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It seems that everyone on campus is looking forward to enjoying a three-day weekend. Columbus Day will be observed on Monday, freeing most students from the burdens of classes and work for an extra day.
I doubt that many students will truly "celebrate" Columbus Day; most probably won't think twice about the seafaring explorer on Monday. Yet, this holiday does confer hero status on Christopher Columbus, and it reflects the values and historical consciousness of our society.
Most Americans probably don't know much more about Columbus than the romanticized account of him they learn in grade school--that in 1492, he sailed out courageously from Spain, bound for India, but ended up discovering the New World. Every October, his holiday is supposed to commemorate a high point in Western history.
Well, it's time to shatter that idealized myth. When Columbus arrived on Cuba, Hispaniola and other islands in the Caribbean he instituted shockingly cruel and genocidal policies which rapidly decimated the populations of indigenous Arawak Indians. He was also a slave trader, and his own words condemn him. Furthermore, the claim that he "discovered" the New World is dubious--he accidentally came into contact with a culture that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years.
One of Columbus' first observations of the Arawak men and women who greeted him peacefully in the Caribbean was that "[t]hey would make fine servants....With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." He also believed that the Indians would be able to provide him with the immense quantities of gold he was seeking. When he returned to Spain, he promised the Spanish royals that he would return from his next vogage with "as much gold as they need...and as many slaves as they ask."
Although Columbus made good on his word to send back many slaves, most of the Arawaks perished on the transatlantic journey or soon after their arrival in Spain. So he threw his energy into collecting gold. In Haiti, he ordered that all Indians over age 14 surrender a quota of gold every three months. The quota was unattainable--gold did not exist in the quantities that Columbus imagined. Nevertheless, Indians who did not meet the quota had their hands cut off and bled to death.
When Arawaks began to resist in large numbers, the Spanish easily defeated them with their superior weaponry. Prisoners were hanged or burned to death. The rest of the Indians were rounded up for use as slave labor, some on estates and some in mines. They were worked so mercilessly that one-third died from exhaustion within eight months. In desperation, many Arawaks began to commit suicide, and some mothers even killed their own children in desperation. Those who ran away were hunted down and killed.
Much of the information on Columbus' brutality was recorded by Bartoleme de las Cases, a Spanish priest who witnessed the conquest firsthand. He wrote that the Spanish "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." He recorded a story of two Spaniards who met two Arawak boys carrying parrots; the parrots were seized and the boys were beheaded "for fun." He also wrote: "[O]ur work was to exasperate, ravaage, kill, mangle and destroy...[Columbus] was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians...."
By 1515, on Hispaniola alone, war and slavery had killed 200,000 Arawaks, or 80 percent of the original population, by conservative estimates. Eventually, all of the natives were wiped out. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison has written that the "cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."
Every time we observe Columbus Day, we pay homage to this genocidal madman. Fortunately, his bloody, forgotten legacy has begun to surface lately. In 1992, protests drastically muted the celebrations of the 500 year anniversary of his arrival in the Caribbean. Such protests are often jeered as "political correctness." But the historical record flatly contradicts this knee-jerk response. Certainly Columbus is not a hero because of his genocidal policies. And when you understand the extent of his barbarism, it is hard to view him as a hero in spite of his crimes. Such a flippant trivialization of mass murder would legitimize celebrating Hitler and Stalin as well.
Columbus Day may not be erased from our calenders anytime soon. But perhaps we should reflect on some of his forgotten victims this Monday. A good source for more information is A People's History of the United States, written by Howard Zinn, which provided the basis for this synopsis of Columbus' cruelty. Las Casas' History of the Indies provides a primary account. If we are to be educated citizens, we cannot passively accept the whitewashed myths of our society.
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