Columbus Day means several things to Americans of today.
To high school students like myself, it means one day off from the
excruciatingly painful wonderful privilege of compulsory education. To others, it means fabulous sales and a time to get your shopping craze on. And most people are aware that some guy named Christopher Columbus found our beautiful and lush continent of North America (not true, by the way, he never reached North America), planting the seeds of the most wonderful country that the world has ever seen. It’s not wrong to think that the so-called discoverer of the New World would be a pretty cool dude if you knew nothing about Columbus.
Nowadays, it’s quite easy to hop on a computer and look up reliable information on the Internet, given that you look around the right places. So the fact that Christopher Columbus was, contrary to what’s taught in elementary education, a pretty big jerk and not that great of a guy shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone. Thankfully, a lot of people are now aware of that, and it’s not hard to find a person who will cheerfully destroy your romanticized visions of Columbus.
But let’s be real. You have two options. Both of which take a minimal amount of effort, but hey, in America, a minute of work makes all the difference, doesn’t it?
Option 1 is to look him up on Google or Wikipedia and trawl through sources or articles to figure out what made Columbus tick. Well, that’s too much work.
Or you could go with Option 2: you read this nice, brief, concise blog post that takes around a minute less of effort to accomplish than option 1.
So, to celebrate Columbus Day (at the time of writing), let’s talk about a man who, 2 days and 521 years ago, landed on an island in the Bahamas, ready to dominate some natives.
Columbus was described as a skilled Italian seafarer who (in)famously set off from Europe with three ships, trying to find the path to the Indies that practically every other adventurer at the time was trying to find. Unfortunately, because the big annoyance that is America was in the way, Columbus ran into an island on the Bahamas. It had already six weeks at sea, and the sailors are, at this point, in a bit of a pickle. Christopher Minster, in his synopsis of his namesake’s voyages, notes that while Rodrigo de Triana, one of the sailors, claimed to see the land first, Columbus overrode him and claimed the prize that was promised for whomever spotted land first.
The kicker of that part of the story is that Columbus offered the reward himself. But we can’t judge a man based on one action. Let’s keep going.
Columbus immediately assumed that he just missed the outskirts of the “Indies,” and in a display of astonishing cultural sensitivity for the time, he dubbed the natives as Indians, a name that stuck for a very long time.
Columbus didn’t really treat the natives that nicely, nor was he a fun guy to hang out with. Perhaps foreshadowed by the island sighting incident, he was a terrible captain, and Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post notes that “he committed atrocities against native peoples on the islands and decimated their populations.” Many Native Americans died by his hand, and when he left the island for the last time, he certainly did not leave it as nicely as it was before. My chemistry teacher would beat the Italian out of him.
To be fair, he did usher in the age of exploration of the New World, speeding up the process of America being number 1 by quite a bit. But by doing so, he brought a whole bunch of Spanish explorers who then proceeded on to the actual American continent and did their thing, destroying great civilizations like the Aztecs and making sure everybody had a hard time except for them.
People died, some wars happened, time passed, and now here we are today, celebrating a man who was wrong about what he had discovered, didn’t even discover what we credit him for discovering, and displayed rather tyrannical behavior against his peers and the natives.
Christopher Columbus is undeniably a catalyst of the eventual foundation of America, and he deserves the credit. But whenever Columbus Day comes around, you should keep in mind just what kind of guy he was. I certainly enjoyed my day off, thinking about how Columbus essentially destroyed the native population to allow me a 24 hour long respite from education. Totally worth it.
Bailey, Thomas Andrew, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.
Currier, N. The landing of Columbus Oct. 11th 1492.
Minster, C. The First New World Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1492). http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/latinamericatheconquest/p/Columbusfirst.htm
Strauss, V. Christopher Columbus: 3 things you think he did that he didn’t. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/14/christopher-columbus-3-things-you-think-he-did-that-he-didnt/