Like many students of history, I thought the outdated holiday of Columbus Day was on its way out. I was under the impression that, in 2017, we would have instead moved towards ending the pointless Monday holiday, or at least replaced it with a better one.
President Trump, to no real surprise, declared Monday to be Columbus Day, as every president has done, dating back to the FDR administration. But unlike his predecessor, Trump wasted no time honoring Columbus's many victims. Instead, he praised Columbus for all of the things we've been told he did.
"We honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions," Trump proclaimed.
Only, the president was wrong.
But it's not entirely Trump's fault. Here in America, we have a nagging habit of rewriting history to fit our own little narratives. Post-Civil War, we tried to paint the Confederate cause to be a noble one. School childrens’ texts books tell of Native Americans willingly handing over their land to settlers in happy, peaceful exchanges. And as far as historical rewrites go, the tale of Columbus might be the most dramatic.
So, why would we celebrate a guy if he wasn't all that great? Let's start by tearing down the myth of Columbus. Let's get to know who he really was.
The Columbus we know today came from the imagination of American literary genius Washington Irving, the same man who gave us “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He sought to pen the first English-language account of Columbus; but while doing his research, he found the details of his voyages a little less sexy than he'd hope. So, in order to sell copies to his American readers, he crafted a more romantic account of Columbus.
In essence, he lied. He told the tale of a Columbus who was brave, competent and daring. In Irving's book, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” Columbus sought to spread European culture and Christianity to the new world he "discovered," while in search of another route to India, all without falling off of the edge of a flat Earth.
This version of Columbus was used in the 19th Century by the Knights of Columbus to warm Americans to the influx of Catholic immigrants, many of which were from Italy, where Columbus also hailed. They wanted to give Americans, and Italian immigrants, an Italian hero to look to, one that would bond the two together.
It worked like a charm. And over time, Columbus Day was established to celebrate Columbus' brave journey, the so-called discovery of America and even Italian Americans.
But that tradition was built on a foundation of hogwash.
For starters, despite what many were taught in school, voyagers in Columbus' time knew the Earth was round. That scientific fact had been known for roughly 2,000 years before he set foot on a ship, thanks to the work of Aristotle and Eratosthenes.
In fact, Columbus was a sort-of conspiracy theorist in his time. He refuted the well-established notion of a round Earth, and argued that it was actually much smaller and shaped like a pear. I kid you not. He thought the westward voyage to India would only take him a few days. The scientific world thought he was an idiot. And he was.
Despite the ludicracy of his theory, Columbus was able to convince Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to fund his mission out of desperation to keep up in the lucrative spice trade. They backed him with what was considered at the time to be minimum support for such a voyage, giving him only three ships and a handful of men. And they funded the mission with proceeds from taking and selling property from Spanish jews and muslims, on the off-chance that he may be right.
He wasn't, of course. But he did find land. And it wasn't America. Despite popular belief, Columbus never set foot anywhere on modern day America.
When he did reach land, in what is now known as the Caribbean, Columbus wholeheartedly believed that he had successfully reached Asia. And, no, he didn't discover it. He was met by the Taino people, whose numbers totaled at that time more than 250,000.
According to his writings, the Taino, and later the Arawaks, were extremely pleasant and peaceful. In his diary, he wrote that they gave his men parrots, food and other welcoming gifts. In one account, after wrecking the Santa Maria, the Arawak helped save Columbus' men and cargo.
How did he repay their kindness and hospitality? He sought to enslave them. He told the Spanish monarchy that the entire population could be easily subjugated and enslaved. He requested reinforcements, promising a plethora of natives for slaves, rivers of gold and fertile pastures. He was given 17 more ships and an additional 1,200 men.
With that type of investment, he had to deliver. But this was not India, and the natives did not have spices. So, instead, Columbus sought gold. And with his reinforcements, he was able to enslave the native populations and force them to dig it up for him.
I've been told by some about Columbus' importance in regards to the spread of Christianity. He was a Catholic missionary, who used his encounters in the new world to spread the gospel to godless natives, as some stories go.
But that was absolutely not the case.
According to historical record, Columbus forced the natives to work in the gold mines until exhaustion, excavating thimbles of scarce gold dust. Those who opposed were beheaded. Those who did not find him an adequate amount of gold, were dismembered. In some cases, natives were beheaded merely because Columbus' men didn't feel like unlocking the chain tied around their necks.
Natives were also hunted down for sport and fed to Spanish war dogs. Historical accounts even includes tales of babies being fed to dogs at the pleasure of Columbus' men.
Women were traded as sex slaves among his men. Columbus even used the native women as gifts to friends and loyal soldiers. Historical writings of the time tell stories of raids into Caribbean villages solely for sex and sport.
This great missionary spent years traveling the Caribbean, murdering and enslaving thousands of natives for his pleasure. Thousands more committed suicide in order to avoid encountering him and his men.
When Columbus arrived in the new world, there were roughly 250,000 Taino and approximately 500,000 Caribbean natives in total. When he left, there were hardly 500 left.
In the end, Columbus was returned to Spain in shackles. He was arrested by a royal commissioner after the monarchy received numerous complaints of his mismanagement of the island of Hispaniola. He had lost the respect of his subordinates and his peers. They dragged him back to Europe in shame, and he would have spent his last days in a grimy prison cell had he not been pardoned by King Ferdinand.
Columbus died in obscurity. He died believing that he had discovered a new route to Asia, having thought Cuba was the Malay Peninsula and the Earth was shaped like a pear.
And this is the man we celebrate on the second Monday of October. I've been told that we should not judge historical figures against our 2017 standards. But there's a signifiant difference in judging Columbus for what he did and celebrating him for it. And despite some efforts to make it so, this is not a matter of politics. This is not a left issue or a right issue. Criticism of Columbus is not a part of some war on Western Civilization. It's a matter of principle and compassion.
We don't have to continue embracing a false history. We can, rather, acknowledge the truth and either scrap the pointless holiday, or, instead, begin honoring the hundreds of thousands of native people who Columbus whipped off of the globe. Early American history is rife with the murder and mistreatment of native peoples. There is nothing we can do to change that or make it right. But choosing to honor them instead of Columbus is a good start.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Talley is a member of the Times-Herald news staff. He may be contacted at 870-633-3130 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)