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1492 Revisited: The Real Story of Christopher Columbus

October 11, 2010 ·

A critical examination of what Americans are truly celebrating on Columbus Day.

When’s the last time you’ve celebrated the existence of a liar, slave trader, thief, and genocidaire? The answer may be more recent than you think. Columbus Day is just around the corner, and for most Americans it means a day off from work or school and perhaps a tip of the hat to one of the greatest discoverers of all time.

In the District of Columbia (named in honor Columbus) there will be a wreath laying ceremony at the Columbus Memorial Statue outside of Union Station, begin at 11 a.m. on October 11. Representatives from Spain and Italy intend to join with the public in celebrating the founder of the “New World.”

For some, however, the second Monday in October is nothing more than the propagation of a myth — one founded on the highly selective and imaginative interpretation of a very real and ugly historical event. Kurt Vonnegut summed it up well in Breakfast of Champions:

1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.

Columbus’s historic journey was intended to find a westwards route to Southeast Asia. Instead he landed in what is known today as the West Indies. There, he and his men began to steal from, murder, enslave, and rape the native populations.

Describing his victims, Columbus wrote, “They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features...They would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

On the subject of their generosity (naivety, to Columbus) he continues, “When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.”

The consequences of his attitude towards these people is well documented: the first European historian in the Americas estimated that at least 5 million indigenous people had been killed by the end of 1496, three years after Columbus was granted the position of “Viceroy and Governor” to rule over his newly claimed territories in the Caribbean. Within a generation after Columbus’s arrival the number of estimated deaths multiplied by three, to 15 million people.

Further reason to question this holiday can be found far north of the Caribbean, where excavations in Newfoundland support the claim that Vikings sailing from Greenland were the first Europeans to discover America around 1,000 A.D. Though still controversial, evidence in Ecuador and Peru points to the Polynesians as the first sea-farers to reach South America.

This leaves one to question: If Christopher Columbus was not the first sailor, European or otherwise, to discover America, what are we celebrating if not his legacy of exploitation and oppression? If you’d like to find something positive to commemorate on Monday, I’d suggest joining the people of Berkeley, CA (if not in person then at least in spirit) in celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day, to honor the real first Americans.