I was raised in the belief that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Not so.
For 25,000 years, indigenous peoples lived in North, Central, and South America before 1492 when Columbus landed his ship in the West Indies seeking gold for the Spanish crown.
The real history of his sojourn in the New World is one of cruelty, enslavement, and genocide.
Here are a few passages from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Collins, 2015) describing what began five centuries ago:
“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He [Columbus] later wrote of this in his log:
‘They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. 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….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.’” See Arawak peoples – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arawak
On the second Columbus expedition to the New World, this time with seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men, Columbus took “Indians” as captives, women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
That was just the beginning of the Spanish subjugation and murder of these and other indigenous peoples. It got so bad that the Arawaks, after many were hanged and burned to death, killed themselves and their children to spare themselves the suffering. In two years, Zinn writes, “through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”
In 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, President Benjamin Harrison established through proclamation the celebration of Columbus Day. Generation after generation of American children has been taught the myth of Europeans bringing civilization to America and subduing the “savages.”
Our continuing to commemorate Columbus Day without considering the immense harm that Columbus, the Spanish, British, and Portuguese did to the indigenous peoples in this land, and the damage done beginning in 1619 to African slaves forcefully brought to America as slaves is to justify the brutal history as necessary for European settlement in the New World.
Zinn rightly notes that in a “world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.” It’s important to remember all of this so as “not to deplete our moral energy for the present.” (p. 10)
This year’s Columbus Day (October 12) coincides with Simchat Torah (the celebration of Torah) and is a bitter-sweet intersection of events.