Mexican countryside

Mexican countryside

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Columbus - Hero or Villian?

(image from the web)

Although it was observed on Monday in the United States, today is the anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World.  Of course, Columbus did not discover America.  The native Americans had been here for millennia.  He was not even the first European to reach the shores of the western continents.  The Vikings arrived on the coast of Canada centuries earlier.  He didn't even realize that he had come upon a "new world".  He thought that he had reached the islands of the East Indies in Asia.  In spite of this, his voyage was a daring feat, and it forever changed the world.  For the indigenous people whom Columbus called Indians, it destroyed the world as they knew it.

In some countries of the Spanish-speaking world, the 12th of October is celebrated as "el Día de la Raza" (literally "the Day of the Race").  It commemorates the encounter between two worlds and the Hispanic influence in the Americas.  "Día de la Raza" in not observed in Mexico however.  Mexico has long had a love-hate relationship with Spain, and the Spanish conquistadores are viewed as the "bad guys" of their history.

There are those who would prefer that "Columbus Day" be changed to "Native Americans' Day".  And if you look at the biography of Columbus, he is certainly not the hero that we learned about in elementary school so many decades ago.  Seeking to make a profit from his expeditions, Columbus turned to slave trading.  It is estimated that he shipped around 5000 natives back to Europe as slaves.  However, because so many of the slaves died on the voyage or in captivity in Spain, it turned out to be not a very lucrative enterprise.  So he instead forced the natives to search for gold.  Those who did not find any, had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death.  Those who rebelled were hung or burned to death.  During the two years that Columbus was governor of the island of Hispaniola, one half of the native population died... primarily because of the diseases brought by the Europeans, but also because of enslavement and warfare. Some historians call it the first genocide of modern history.  Hmmm... maybe he doesn't deserve to have a day named in his honor! 


  1. I'm firmly in the "why the heck are we still celebrating this guy?" camp. I read an article the other day that talked about the origin of Columbus Day. The basic idea of it was that Americans during the Revolutionary War era were looking for someone who wasn't *British* to celebrate in terms of the exploration/settlement/founding of America. (This is the article, though you'll probably get a pop-up saying you've exceeded your free article limit, even though you may never have read The Nation: (Let's just say I found a workaround to this problem.)) It was a very interesting read.

    1. I found the article... and I had no problem with pop-ups. Yes, it was very interesting. I don't know about you, but none of Columbus's greed and viciousness were ever mentioned in my elementary school, or even in high school history class.