Columbus Day is not just about Christopher Columbus

Columbus Day is not just about Columbus. Columbus Day is about the hope to find a genuine New World. Photo: Christopher Columbus / Eugene Delacroix

SAN JOSE, October 14, 2013 - Columbus Day was originally established in the days of the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12th to be a federal holiday to honor the explorer Christopher Columbus. Despite the fact that Christopher Columbus has never been credited with setting foot on the mainland of North America, Columbus had received greater recognition through history than his Scandinavian counterpart, Leif Eríksson, the first European to reach North America. Columbus has also received more attacks on his character. 

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Yet, at least four centuries before Columbus was a twinkle in his father’s eye, the old Viking not only explored the shores of the northern coasts of the Western Hemisphere, Eríksson actually landed in present-day Newfoundland around 995 A.D. The Vikings apparently explored North America extensively, even establishing settlements in the area of Newfoundland. One of the more well-known sites is L’Anse aux Meadows, located on the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada, is currently a national park in Canada and it is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The rugged Vikings have never been accused of overstaying their welcome because they never remained, never claimed the land, never systematically enslaved nor dominated the Native Americans they encountered in this new found land. So, a significant difference exists between the explorations of the Vikings and Spain. There are several reasons for this important difference between the explorations of the Western Hemisphere by Vikings and by Spain.

The Vikings explored the northern area first, yet picked up their marbles (obviously leaving some artifacts behind) and went back home to settlements in Greenland. The Viking explorers initially regarded the Native Americans whom they referred to as the skrælingjar (roughly translated as “coarse fellows”, or perhaps as “sub-humans”), as trading partners and traded furs for products brought from Greenland or Iceland. The Vikings, however, did refuse to trade any iron with the natives. 

The Vikings were reportedly under regular attacks from the natives (even Leif’s brother, Þorvaldr Eiríksson, was killed by an arrow shot by Native Americans), and they decided that trading with such people was not worth their trouble. Yet, the Spaniards who came several centuries later went to considerable trouble to not just trade with the native peoples, but to take what they wanted from them. The Spaniards had no intention of going back home empty-handed. Their effort in the Western Hemisphere changed human history forever. Their far superior technology was utilized to its maximum advantage in the domination of the indigenous peoples.

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While the Vikings had wielded iron weapons, they had no metal armor like the Spanish Conquistadores. This is because full suits made of metal-plated armor had not been completely perfected until around the early to mid-1400s. Even the Carib Indians, the ones the Taino people identified to Columbus as those responsible the massacre of the Spanish sailors at La Navidad, had great difficulty in driving off the well-protected and well-armed Spaniards and the Caribs were fierce warriors who used poison-tipped arrows and darts. Technological advancements in Europe provided the capability for Spanish domination. The Spanish Crown also had a greater intent to colonize than the Vikings.   

In a like manner to initial contact between the Native Americans and the Vikings, Columbus could establish initial friendships with the Taino peoples on his first journey. However, the peaceful and humble Taino and Arawak peoples were dominated by the Carib Indians, who attempted to resist the Spanish. The massacre at La Navidad is not insignificant in history although it is not treated so by many revisionist or leftist historians. Some will refer to this settlement as the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere.  However, it was only intended as shelter and protection for those he had to leave behind, and there is not a record of a military contingent with Columbus on his initial voyage. 

Guacanagari, the Lucayan Indian cacique whom Columbus considered his friend, provided the primary account of what had happened, but even his report is not entirely clear. He told Columbus that the Carib Indians were the tribe responsible for killing his men and destroying La Navidad.  However, Guacanagari’s own brother, chief of another tribe, disputed the story and blamed the sailors for offenses against the Taino peoples and named Guacanagari as the one ordering the massacre. In reality, it is a crime mystery of the centuries. Regardless of what prompted the massacre, the Spanish military aboard the ships of the second voyage saw this mess and may have been deeply angered.

Whatever foundation had been laid by Columbus on the first voyage was undone by whatever had transpired on Hispaniola before he returned in 1493. It became a turning point in the connection between the Spanish government and the native peoples – no matter what tribe they were from. Ironically, revisionist historians downplay this event, or they embellish the claims of Guacanagari’s brother. They prefer to zero in on Columbus as the poster boy for all the horrors that befell the natives in the ensuing Spanish conquest. Regardless, the horrors of cruelty and destruction in the subsequent domination of the Native Americans are no longer possible to ignore as they have been in days long past.  

Yet, to promote the impression that Columbus was the single individual responsible for most of the atrocities perpetrated upon innocent victims among the native peoples is also a distortion of history. Columbus was employed by the Spanish monarchs to explore, identify the wealth of the region, and turn it over to the Spanish government. Although the King had originally agreed that the man from Genoa could become “governor” of the lands claimed in the name of Spain, the Spanish nobility and conquistadores must have viewed this mere   commoner as a pretender to the position of “governor.” They had him arrested in 1500, and the foreigner was out of the loop.

The Spanish Crown – and make no mistake, the King of Spain was always in charge of Columbus’ expeditions – made sure the Spanish were in charge of the dominion of the Caribbean islands and the lands beyond. King Ferdinand and the other monarchs had rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Moors, and found it comparably easy to exert European dominion in the Caribbean, and ultimately, domination of the rest of the Latin American lands. What makes their foray into the New World seem so horrible was that the scale of destruction and domination exerted by the Spanish conquistadores was far greater than the manner in which the Caribs dominated the weaker and more peaceful Taino natives.

Although it may not be politically correct to point out that Native Americans also were quite capable of destruction and domination of one another, it happened all across the Americas, but the Spaniards manifested their destruction and domination with a greater magnitude than the way the Aztecs or Incas dominated the peoples of their regions. Sadly, most of the events involved in the clash of cultures are horrendous examples of human atrocities being unchecked. Correspondingly, one man’s actions such as the crimes of Columbus are disproportionately dwarfed by the Spanish government’s manifestation of destruction and domination.

To judge a man who lived 500 years ago does not even sense because it requires intelligent people in the 21st century to hold Columbus to a higher standard of morality than the culture in which he lived. Yet scores of scholars offer only to destroy a reputation which had already been previously tainted by the Spanish Crown long ago. Ironically, one of the best known of leftist academics, Howard Zinn (God rest his soul), in commenting about Columbus made an important admission: “My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia.  It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality.”  Precisely - it is not intelligent, nor intellectually honest.

An intelligent man like Howard Zinn states: “To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice.”  However, such a perception serves as a double-edged sword.  One can also conclude that to emphasize the “genocide” of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize the responsibility  of a European colonial monarchy in the orchestration of such “genocide.” or ignore the heroism of Columbus is also intellectually biased and the result of an ideological choice. 

There is no good reason for revisionist or leftist historians today to assassinate the character of Columbus other than venting resentment and perpetrating political or ideological persuasion for the purpose of destroying another stepping stone on the pathway of the creation of a nation where peoples from all over the planet could come together and learn to live in harmony. Columbus Day is not just about Columbus. The exploration of the “New World” and the ultimate dominion of the Americas moved beyond Columbus after his second voyage. Columbus Day is still about the hope to find a genuine New World.


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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