Columbus Day: Misguided respect or just another sale day?

The real story behind Christopher Columbus’ “discovery of America.” Photo: Christopher Columbus lands in America

VIENNA, Va., October 8, 2012 — October 8 is Columbus Day in America, and that means… what? As school kids we all learned that “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” and found what? Not America. That discovery actually went more properly to Americus Vespucci. And good ol’ Chris made four to five trips to the “new world,” as it was termed, and never did reach the shores of what we know today as the continental United States, whether he landed in Haiti, Barbados, or any of a dozen smaller nations.

And we celebrate his specific day by having sales of refrigerators and televisions (the better to learn history, my children) and to do school shopping when we have a tax-free day. We “discover” that there’s nothing here to discover, that it’s all been done before, and that Chris was not that great guy when the stories are honestly told. Ask any authentic Native American. They aren’t lighting any candles in his honor.

He may have reached Hispaniola, he may have ended up in China, but terming him the titular guy of America is a far cry from what actually happened. It becomes just another quasi-factual disturbance in the history of our country, much like the much-heralded Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, where pictures have shown us the pilgrims stepping out onto this rock, without splashing water on their silver-buckled shoes.

Columbus Day Sale: Wanna buy a frig?

Tell that to the folks a few hundred miles down in old Virginia, Jamestown, which never got the acknowledgements and 15 minutes of fame it was due, since the first travelers landed there in 1607, some 13 years before those silver buckles hit Plymouth Rock.

But back to Chris Columbus, questionable honoree in the holiday we celebrate. He was sponsored and financed by their Highnesses Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and outfitted with the three ships we learned in school — the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria. What is interesting is to read two quotes from the great man during that time:  “I promise this… as much gold can be supplied as they will need, indeed as much of spices, of cotton, of mastic gum also as much of aloes wood, and as many slaves for the navy, as their Majesties will wish to demand.”

Gold? Slaves? Where did this come from? Doesn’t sound much like trade routes, etc., does it? Yet it was there from the beginning.

And his quest for gold? Well, there were a few impediments, like doing something with the folks who lived here first. There were some nine million indigenous people, soon decimated. That figure in 1500 had become 237,000 four centuries later. Talk about genocide, talk about mass murders and suicides, not to mention illnesses and diseases like smallpox, brought in by the good Christian whites. Ask the Native Americans how they feel about Columbus Day.

If we discredit contemporary political figures and others for “flip-flopping” on subjects, give ear to the marvelous Columbus who a year later wrote one of his patrons, Luis de Santangel, that the people he encountered had done nothing to deserve ill treatment. According to Columbus:

Christopher Columbus at the Spanish Court

“They are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts.”

At least they DID find gold, but gold mining is arduous work. There were men making the indigenous people work between 12-15 hours a day, and if not enough gold was produced, an Indian digger might have his hand cut off; in another punishment, dogs were turned loose on them. The good Christian men soon learned that “a dog was worth the value of at least 10 Indians.”

A pregnant woman had neither the food nor the strength to produce milk to feed a child; the majority of children born were stillborn or died shortly thereafter. In a matter of years, the indigenous people ceased to exist. The Arawaks, the Tainos, and so many other native groups just disappeared from any place they had once flourished.

Again from Columbus’ log: 

They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned….They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance….They would make fine servants….With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Emphasis added.)

One wonders whether this was before or after they smoked a peace pipe?

Perhaps it has been easier to instill in young minds the pretty story of Columbus rather than the genocidal one, the cruelty with which these peoples were treated.  

Somehow I doubt the indigenous peoples of many countries could really care less about our “pretty story.” Nothing has changed in all these years: Indians/Native Americans/Indigenous People still have been herded into the poorest lands, every treaty ever made with the supposedly superior, more intelligent, Christian white man has been broken. And no one with any sense is surprised.

Happy Columbus Day – go buy a refrigerator.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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