Christopher Columbus has long been a patriotic symbol for the United States of America. Honored with more place names than any other figure of American history except for George Washington, he has been praised as a great explorer—courageous, resolute, and victorious. If Columbus is this hero in the American imagination, a most important ancestor of this country, on the day dedicated to him, America needs to remember the whole of his legacy. The avalanche of arrogance, greed, and violence.
In 1492, while sailing through the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus was confident of what lay ahead: fortune and fame for him, a colonial empire for Spain, converts for the Church. Yet island after island, only the smallest traces of gold had emerged, not the vast and deep mines that Columbus had anticipated. Then again, since he had promised King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella riches from the East, Columbus could not simply return the fleets with nothing to show. So began the great slave raid.
On the first of his voyages, in where we now know was the Bahamas, Columbus had encountered the Taíno people. On meeting them ashore, he described them in his journal as hospitable, good-willed, handsome, naked, and docile. And almost in the same breath, he reflected: “They ought to be good servants and of good skill. . . . And I believe that they would easily be made Christians.” Even as he praised the gentleness and generosity of the natives, Columbus had begun to consider enslaving them, noting “with fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”
In 1495, during his second voyage, Columbus and his men gathered fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children as captives; of these, the five hundred strongest men and women were put on the ships. Then Columbus announced that any Christian could help himself to as many of the remaining captives as he pleased. The natives onboard were placed in pens. Of the five hundred, about two hundred died on route. The ones who were taken as slaves worked at a ferocious pace on the lands which the colonizers claimed for themselves, and died by the hundreds.
Despite all counter evidence, Columbus had not yet given up on gold, either. Again during the second voyage, in the province of Cicao on Haiti, he ordered all Arawak men and women fourteen and older to find gold. Once they collected and delivered their share to one of the armed posts, they were to be given stamped copper tokens to hang about their necks as proof of their accomplished work. Those without the copper tokens were to be punished for not turning in the gold.
As Howard Zinn reflects, the truth was the Arawak people had been given an impossible task. There simply was not enough gold on the land. Utterly helpless, some tried to flee to the mountains. They were hunted down with dogs, and if found, immediately killed.
By the third voyage, some of Columbus’s men had become resentful. They were tired of the difficult conditions—illness, hunger, storms, and struggles with the natives—and discouraged by the lack of gold and other promised riches. Their complaints about Columbus’s tyrannical policies and practices finally reached King Ferdinand’s and Queen Isabella’s ears. The king and queen were already feeling disappointed by the small returns they had received from the voyages, so they decided to have the admiral arrested. In October 1500, Columbus was put in chains to be sent back to Spain.
Following this humiliating return to Spain, Columbus wrote the Book of Prophecies in which he reflected on the cosmic importance and divine purpose of his ventures. Amid an incoherent mix of quotations from the Bible, medieval theology, astrology, mysticism, and complex cosmology, the book delivered one essential message: “Cristobal Colon was chosen by Lord as the divine instrument to fulfill the ancient prophecies that would rescue Christianity before the Apocalypse.” In historian and Columbus biographer Kirkpatrick Sale’s opinion, the Book of Prophecies, a jumble of documents with a rambling introduction, was received as an “acute embarrassment” by most Columbus hagiographers. For the most part, they chose to forget or forgive it as a product of “mental hallucination” or “a temporary dark and sordid stupor.”
Columbus died, in Walt Whitman’s words, “a batter’d, wreck’d old man” with a “heavy heart.” Yet looking back, it would be irresponsible to classify Columbus’s psychological distress as an individual’s isolated phenomena, for the consequences of his illusions were not restricted to him alone. The tyranny and bloodshed that started with Columbus’s expeditions continued for centuries, staining the histories of both the North and South American Continents. During this time, slavery, genocide, and the annihilation of the land were committed again and again in the name of civilization, progress, and perhaps most significantly, divine will. If Columbus was possessed with illusions of exceptionalism and spiritual entitlement, so were the generations that came to the New World in his footsteps.
In her essay “Columbus: Gone, but Not Forgotten,” bell hooks urges Americans to interrogate the past critically and rethink the meaning of Columbus’s legacy. She believes that the way the history of Columbus is taught and culturally remembered casts a large shadow over American consciousness, restating a national commitment to imperialism and white supremacy. She asserts that the cultural idealization of Columbus’s so-called discovery means romanticizing oppression, corruption, even murder and rape.
If nothing else, Columbus Day is an opportunity to name these brutalities and mourn the violent truths of history.