Photograph by Nicolas Demeersman, follow him at Instagram @ndemeers
What do the following cities and towns—Burbank and Los Angeles, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Oak Park, Illinois; Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Maine; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Farmington, New Mexico; Ithaca, New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Edmonds, Washington—have in common?
They have all, within the last month, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In so doing, these municipalities have joined the cities of Denver, Phoenix, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Seattle; the states of Alaska, South Dakota, and Vermont; and various countries in South America that have taken a dramatic first step toward foregrounding the history of Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Perhaps it is time for other cities, towns, states, counties, businesses, colleges, universities, and school districts throughout the United States to do the same.
Christopher Columbus is not a hero worthy of a national holiday, nor any parades. He is not a hero by fifteenth-century standards, nor twenty-first century standards. Columbus was incompetent and immoral. A self-promoting opportunist, he set out to find people to conquer and convert to his own religious dogma. In fact, he misinterpreted and created his own version of Christianity. He was truly a supporter of colonialism and all that goes along with it—rape, murder, enslavement, warfare, violence, control, conquest, and, yes, genocide.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Columbus had at least two goals: converting Indigenous peoples in the Americas and raising enough money to help reconquer Jerusalem for religious zealots.
Columbus ran an effective public relations campaign. No one knows exactly how or when Columbus came up with the idea of sailing west to find a trade route to Asia. At the time, he was a petty trader and mapmaker in Portugal.
He married an aristocratic wife in Portugal, helping him gain status and respect in the eyes of other nobles. He was persistent, having spent years lobbying in the royal courts in Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese had already found a trade route to Asia, around the southern tip of Africa, and were not interested in Columbus’s plans. Spain on the other hand was busy trying to expel all Muslims out of the country.
After eight years of lobbying, and after the Muslims were defeated, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed finally to fund Columbus’s expedition in 1492. Columbus presented maps, based upon calculations of the ancient Greek philosopher Ptolemy, Marco Polo, the European who had visited Asia hundreds of years earlier, and his interpretation of the Christian Bible.
Columbus secured numerous concessions from the Spanish rulers including the right to govern and rule over whatever territories he discovered and a percentage (10%) of all profits received as a result of the voyage. He convinced Spain to support him, although most of his geographic theories were unusual. Most educated Europeans knew that the world was round, although no one expected there to be large continents blocking a western passage to Asia. Educated Europeans believed the world was about 24,000 miles in circumference, meaning 10,000 miles separated Europe’s west coast from Asia’s east coast (too far to sail in the small ships of the time). Columbus, using his understanding of the Bible and other ancient sources, argued instead that the world was much smaller, and that Asia was only 3000 miles away. In fact, his misunderstanding of geography motivated his voyage.
Although he was a foreigner with limited experience in sailing or navigation, he convinced the Spanish to support him. He won support even though the Spanish advisors to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand recommended otherwise.
During his voyages, he promised a large sum of money (about the equivalent of $1500 today) to the crewmember who spotted the Asian landmass first. While he initially credited this sighting to Juan Rodrigo Bermejo, Columbus later rescinded this offer, claiming instead that he had seen land a few hours earlier. Indeed, Columbus knew how important this would be in terms of fame and fortune.
Columbus also recognized the power of names. He immediately called the Indigenous people of the area Indians, in an attempt to reinforce his assumption that he had landed in Asia. He renamed islands after Spanish monarchs or Christian holy days, to win favor and support. He also renamed himself, Christopher, meaning “Christ-bearer.”
After his first voyage, Columbus emphasized the most potentially profitable aspects of the islands. He pointed out that the Indigenous peoples were easily conquered and enslaved, to work for and bring wealth to the Spanish government. He also argued that they deserved this treatment, because they lacked civilization (no clothes, wheels, weapons) and because they were pagans (enslavement might lead to Christianization).
He exaggerated the amount of gold and silver he found while in the Americas (a few pieces of jewelry). He claimed to have found useful plants and products in the New World, misidentifying some and exaggerating the abundance of others. He prepared and published a written report of his voyages soon after his return (he had received a hero’s welcome in Spain) and capitalized on this fame and goodwill. Europeans read his accounts, and other explorers sailed west. Columbus displayed captured Indians peoples before the king and queen, and brought back samples of plants and spices he found there to enhance his fame.
On return trips, he brought larger numbers of Spanish colonizers with him. Columbus could not control them, they mistreated Indians, and conflicts erupted. Some Spanish returned to Spain and criticized Columbus; they reported to the king and queen negatively. As a result, Columbus failed to win the allegiance or support of Indian populations. In fact, he periodically kidnapped Indians to display before Spanish authorities and to work as slaves under the encomienda system he implemented. He was responsible for bringing the first enslaved peoples across the Atlantic. When Indians fought back, he responded ferociously with attack dogs and swords, killing unarmed Indigenous people with impunity. He bragged about his behavior.
The Taíno and Arawak peoples were decimated by his actions—warfare and enslavement, not just the diseases that Columbus and his men brought to the Americas. Prisoners were often hanged and burned to death. As noted war historian Samuel Eliot Morison pointed out in 1955, “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
Columbus enslaved hundreds of Indians, which upset Spanish authorities, who had hoped to peacefully Christianize the Indians. Spanish authorities also viewed the Indians as subjects over whom Columbus had no rights. Columbus failed to maintain regular contact with the king and queen; he spent much time in the Americas attempting to stabilize his colonies; and he even refused to return to Spain when summoned. Contemporary observers, especially some priests, criticized Columbus for his mistreatment of Indians. The king and queen, based on unchallenged negative reports about him, stripped Columbus of his governing authority, and he was brought back to Spain in chains.
Columbus died on May 20, 1506, at the age of 55, never realizing that he found a new continent rather than a shorter route to Asia. In fact, when other Europeans critiqued his view, Columbus clung to his thinking. He still had money, but had lost his royal titles and much of his prestige.
If there are traits and abilities for which we should remember Columbus, they are his skills in public relations and his support of a militant church. His life informs us a great deal about the troubling history of contact, conquest, and slavery. He had introduced Europe to a source of riches that ultimately made it possible for Europe to surpass the Middle East in terms of wealth and political power: gold, slaves, minerals, agricultural products, and other goods from the Americas that helped finance European industrialization and further colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
To the people who still support Columbus Day, they should keep in mind that Columbus spent most of his life outside of Italy and never touched land that would become U.S. soil (he travelled to Hispaniola [Haiti and Dominican Republic] and other Caribbean islands, especially Cuba, and present day Venezuela). Furthermore, Columbus’s faults were many: he was a poor geographer, a cruel and incompetent administrator, and held misguided goals and religious views. If we choose to overlook behavior, there are likely better candidates to honor—men such as Ferdinand Magellan, for example.
Columbus’s life and actions are representative of the tremendous and horrific violence and enslavement brought about by the nation-state. If we are to interrogate that history, much of which is still getting played out in the present in the United States, perhaps it is time to foreground the history of Indigenous peoples in the Americas over Christopher Columbus as a key first step. Indeed, adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day for every city, school district, county, and state is a no-brainer and truly low-hanging fruit. Making such as statement would not only give hope to Native Americans but also set a higher bar for our national heroes and holidays.
Joel Helfrich teaches history at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.