What we’re really celebrating on Columbus Day
"Columbus did a few great things, but for the most part, he really screwed over the native people."
By KRISTEN GOLEMBIEWSKI, Opinions Editor
As a kid, I used to think that Columbus Day was a pretty epic holiday. You get the day off because some Spanish dude sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America?
We get to color pictures of Columbus with some Indians? I’m so there. Plus, if we were lucky, there was a historical reenactment movie thrown in for good measure. It was a day full of alternative learning methods and patriotism.
It inspired all sorts of “f*** yeah, America!” feelings in me.
But now that I’m a little older and I have a better understanding of who Columbus was and what he did and that he was the starting point for the destruction of the Native Americans who lived here first, Columbus Day is kind of embarrassing for me. It’s no longer a source of pride. Instead, it inspires a lot of white guilt feelings in me.
There’s a joke that goes, “let’s celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone’s house and telling them we live there now.” Because if you think about it, that’s basically what Columbus did. And he brought housewarming gifts of smallpox and torture and slavery. What a guy.
Truth is, Columbus was a terrible person and celebrating him is just glorifying all the awful things he did to the indigenous people he met in the New World.
Even if you argue that medical knowledge was so far behind that Columbus didn’t know how smallpox spread or how to treat it, that doesn’t make him seem any nicer. Plus, some Europeans deliberately spread the disease to the indigenous people as a form of biological warfare – like Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town of Amherst, MA is named (information sourced from the University of Massachusetts) did during the French and Indian War.
Then there’s that whole slavery and torture thing, which we as a people tend to excuse under the idea that the world was a different place back in the day (which still doesn’t make it okay, by the way). Before he was an explorer, Columbus was a slave trader, bringing people from Africa to Portugal to be sold as slaves. His previous experience really came in handy in the New World, too. Once Columbus saw that the Indians had a bit of gold, he ordered them to fill a quota in a certain amount of time. Those who didn’t meet the quota had their arms cut off (according to Howard Zinn in his essay, “Columbus and Western Civilization”). And when he couldn’t send enough gold back to Spain to appease those who had financed his trip, he sent Indians as slaves. What a guy.
It would be different if Columbus Day was observed as a time for reflecting on the atrocities committed against the indigenous people, or if someone would just mention that hey, yeah, Columbus did a few great things, but for the most part, he really screwed over the native people.
I recognize that it’s entirely possible that the population of these places would’ve been virtually wiped out even if Columbus had never happened. I get that. I know he’s not the only one responsible. But, he is the only New World explorer with his own holiday. And, he did write extensively about how the people in the West would make perfect slaves, encouraging the Spanish people to come over and see for themselves.
And really, at the end of the day, he didn’t do the one thing we really celebrate him for. He didn’t even discover America (an honor that I believe should go to Amerigo Vespucci). The closest Columbus came was Hispaniola and the Bahamas, but he was so stupid he thought it was the Indies. And, just to reiterate, because people really don’t get this — he was a really terrible person. So why are we honoring him, again?
Instead of having a holiday where we celebrate the whitewashing history to some ideal world where everyone was a good guy and the Indians had it comin’, let’s recognize what Columbus actually did. And if you’re going to honor the man (and I hope you don’t), just know what he stands for: the beginning of the systematic destruction of the people of the New World. F*** yeah, America.