We Americans are Ignorant Imperialists for Celebrating Columbus [TW]

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a picture of a painting of Christopher Columbus with the

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a picture of a painting of Christopher Columbus with the “Scumbag Steve” hat photo-shopped on his head

[Trigger Warning! Graphic Violence, Rape, Genocide, Imperialism] 

Today is Columbus Day here in the U.S., and like many kids, I was taught Columbus was a brave explorer who “in 1492, sailed the ocean blue,” and “discovered” America. It was a wonderful story of adventure, discovery, hardship, and triumph. It also made what is now the United States seem a little like the lost city of Atlantis – an unknown and uninhabited place where good and brave souls were free to make a life for themselves. Out of Columbus’ “discovery,” I was taught, the greatest nation on earth (i.e., America) was born.

In reality, Columbus didn’t discover anything. Not only did Vikings land in North America 500 years before Columbus, but the Americas had already been inhabited for thousands of years by millions of people. Yet the fact Columbus didn’t actually make a great discovery is not the problem with our continued celebration of him. Sure, hailing Columbus as the grandfather of the U.S. makes us look rather foolish, but the real problem is how our exaltation of Columbus negatively impacts Native North American people.

So, what really happened in 1492 when Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue?” Truthfully, he got lost. He was headed to India, but got stuck in the Caribbean. The indigenous people there were nice enough to help him out, but unfortunately for them Columbus was a bit of a shit. And that’s putting it mildly. Here are just a few of the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus:

  1. He stole from the indigenous populations. Columbus was greedy, especially for gold, so he took the gold, land, and other resources from the indigenous communities.
  2. He used [indigenous] slave labor to make himself rich. Columbus would enslave and force primarily adult men to mine for gold, but also force them to perform all kinds of labor for himself and his men.
  3. He is the father of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In addition to desperately searching for gold via slave labor, Columbus thought he could make money by enslaving indigenous people, shipping them to Europe, and selling them. He started by sending a small shipment of Taínos to Spain in February 1494, and sent a larger shipment of 550 Taínos the next year. While this did not prove lucrative for Columbus, he continued shipping people back to Europe. Additionally, his greed for gold created instability in the gold economy of the Gold Coast of Africa, which lead to African slaves being the most valuable commodity exported from that region.
  4. He created and traded sex-slaves. Columbus enslaved girls as young as 9 and 10 and used them as sex-slaves. He would give them to his men as “rewards.”
  5. He was a rapist. Columbus and his men basically raped whoever they wanted whenever they wanted.
  6. He mutilated and disfigured the indigenous people as “punishment” for not doing what he wanted. Columbus would cut the ears, noses, and hands off those who refused to work for him or did not work as much/hard as he demanded. People who did not meet their gold mining quotas had their hands cut off and hung around their necks.
  7. He hunted people with dogs and fed them to dogs. Columbus would feed indigenous soldiers who rebelled to dogs while they were still alive. And those who fled to the mountains in search of safety from the European invaders were hunted down with dogs for sport.
  8. He committed genocide. In just two years, Columbus and his men had caused the deaths of over half the indigenous people in Haiti. In 1515, the population of the island was reduced from approximately 250,000 to 50,000. By 1550, there were only 500 indigenous people left. And these are just the people Columbus directly killed.
  9. He spread disease. Europeans brought diseases like small pox which wiped out 90 to 95 percent of the Native North American population. An estimated two to three million people died from disease and starvation as a result from Columbus’ invasion.

Celebrating Columbus is a slap in the face to the decedents of the people he murdered, raped, maimed, and enslaved. It whitewashes U.S. history by prioritizing our pleasant-looking hegemonic narrative over the realities of indigenous people. It glosses over the atrocities committed against Native North Americans and ignores the problems, which are a direct or indirect result of imperialist expansion/invasion, that indigenous groups continue to face. It sends the message that all indigenous people are less valuable than White America’s conception of one white guy who was a horrible person.

Sources:

  1. Bigelow, Bill, “Why It’s Time to Abolish Columbus Day,” Zinn Education Project, Oct. 9, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/education/why-its-time-abolish-columbus-day.
  2. “Columbus Day,” The Oatmeal, 2014, http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day.
  3. Gibson, Robert C., “7 Myths and Atrocities of Christopher Columbus That Will Make You Cringe,” US Uncut, Oct. 10, 2015, http://usuncut.com/world/7-myths-and-atrocities-of-christopher-columbus-that-will-make-you-cringe/.
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