Christopher Columbus has long been given credit for Discovering America and in the United States he is happily celebrated once a year on Columbus Day. Once lauded as one of the “greatest products of the Renaissance” there is mounting evidence that has led some historians to rethink whether or not we should hold Columbus in such high esteem.
Many questions arise when one ponders all the facts surrounding the North American continents. Why aren’t the Vikings commemorated for the discovery of the New World? Why is Columbus given so much credit when all he did was to sail into a handful of islands in the Caribbean, never reaching North America? Wasn’t Columbus to be recognized more for the downfall of our Native American societies and introduction of slavery and diseases to the New World than heroic founding of new territories? Although Columbus was a skilled navigator, he was in fact late to the party.
This is where facts start pulling together a picture of a man who really does not warrant society’s adoration and hero-like worship. In fact, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo wrote in his article, Columbus Day: Celebrating a Truly New World, that “many see October 12 as a day to mark the beginning of oppression, enslavement and genocide.”
Of the many interactions Columbus had with the native people he called Indians, three items stand out to create part of the controversy that surrounds Columbus today: the use of violence and slavery, the introduction of a plethora of new diseases that “would have dramatic long-term effects on native people in the Americas”, and the fact that he planned to force the natives to convert to Christianity.
Columbus’ trek to the islands and subsequent dictatorship, spread of diseases and slave trade, was responsible for almost wiping out the Taino people of Hispaniola, leaving only a few hundred of what used to be a population of a quarter of a million. In 2003, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez condemns Columbus saying, “Christopher Columbus was the spearhead of the biggest invasion and genocide ever seen in the history of humanity”.
Columbus was also a brutal and lousy leader. He and his brothers ruled their new lands like ruthless kings, taking whatever they wanted for themselves with no regard for the native people. Reports of tyranny and widespread abuse finally reached the courts in Spain, and he and his brothers were thrown in prison and transported back to Spain for trials. This would be the final chapter of Columbus’ reign as governor of the new lands.
In the end, Columbus died as a man many considered a “crackpot”. He believed that he failed his objective of finding a quicker route to the Indies. What he did accomplish is certainly up to many debates.
He did single-handedly spread the greatest amount of people, plants, animals, diseases and cultures that affected a great deal of all societies on the planet, in what was to be named “Columbian Exchange”. Should Columbus be deemed a hero for that? The decimation of millions of Native Americans from Smallpox would indicate otherwise. However, in doing so, he crippled an otherwise strong nation of people, giving the incoming Colonial settlers an opening to survive, and write the next great chapter of globalization of the world.
To some, this would rank Columbus up with the great explorers of all time. To others, he would be seen as the tragic reminder of legacies lost and civilizations wiped out, never to be understood or revered. It certainly makes you think twice about wishing a “Happy Columbus Day” to anyone.