Let’s Do Away With Columbus Day
Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 15:10
In case you missed it, our nation observed Columbus Day this past Monday. Though we didn’t get out of class, Columbus Day is still observed by most banks, state governments and a good portion of the federal government.
It wasn’t until I came to college that I really realized who Christopher Columbus was. I had gone through elementary and high school trusting to my instructors that he was the original European discoverer of the “New World.” I had believed that his voyage proved to the Europeans that the world was round when many thought it was flat.
Yet when I began to study the founding of European settlement in the Americas, I came to know the real Christopher Columbus. A man that was perhaps the third to discover the New World—a millennium and a half after the Native Americans and about five centuries after the Vikings.
I learned that he was, to put it mildly, a real jerk. He met the native villagers who greeted him and his men with kindness and abundant hospitality. He returned the favor by establishing a government to rule them, by selling them into slavery, by founding a culture of sex trading among his men and by spreading rampant disease.
He not only destroyed the culture of the natives on the islands he visited in the Bahamas, but he inadvertently destroyed cultures across the western hemisphere and, at the same time, established the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
These last two are less-known facts about Columbus, but they are important parts of his legacy nonetheless. The smallpox disease that the Spaniards brought with them to the New World wreaked havoc among native populations. It spread like a wildfire and had a horrible mortality rate. From the Caribbean it moved north into the central plains of North America, and south into the Amazon Rainforest and Andes Mountains of South America.
By the time white explorers finally reached these regions, the populations they found there were decimated. Some experts estimate that only around 20 percent of Native Americans survived to see their lands settled by Europeans, all because of smallpox. There were—at one point—millions of natives inhabiting the western hemisphere, and white explorers never saw the full extent of these cultures because the smallpox came before them.
At the same time, Columbus’ greed for gold transformed politics across the globe. The massive amounts of precious metals he found in the Caribbean and shipped back to Spain saturated the gold markets of Europe and caused the gold industry of the Gold Coast of Africa to collapse. When Europeans in Africa could no longer make money on gold, they turned to capturing Africans and enslaving them—the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
So why is it that we dedicate a whole day to the remembrance of Christopher Columbus? A hiccough in the annals of history, perhaps, is the best explanation. Historians in the 18th and 19th century began to place undue credit on Columbus and his voyage and his spot in history. Over the centuries they began to gloss over the nastier facts of his voyage, until we get to where we are today.
Our elementary school teachers are still telling their seven- and eight- and nine-year-old students that Columbus was the first to discover the new world, that he taught the world the earth is round and that he is some kind of hero worthy of his own day off.
I find this appalling. There are four states in the U.S. that refuse to observe Columbus Day—Alaska, Oregon, Hawaii (observes Discovery Day, marking discovery of the Hawaiian Islands) and South Dakota (observes Native American Day.) There are also a number of cities across the U.S. that have replaced Columbus Day with days observing Native Americans, including Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Sebastopol C.A.
I think that the United States needs to follow in the suit of these cities and states. Christopher Columbus, though he may have been no more than a product of his times, is not a figure worthy of remembrance, unless it is to teach our children how not to behave.
Nathan is a senior majoring in landscape architecture. Follow him on twitter @nwstottler.