Today marks the 77th year that Columbus Day has been nationally recognized although the discovery of the Americas has been celebrated since the 1700’s. Columbus Day has been a day to remember the height of exploration, patriotism and courage. While these are great ideals to recall, the character of Christopher Columbus may also be something that should not be forgotten.
Columbus was born in Italy, around 1450 to a middle class family. His father was a wool Weaver and a cheese vendor. At an early age, Christopher Columbus was drawn to the sea and by age 20 found full time employment traveling the oceans. He was a self educated man and readily devoured many books on astronomy, history and geography. He knew several languages and was religious. Prior to Columbus’s day, trade with India and the East took place by way of land routes. The rich and abundant products from the East found an increasing demand in the West. Those over land trade routes were disrupted through war and violence. The merchants of the late 1400’s needed to have another route to move the products. Some suggested sailing West but most believed sailing south around Africa would be a better choice. Around the 1480’s Columbus started plans for sailing West due to the fact a southerly route had already been established. His plans were met with little interest because many believed his calculations were far too low. For example, he estimated through his own research that a western route from Spain to Japan would be about 2,500 miles when in fact, the route is closer to 12,500 miles. A distance no ship could attain at the time. He however was undaunted and remained ambitious to claim a westward route for which ever government would support his efforts. One of the sparks that ignited his sense of adventure was a book from Italian Marco Polo who traveled to the East 200 years before Columbus lived. Marco Polo documented much of his 25 year long trip describing the advancement, opulence and grandeur of the East. Marco Polo wrote with a sense of wonder, admiration and awe for many of the cultures he encountered. Columbus drew inspiration from Marco Polo although their world views were starkly different. They were both of Italian heritage, both had self-employed fathers, both wanted to see new lands, trade with the East and both claimed the Christian faith. However, Christopher Columbus views of indigenous people is quite terrifying.
Columbus managed to secure funding from Spain which had been beat out of a southerly route to India. Columbus set sail in 1492 confident he would find the West Indies. On October 12th of 1492 at 2 a.m. one of his lookouts claimed to see a light shining from what would be a new land, however, Columbus quickly noted that he too had seen a light although at 10 p.m. thereby securing a life long pension promised by the King to the first man who spotted land. They made land fall in what is now San Salvador. Columbus noted how friendly, innocent and helpful the natives were. Believing he was somewhere in the Indies he called the natives Indians. The natives were actually Lucayan, Taino and Arawak. A culturally rich people who inhabited the islands in what is now the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti and surrounding islands. Hungry to make a profitable return for the investment of the King of Spain, Columbus traded simple trinkets for their gold earrings and inquired of the location of the gold mines. He took several natives prisoners to ensure he found their gold source. Some of his first journal entries upon arriving at the new land indicate how easily the natives could be subdued and sold into slavery. He captured upwards of 25 natives of which only 7 survived the journey and took them back to Spain. He made 3 more trips to the new world. As part of his contract with Spain, he became governor of many islands. Here he acted as an interim king of sorts. He even took native women against their will and gave them to his men. He maintained authority through violence. His men turned loose their hunting dogs on the natives for sport and even held games to see which of Columbus men had the sharpest sword against the bodies of the natives. There are many stories, some from Columbus’s own pen, of torture, mutilation, beheadings and other cruel tactics to force the natives to provide the sailors with gold and other valuables. In one of Columbus’s return trips he found a fort destroyed and his men killed by natives who were apparently weary of their ways. As a punishment and to quell further rebellion, Columbus ordered all native men over 14 to bring him a measure of gold every 3 months. An impossible request as their wasn’t sufficient gold on that island. If they complied, they would get a copper coin to hang around their neck. Those without a copper coin would be apprehended, their hands would be cut off and tied around their neck with a note indicating a like punishment for those who didn’t abide. The victim was sent back to his village, many dying of blood loss along the way. Columbus treated his own men harshly who he felt disobeyed his authority. Eventually news of his tyranny reach Spain and the King had him brought back for questioning. After much delay, the King stripped him of his Governorship and wealth. For what would appear to be his own reasons for gaining a stronger hold in the west, he acquitted him of other charges and funded one more trip of further plunder.
Columbus’s tyrannical ways are in such stark contrast to Polo’s it is hard to believe one was an influence for the other.
Columbus is generally honored for having found the Americas first although one has to wonder why the new land wasn’t called Columbias but rather the Americas. America is the feminized Latin word Deriving from Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo, an Italian explorer, who sailed for Portugal and later Spain. He is first to recommend that the new lands weren’t the Indies but an entirely new continent. His letteres were translated and widely circulated and the Americas were solidified in history.
This is not a petition to ban Columbus day or a crash course in history. Truth is Columbus wasn’t the first to display such dark ways and sadly he wasn’t the last. Human nature has always had a dark element. It’s how we address it or choose to act on it that matters. How many times have we felt superior to others just because we do not know them? Have we truly admired the differences in others or selfishly looked for ways to profit from them or even change them. Are we connecting groups of people like Marco Polo or are we taking from them in plunder? Its one thing to be remembered in 500 years for your actions but it is more important to be remembered for having good character in the service of others.