Philosophical question here: Does anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day? Granted, most 9-to-5 workers enjoy it as a day off, but does anyone actually celebrate the accomplishments of old Cristoforo Colombo? Even Los Angeles’ vote Wednesday to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day passed the City Council with relatively little serious opposition—though there was a major issue left little-mentioned: slavery.
Indeed, the largest demographic celebrating a man who pimped out 9-year-old girls might actually be grade school children in school plays.
Luckily, the sheer obscenity of this juxtaposition is finally convincing people that perhaps celebrating Native culture falls on a better side of history than commemorating a minorly genocidal, racist pimp—and what a pimp he was:
- When Columbus returned to Spain after his maiden voyage, he brought 25 Lucayo slaves back with him. (Seven survived.)
- He concluded his journal entry on that voyage by writing, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.”
- When Columbus returned on his next voyage with 1,500 men, he disfigured Lucayo men, cutting off their ears and noses, for refusing to cough up gold and women.
- When that incited a rebellion, he slaughtered them and fed many men to his dogs. Those who did not regularly produce gold for him had their hands removed.
- He has such memorable quotes as, “A hundred [castellanos] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm . . . those from 9 to 10 are now in demand.”
What populations Columbus touched, he raped, and, with violence and smallpox, choked to near extinction. The Catholic Church even scolded him for putting his monetary interests ahead of his onus to convert the Natives (as opposed to massacring them). Nevertheless, the church’s Knights of Columbus successfully established Columbus Day in 1937.
In recent years, thanks largely to Native American groups, a movement has risen against Columbus Day. It’s pushed the holiday to newfound media relevance; inspired the viral 2013 web comic by talented cartoonist Matthew Inman, suggesting replacing Columbus Day with a holiday to Bartolomé de Las Casas, an activist who fought for Native American civil rights; and prompted cities such as Seattle, Denver and Albuquerque, N.M., to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
What’s lost in these discussions of Christopher Columbus’ stain upon the New World is his legacy of slavery. The trans-Atlantic slave trade didn’t start with African labor shipped to the Americas. It started when Columbus took 550 native Taino slaves back to Spain. (Only 300 survived.)
The crown initially resisted Indian enslavement. In 1502, Queen Isabella of Spain instructed that Native Americans should work for wages. Las Casas gave up his wealth, became a priest and began fighting for Natives’ rights. In 1511, friar Antonio Montesinos also gave sermons against the cruel treatment of Native Americans, until King Ferdinand and Diego Colon—Columbus’ son, who had, with clearance from the king, perpetuated the use of Native Americans and Muslim prisoners of war as slaves—shut him down.
In any case, it was too late. Columbus had already kick-started a brief era, which lasted into the early 16th century, of explorers shipping Native slaves to the Old World. But the decimation of the Natives soon forced these noble explorers to search elsewhere for labor. And when the crown gave licenses for Spanish settlers to import black slaves, Columbus’ own son was among the vanguard of the new Caribbean owners of black slaves. That is, until his slaves launched the first successful African revolt in the Americas.
Columbus was not the unintentional harbinger of tragedy. He was a genocidal pirate whose legacy set sail on the backs of slaves.
However, in this belated rush to disavow celebrating Cristoforo the colossal asshole, many have run too quickly to a bullshitastically moralistic hero in the narrative of Columbus’ reign—one even described glowingly above: Bartolomé de Las Casas.
Since 2013, there’s been a movement to replace Columbus Day with Bartholomew (Bartolomé) Day, largely thanks to Matthew Inman’s aforementioned viral web comic, Columbus Was Awful (but This Other Guy Was Not). The comic has arguably been the single-largest influence in the mainstreaming of Bartholomew’s image as a civil rights activist.
In many respects, he deserves that title. For 50 years, Bartholomew fought for Taino people’s rights during an era when they were seen as subhuman—a lighter, more feeble alternative to a proper Negro slave.
However, it can’t be ignored that one of the most consequential ways in which Bartholomew fought for Native rights when confronted with their diminishment was by petitioning for Spaniards to be allowed to use proper Negro slaves instead. Bartholomew later regretted this, saying, “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery ... I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.”
In Inman’s defense, he later corrected his comic. Nevertheless, much of this push to distance ourselves from celebrating the atrocities of Columbus has come in the form of a narrative reeking of a desperate search for a singular, white hero.
Instead, perhaps we ought to take a cue from the racists of the Southern Reconstruction Era, who erected those Civil War hero statues we’re now fighting over. When they built them, they commemorated individuals, but only as a means to glorify a perception of an entire culture: the fictional Southern gent—the superior gentleman patriot.
If you want to build a statue to a civil rights activist who made a few tragic decisions but at least confronted, and attempted to right, his mistakes ... go ahead. But if you want to reconstruct a holiday, praise a culture, not a man.
Here’s to Indigenous Peoples Day. May we never forget the tragedy—the bodies, brown, red and black alike, it took to get here.