As a kid, I remember putting on plays demonstrating how brilliant, caring, compassionate and generous Christopher Columbus was in his life.
Today, I cringe at the idea that I, a skinny little white blond haired blue eyed boy, donned a paper headdress and pretended to be a Native American greeting Columbus on the shores of North America.
Columbus day is a somewhat recent invention. It was conceived by a Catholic fraternal organization called Knights of Columbus in 1930 as a way to prop up their Catholic hero. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the holiday into law.
Columbus obtained funding for his exploration from the seizure and sale of the properties of Jewish Spaniards and Muslims by order of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Columbus, thrilled to take on the expedition, would reward the first person to sight new land with 10,000 maravedis, a sailor’s yearly salary. When a sailor spotted it, Columbus retracted the reward, saying he saw it already.
What a guy.
Columbus, so certain of his heading, landed in the Caribbean sea in what is present day Haiti. There, he and his Spaniards met the Arawaks, Tainos and Lucayans. They were an agreeable bunch of people, generally thrilled to meet some new friends from across the sea.
In Columbus’s journal, he wrote of the experience:
“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”
“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things… They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features….They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
After several months, Columbus murdered 2 natives during trading. Columbus, after describing the people as gentle, wrote, “(they are) evil and I believe they are from the island of Caribe, and that they eat men.”
This story, known to be incredibly false, is still taught in schools today. Columbus and his men weren’t just murderers. They were rapists too. Taken from the journal of Michele de Cuneo, a close confidant of Columbus:
“While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that (to tell you the end of it all), I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”
By the time Columbus and his ilk were finished, 250,000 natives in Haiti were dead. These deaths included mass suicides, mothers killing their babies, and poisonings.
It seems fitting that Columbus would be returned to Spain in shackles, but he was hardly handed justice. In 1500, a royal commissioner arrested Columbus for the gross mismanagement of colonial land, but he was granted a full pardon by King Ferdinand.
And we celebrate him as a hero. What a joke.