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What your first grade teacher didn’t tell you about Christopher Columbus

Arts & Culture | October 18, 2010

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”
…and killed between 5 and 8 million people.

On October 12, children around the country will be reciting the popular poem whose opening line appears above, reenacting scenes of Columbus’ arrival in America, and filling in coloring books full of sail boats and treasure. They will go home happy but misinformed, with images of life at sea, untouched lands ready to be discovered, and kind natives presenting Columbus with gifts and welcoming him to their homeland. If you have never heard of Columbus’ more sinister actions and still believe him to be an admirable explorer, you are unfortunately among the majority.
When researching elementary school activities for Columbus Day, one that I came across includes a book entitled, The True Story of Christopher Columbus. This book is part of a series for those “who have left names for us to honor and revere, who have made the world better because they lived, and who have helped to make and to develop American freedom, strength and progress.” In light of the truth I have come to understand about Columbus, this seems a rather disturbing and wildly inaccurate description. Although it is true that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he is not the benevolent hero portrayed in American culture. In reality, as Ward Churchill points out in his novel Acts of Rebellion, Columbus instituted a “genocidal model of conquest and colonization” which was responsible for the death of millions of native people and has since been replicated across the globe.

Churchill goes on to explain that after Columbus’ initial trip in search of spice trade, he returned to Española (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1493 in order to procure riches for the King and Queen of Spain. Over the next three years, he “instituted policies of slavery (encomiendo) and systematic extermination against the native Taino population.” This genocide culminated in over 5 million deaths during Columbus’ time in Española and didn’t end for many years to come. Perhaps even more disturbing than the sheer loss of human life are the atrocities involved in this genocide. Under the tribute system instituted by Columbus in 1495, every Taino over the age of fourteen had to produce a hawk’s bell full of gold every three months or twenty-five pounds of spun cotton in gold-deficient areas. Those who failed had their hands cut off and were left to die slowly, bleeding from their severed limbs.

Historians estimate that upwards of 10,000 native people were killed in this manner in Española alone. Accounts from Bartolomé de las Casa, a Spanish Dominican priest who accompanied Columbus and witnessed his actions, speak of mass-hangings, roasting natives on spits or burning them at the stake, hacking children to pieces and using them as dog feed, and the slaughtering of entire villages. Of his experiences, the priest wrote, “I saw cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.” What, then, are we really celebrating on Columbus Day?

Many scholars compare Columbus’ actions to those of Adolf Hitler or Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi SS leader. In many ways, the genocides perpetuated by these men are similar: Himmler’s slaughter mills killed between twelve and fifteen million people based on their beliefs or ethnic background. Many deaths in both instances were caused by starvation, and unimaginable cruelties were committed. But why is it necessary to make this comparison? Merely looking at the facts of what occurred in Española provides enough information to illustrate that crimes against humanity were committed. Yet it seems there is a need to understand Columbus’ actions in the context of a genocide we are more familiar with, perhaps because it is difficult for us to digest the truth about a man considered by the United States government to be a national hero. Or is it because this genocide seems distant, having transpired so long ago in what is now another country, affecting a people who no longer exist due to one man’s actions?

To native people living in America today, this genocide is not so distant, and it initiated a history plagued by brutality and genocide. Many are familiar with The Trail of Tears or the fact that smallpox-laden blankets were once “gifted” to Native Americans. Less well-known is the continued oppression of Native Americans today. Humanity has not yet learned how to treat humankind. Perhaps we are fueled by the same desires as Columbus in 1492: greed, power, and domination. Or, maybe we have forgotten those instances in history which should teach us to treat our fellow human beings with decency and respect. The only other figure in our history who has a national holiday named after him is Martin Luther King Jr. If Dr. King were here today, would he stand for the celebration of a man whose actions harmed so many?

What do we do now? Do we take up arms against this holiday, hold protests, petition the government, make our voices heard and speak for the millions murdered and those who continue to be affected by the oppressive misunderstanding of Native American cultures? Or, is it enough to spread the truth about Christopher Columbus and make an earnest attempt to educate ourselves about oppression in effort to learn from past mistakes? At the very least, we should educate ourselves in the hope that we may finally become a nation which lives up to its founding ideals of equality and justice for all. The last line of the popular Columbus poem reads, “The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.” It seems to me that those who will speak out against this ridiculous holiday and oppose his actions are much braver than was a man who eradicated an entire civilization.