Home Opinion OPINION: Columbus Day: A celebration of colonial genocide

OPINION: Columbus Day: A celebration of colonial genocide

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Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Opinion Editor Tim Zelina argues Columbus Day is an archaic and offensive celebration of one of history’s worst monsters.

Midnight tonight marks the end of another successful Columbus Day. Yeah, chances are you might not have even realized that was today, because unless you’re in first grade, it’s literally just another ordinary day.

In fact, it’s likely you only know it’s Columbus Day because of people trashing it on social media. Columbus Day’s unpopularity is growing so much that even Columbus, Ohio has voted to stop celebrating the holiday. But just why has Columbus Day become so controversial?

Anyone who went to school probably learned of Columbus Day as the celebration of the noble intrepid explorer who, despite all obstacles, managed to discover a brand new continent and usher in an age of prosperity and exploration for all of Europe.

The Indigenous populations of America understand Columbus Day as the shameless celebration of a tyrannical, genocidal bigot whose lack of basic geographic knowledge led to the murder and enslavement of their ancestors.

Maybe it’s time to move on to honoring someone else.

Columbus Day has its roots in, of course, the ‘discoverer’ of the Americas, Christopher Columbus. His historical legend largely consists of misconceptions, Eurocentric historiography and, of course, the relics of colonial racism.

Columbus’s mythology began when he stormed around Europe begging nobles and merchants to fund an endeavor to discover a new route to India by sailing West. According to popular history, he was turned away by monarch after monarch until he finally found faith who thought the idea you could sail from Europe to India was ridiculous since you’d just run off the edge of the Earth. These simple charlatans could not grasp the revolutionary insight our friend Columbus knew: the world is round!

Despite what our elementary school teachers may say, already we run into an insultingly patronizing myth of what our ancestors believed. No, your average noble or navigator did not believe the world was flat. The whole process of ocean navigation is entirely dependent on the knowledge the world is round. Try sailing across the Mediterranean assuming the world is flat. You won’t end up anywhere near where you expect.

Columbus was not some misunderstood genius rallying against the ignorance of his countrymen. He was an ordinary sailor who could not grasp the size and scale of the ocean. He was not rejected because people wouldn’t understand his genius; he was rejected because the navigators who actually knew basic geography understood that if Columbus tried to sail to India, he would die.

You see, our ancestors are no less clever than we are. They knew two things: one, the world is round. It’s kind of a given. They also figured out, by measuring stars and shadows, you could come to a pretty close approximation of how big the world was. This wasn’t some recent Renaissance revelation; this was what the Ancient Greeks discovered, and anyone with an education in trade or navigation was taught this very early on.

Imagine if instead of the Americas between Europe and Asia, there was nothing but ocean. Now imagine trying to sail a 15th-century schooner from Spain, across that ocean, all the way to India.

You would die. Now you might understand why no one wanted to finance Columbus’s expedition.

Yet, Columbus persevered, despite everyone telling him no, you’re gonna die, and finally, the Queen of Castile, Isabella, folded. She and her husband Ferdinand were desperate to outmaneuver the trading cliques in the Mediterranean, so they figured it was at least worth a try. She gave him a handful of dinky ships and told him to do whatever you want, with the caveat if he didn’t die that whatever he finds belongs to the Crown. As a reward, he gets to be the Steward of whatever land he discovers.

Columbus sailed off, certain he’d discover a new passage to India and become the hero of Christian Europe. Unsurprisingly, Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic turned dark fast. You see, those navigators he ignored weren’t wrong. The space between India and Europe was vast, and Columbus didn’t have enough supplies on hand to make it even a quarter of the way.

Yet, divine providence granted mercy to an individual who deserved none. Low on supplies and on the verge of having to turn back or die, one of Columbus’s crewmen spotted land! By sheer luck, there was an entire continent between India and Europe that would save Columbus and his crew from a miserable death on the high seas.

A testament to his character, Columbus would later tell Isabella he was the one who laid eyes on the new world, so he could win the lifetime pension offered to whoever first spotted new land for the Crown. Great guy!

Columbus, of course, thought this was India because he’s a moron who doesn’t understand geography; even under his own calculations, this was too close to be India. Regardless, he called the local people indios, or Indians. One of the first things he noticed was their gold jewelry, and like the gracious guest he is, kidnapped some natives and threatened to kill them if they didn’t show him where the gold was. The natives, who didn’t use gold for anything but decoration, were like alright buddy, you could’ve just asked.

Columbus’s immediate reflections on having discovered an entirely new world reveal an even darker side to his character. He was not interested in their culture, or language, or beliefs. His primary observation can be boiled down to a single concept: these people would make great slaves! So excited was he to demonstrate this fact to Isabella that he kidnapped some thirty natives and ferried them back to Iberia. Most died on the voyage, herded like cattle into damp, dark quarters below deck.

The rest of Columbus’s career is conveniently left out of out sun-shiny middle school history textbooks. He would return to the Americas multiple times, exploring not out of curiosity, but to enslave, seize gold, and slaughter any natives who opposed him. He was a disgusting tyrant who raped women and mutilated natives who he perceived as disrespectful.

So outrageous were his actions that the Crown of Spain even found him too much to handle, and imprisoned him for several years for his cruelties. If you manage to be so brutal you offend the dynasty of Reconquista and Inquisition, chances are you’re a uniquely terrible person.

Columbus would be directly responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths, and the enslavement and displacement of hundreds of thousands. His murderous rampage across the Americas only ended when he was finally taken out by gout. But the legacies of his and his allies’ actions would define the indigenous struggle for autonomy and dignity for generations.

It is not an exaggeration to say celebrating Columbus Day is the equivalent of making a Jefferson Davis or George Wallace day. It’s not necessarily out of character for America to honor dishonorable individuals; after all, Andrew Jackson, who committed genocide and blatantly violated the constitution, is plastered on our $20 bills. Still, you’d think in our racially conscious nation, we’d have moved on from celebrating this individual.

Even beyond the stained character of the person being honored, Columbus Day itself is a patronizing and insulting concept. The day is meant to honor the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, a blatantly Eurocentric view that acts as if Indigenous Americans were not a part of the human world until the enlightened Europeans bestowed them with slavery and smallpox. It is, however, frustrating that such an unlikeable figure, who didn’t even interact with the continental United States, is given a day of national celebration.

The day is, essentially, in honor of colonialism, which to the native population was simply centuries of unabridged slavery, tyranny, and genocide. It’s not as if the American government doesn’t still suppress and abuse its native population; after all, even progressive darling Barack Obama sided with oil executives over native land rights. It’s a time-honored tradition in America to treat the native population as a disposable commodity.

But Columbus Day is especially egregious as an unapologetic, state-sanctioned celebration of slavery, genocide, and dehumanization of the native population of the Americas. Our nation has already destroyed the indigenous nations, slaughtered their people, and herded the survivors onto sickeningly depressed reservations. Do we really need to celebrate these crimes too?

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