On the second Monday of every October, there is a federal holiday in which we celebrate Columbus Day. We celebrate Christopher Columbus as a daring and path-breaking explorer who transformed the New World. Most U.S. history textbooks portray him as our first great hero. However, these textbooks leave out just about everything that we do know about Columbus and the European exploration of the Americas. They omit the cause, most of what Columbus actually did, and some of the results of his voyages. Moreover, they hide the fact that Columbus was a mass murderer and would have done anything to get his gold and riches.
While there is very little known about Columbus’s early life, it is believed that he was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451 to a Christian household. Columbus was the eldest son to Domenico Colombo, a Genoese wool worker and merchant and Susanna Fantanarossa, his wife.1 At a very young age, Columbus started working in the seas. In 1476, on a particular voyage sailing north along the Portuguese coast, the fleet Columbus was sailing was attacked by French privateers. The ship sank and Columbus had to swim to the Portuguese shore. He eventually made his way to Lisbon, Portugal.2 At Lisbon, Columbus studied navigation, astronomy, cartography and mathematics. His near-death experience definitely did not stop him as he participated in “several other expeditions to Africa, [where he] gained knowledge of the Atlantic currents flowing east and west from the Canary Islands.”3
Towards the end of the 15th century, the route to reach Asia from Europe by land was narrowly impossible. Not only was the route long, but it included many encounters with hostile armies that were difficult to avoid. Many explorers solved this problem by sailing along the west African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope. However, Columbus proposed a different idea. He suggested to sail west across the Atlantic instead of around the African continent. “The young navigator’s logic was sound, but his math was faulty. He argued (incorrectly) that the circumference of the Earth was much smaller . . . [and thus] he believed that the journey by boat from Europe to Asia should be not only possible but comparatively easy.”4 Columbus presented his plan to the Portuguese king, then to Genoa and finally to Venice, but was rejected every time. In 1486, he asked for support from the Spanish monarchy of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon.5 Nonetheless, Columbus was able to obtain royal support in January 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had a similar goal as Columbus – fame and fortune. According to a contract with the Spanish rulers, Columbus could keep 10% of the riches he found as well as ownership of any lands that he encountered.
Shortly after being financed, Columbus left Spain with three ships – the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. After sailing for a few months, Columbus and several crewmen set foot on an island. They met a group of natives called the Taínos who were open to trade glass beads, cotton balls, parrots and spears. Columbus noticed that these natives looked trusting in nature and also wore gold jewelry. Based on writings from his journal, he believed that they would make good servants. “They beat no arms, nor know thereof; for I showed them swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance . . . With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”6 The idea of making the natives slaves came as desirable to Columbus. Within his first day on the new land, Columbus ordered for six of the natives to be seized and presented to the Ferdinand and Isabella.
In March 1493, Columbus left the new land and returned to Spain. After seeing everything that Columbus brought, Queen Isabella ordered for one shipment of the enslaved Indians to be returned to the Americas. Nevertheless, her resistance to slavery did not stop Columbus from enslaving Indians and sending them across the Atlantic. Nor did it stop his second voyage to the Americas. On his second voyage, Columbus and his men captured 1,500 Taínos at the island of the Hispaniola. Approximately 500 of these Taínos were selected as “best specimens” and sent back to Spain as slaves. Many as 200 died en route. A Spanish eyewitness described the panic as follows. “Among them were many women who had infants at the breast. They, in order to escape us . . . left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people.”7
As per his contract with the Spanish monarchy, Columbus has ownership of any new lands he encountered. Under Columbus’s leadership, the Spanish attacked the Taíno, sparing neither women nor children. He even implemented a forced labor system in which the Natives has to mine gold for the colonists, raise Spanish food and even carry them everywhere they went. Unable to love under these conditions many Natives chose the path of suicide. “Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide . . . The women exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth.”8 As a response to the Native revolt and disruption, Columbus ordered for many Natives to be killed. Additionally in an attempt to further end the rebellion, Columbus ordered their dismembered bodies to be paraded through the streets. Before Columbus, the Taíno population estimated at two million. 25 years after he arrived, only 12,000 remained. Within 30 years, the population went to extinction.
For decades now historians glorified Columbus’s many accomplishments – particularly his “discovery” of the New World – yet, in doing so they have opted to minimize the extent of his violence or have utterly disregarded it. Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He was not even the first European to visit the New World. What his voyages did do was create a path of utter destruction. His actions unleashed changes that devastated the native populations. They caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people purely for the sake of the riches and treasures. In 1492 and the years following, Christopher Columbus has not done anything worthy of the admiration and honor he is receiving in the 21st century.
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