of Spain, Columbus cited a passage of Scripture making the claim that the world is six parts Earth to one part water. If he lived today Chris Columbus might make a killing selling books on George Noory late night Coast to Coast AM talk radio, but we definitely would not give him his own day. Imagine Columbus in 2015, going before the President and trying to sell him on a quick trip to Mars because, in his estimation, the red planet was only 25 million, not 33.9 million miles away. The professional astronomers would laugh him out of the room.
To excuse Columbus's lack of geographical acumen, the idea has been circulated throughout American history that in the explorer's time everyone believed the Earth was flat, and that he fought an uphill battle trying to convince folks that it is actually round. Even though I was taught this notion like gospel in elementary school, it is not true. Again, from the time of the Greeks onward everybody with half a brain knew that the Earth was a sphere. Mathematicians had proven this and then tested it time and time again. If Ferdinand and Isabella really had to be convinced the Earth was not flat they were the victims of really bad royal family inbreeding, which considering that era I should allow a margin of possibility for.
As an indication of Columbus's less than astute interpretation of the proper configuration of the Earth's landmasses, the great navigator was eventually discredited for having missed his mark, not to mention the gold and spices, by several thousand miles. Even so, the Admiral swore to his dying day that he had found India and should be richly compensated for it. It was only years later, after conquistadores under Cortez discovered massive amounts of gold in Mexico and conquistadores under Pizarro in Peru found the same, that Columbus' status was reversed and he began to be revered as a hero.
American history was written by the victors of our three century battle against its native peoples, meaning white Europeans. Up until very recently, the prevailing view of the conquerors was that Christopher Columbus was an enlightened explorer who simply was trying to increase mankind's knowledge while at the same time bringing the blessings of Christianity to the brown skinned inhabitants of the islands he discovered. When I was a boy, I read children's versions of Columbus's explorations that made it sound like the natives were delighted with his visit and went out of their way to live in happy harmony with the godsend of Spanish occupation. It is only very recently that historians have reevaluated Columbus's deeds in a more critical light, exposing his brutal treatment not only of the indigenous people that he encountered, but also of the Spanish colonists under his charge as Viceroy.
Columbus did not waste time demonstrating the transformations that European civilization would bring about. The explorer himself wrote "As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts." This, after the Arawak natives reportedly ran to greet the Spaniards on the shore, generously bearing them food, water, and gifts.
In no uncertain terms, Columbus was looking for gold. He had promised gold and spices to the King and Queen and if he had to take a few hostages to get at them then so be it. The Arawaks had the great misfortune of wearing gold earrings around the avaricious Spaniards, and spurred on by this little tease the conquerors spared nobody in their insane, lustful desire to get to the source of the precious metal.
On his second voyage to the New World Columbus returned with 17 ships and 1200 men, looking for gold and slaves. The conquerors loaded Arawaks into pens surrounded by Spaniards and dogs, and began to ship "Indians" back to Spain to put them up for sale. All natives fourteen and over on the island of Hispaniola, in what is now the half of the island known as Haiti, were ordered to deliver a certain quantity of gold every three months, on pain of having their hands cut off. Since there were no significant gold deposits on Haiti, Indians were hunted down with dogs and killed when they fled this cruel treatment. In two years after the arrival of the Europeans half of the natives on Hispaniola were dead through murder or suicide after being worked to death on plantations or in the mines. By 1550, 58 years after "In the year of 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue," a pleasant little rhyme most of us were taught in the first grade, the Arawaks were completely exterminated.
Accusations of brutality against Columbus and his brothers were also made by Spanish settlers on Hispaniola, reports being leveled that they used torture and mutilation to govern the colony. Columbus's brother Bartolome had a woman paraded through the streets naked, and afterward cut out her tongue for suggesting that Christopher was of low birth. The Columbus regime punished thieves with physical mutilation. I didn't read about any of these unsettling events in the cheery pro-Columbus propaganda picture books I checked out in the elementary school library.
Learn the truths they didn't teach you in school...
Despite the darker, seedier, glossed over portions of Columbus's history, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea has been widely lauded and celebrated in the United States and other countries across the planet. The reason I am up late, feverishly trying to finish this article, is because I don't have to work tomorrow, thanks to good old Chris Columbus. The federal holiday he secured for me and other federal employees (in California it is not a recognized state holiday), was finally enacted in 1934 after heavy lobbying by Italian Americans and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization.
I'm not here to criticize Catholics, being a Catholic too, but I have always questioned the need for grown men to gather in secret boy's clubs like the Knights of Columbus, with its secret handshakes, secret decoder rings, and the opportunity to level up if you play long enough and skillfully enough. But in respect to secrecy didn't Christ say "...whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12:3)"? What was decided in the secret inner rooms of these organizations is that Catholics needed a holiday for for one of their heroes, particularly an Italian hero. In case I neglected to mention it, assuming that this fact was beaten into your head right after the pledge of allegiance as it was into mine every October, Christopher Columbus was an Italian sailing for Spain.
It seems like the Italians could have picked a better candidate for a holiday. Julius Caesar, perhaps? Michelangelo the brilliant sculptor, Enrico Fermi the physicist, Marconi of radio fame, or if you insist upon an explorer or geographer, why not Marco Polo or even Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer from whom our American continents derive their name and who turned out to be the "smart" Italian navigator who finally corrected Columbus's mistakes and confirmed that the Americas were a landmass separate from Asia.
Or maybe we have enough Europeans on the calendar already. Maybe it is time to revisit a much neglected part of our American heritage and give credit where credit is due.
Just recently I saw on a Facebook post that the city of Seattle, Washington had changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Since 1977, when the idea was first proposed at a United Stations forum in Geneva, Switzerland, an Indigenous Peoples Day movement has been growing in native populations across the Americas, among whom Christopher Columbus is viewed not as a national hero, but as an instrument of genocide and enslavement. The holiday was first enacted in Berkeley, California in 1992, and is slowly gathering steam as Americans from my day and age learn the truth behind the unblemished pictures of the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and a new generation of schoolchildren is taught a new version of history that includes the dark side of the Columbus story.
Some municipalities, such as San Francisco, California, have ditched the Columbus Day label in favor of less offensive holiday names, such as Italian Heritage Day. Other cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, of all places, have simply canceled all parades, festivities, and other forms of recognition of the event completely.
Being an overpaid and underworked federal employee, I of course believe that the second Monday in October should continue to be celebrated in perpetuity, but with a different purpose. Instead of feting the lost mapmaker, why not honor the legacy of the people whose extermination Columbus initiated when he landed on the island of San Salvador in 1492? This little comeuppance is not much to give back to proud people who were killed outright, sold into slavery, worked to death on mines and plantations, then decimated by European diseases, but Columbus is definitely a thorn in their sides who, in my opinion, doesn't merit the recognition - based on his record as a bad geographer, but mostly as a cruel plunderer and murderer of native populations.