Christopher Columbus is credited with having discovered the New World in 1492, but not necessarily America (even though a lookout on his ship, Rodrigo, claimed that he saw land first). How people interpret this fact is the subject of intense historical and cultural debate across the world. The day honoring the discovery, October 12, is a national holiday, but for some historians and cultures, this day is marked as one when Spanish imperialism and genocide of the Native Americans began.
Those who want to discredit Columbus Day usually start with the wave of violence, slavery and genocide of the Native Americans that began after his “discovery.” On the island of Hispanola (Haiti / Dominican Republic), the sailors left there after his first voyage were tasked with finding gold and silver and soon tried to put to work the natives of the island. In subsequent voyages, he searched Central and South America for gold, and the communicable diseases like smallpox and measles that the Europeans had would also wipe out – intentionally or not – the Native populations. Conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro exploited divisions among the ruling tribes, Aztecs and Incas respectively, to conquer vast empires. It’s estimated that something like 80% of the 45-100 million Native Americans (historians disagree – a defender claimed that there were only 8.5 million Natives in all of the Americas when Columbus arrived) who lived in the New World were wiped out by disease, war, and famine brought on by discovery. Critics have claimed that the holiday should be renamed “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” to honor all the Native Americans past and present. In the Zinn section, he outlines the systematic destruction of the Arawak people and how they were eliminated through forced slavery, mining, and diseases.
Here’s John Oliver’s take on Columbus Day:
But was this all Columbus’ fault? His defenders say, of course not. Diseases act in random ways and are influenced by many things including stress, food (or lack thereof), poverty and other cultural or economic factors. Discovery could have brought some of these conditions on, but they weren’t necessarily the primary cause. A defender of Columbus stated in his piece that there were already different diseases running rampant throughout the Native population before Columbus’ arrival. Columbus is also given credit for having been a visionary, having convinced the Spanish monarchs to provide him with three ships to sail the Atlantic in search of a newer, quicker route to Asia around the earth. In fact, Columbus failed in his attempt to find that quicker trade route to Asia. It would be Magellan who would circumnavigate the globe. And, Columbus is being blamed for what came in his wake – the Spanish conquistadors, the destruction of Native peoples, and even the African slave trade since that was linked with the opening up of the New World. Could this attack on Columbus also be a remnant of the Black Legend that grew to fantastical proportions as exaggerated by English Protestants as a way of discrediting the Spanish Catholics? Too much blame, much too much indeed, to put on one man’s shoulders.
Another way of looking at this is that when we celebrate Columbus Day, we celebrate America. Should we acknowledge both the good and the bad that come with America / Columbus? Or is it more patriotic to revel in America in a “Team America” way with unquestioning loyalty? Or, as the video below discusses, Columbus is a myth that we have embraced. Is this something that we should jettison?
Questions to consider: 1. Do we keep Columbus Day as is (meaning that it’s an official government / bank holiday) or do we acknowledge Columbus Day with a solemn reminder of what happened to the Native Americans afterwards?
2. Or do we pitch Columbus Day in favor of celebrating “Indigenous People’s Day”? Why? Or is there another option? If so, explain.
3. Would you be interested in finding out if our school board / local city / village governments officially celebrate Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day? And should we – if we feel strongly enough about this – ask them to consider changing it? Why or why not?
Please use specific examples from the summer readings (and if you want to go down the Columbus rabbit hole, there’s a pdf in Schoology called Columbus Comparison – Shweikart vs. Zinn that compares a conservative historian’s and a Marxist professor’s take on Columbus).
300 words minimum due by Friday (9/9) by class.
Here’s an account of Detroit’s first celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day – https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2018/10/08/detroit-celebrating-indigenous-peoples-day-not-columbus-day/1564458002/
An article arguing for keeping Columbus Day – https://fordhamobserver.com/19567/opinions/columbus-day-or-indigenous-peoples-day-keep-columbus/
A video on why we celebrate Columbus Day (some good reasons about the history of Columbus Day):
The Breakfast Club’s discussion of Columbus Day – Why Native Americans Want to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day and not Columbus Day.