Opinion: Re-Think Columbus Day

Opinion: Re-Think Columbus Day

On Monday, Americans observed a holiday honoring the memory of a man who, if alive, would be put on trial for crimes against humanity. This holiday, Columbus Day, celebrates the legacy of Christopher Columbus, a man known by most as a skilled explorer and by historians as a scoundrel.

By observing Columbus Day, the U.S. government ignores the historical reality of Columbus’s cruelty and oppression and perpetuates the myth that he discovered America. That honor arguably goes to Leif Erikson, who founded a Viking village in Newfoundland a mere 500 years earlier than Columbus set foot on American soil. Why isn’t there a Leif Erikson day?

What’s more, even Erikson was not the first man to set foot upon American shores. He was just the first white man. Celebrating Columbus’s “discovery” ignores the indigenous people who lived here already. Centuries before either Columbus or Erikson set foot in the Americas, Polynesians sailed across the Pacific Ocean in dugout canoes to land in South America. Imagine that, sailing across the ocean in a canoe! That journey sounds much more impressive than hopping across the Atlantic aboard Columbus’s Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria.

Even Columbus was impressed. After encountering the indigenous Lucayan, Taino and Arawak peoples, whom he described as peaceful, hospitable and devoid of weapons, he wrote in his diary:

“They offered to share with anyone and when you ask for something, they never say no.”

Columbus even wrote about a group of Arawaks who toiled for hours saving the crew and cargo of Columbus’s shipwrecked Santa Maria without compensation in one entry

So impressed was Columbus by the Arawaks’ hard-work, generosity and compassion that he repaid their act of kindness by seizing control of their island, enslaving them and forcing them to dig for gold. His slaves were expected to work themselves to exhaustion, and any slaves who failed to work hard enough or tried to escape their conditions were punished by having an ear or nose cut off, being burned alive or watching their children be fed to dogs. The only natives spared from labor in the mines were young girls, particularly those aged nine and ten. Instead, they were sold as sex slaves in Europe. Within two years, half the native population had died because of the harsh conditions.

As an aspiring history teacher, I am amazed at how U.S. schools present Columbus to students. At best, Columbus is presented in an inaccurate fashion, with students learning about the adventurer who found the New World “in 1492 while sailing the ocean blue.” At worst, teachers portray Columbus as a heroic agent of discovery instead of the genocidal tyrant and cruel slave owner that he was. This presentation of Columbus is just one part of a larger problem in history teaching. Too often, teachers glorify the victors, telling the stories of violent conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun, yet omit the stories of the conquered, the non-violent protesters and the geniuses who contributed to society outside of war. Changing the way American schools present history will take time. However, eliminating Columbus Day could be quick and could jumpstart a reformation of the way history teachers treat him and figures like him.

Holidays ought to honor people worthy of admiration, heroes who can be looked up to by future generations for making discoveries in science and technology and defending human rights. What message does it send when Columbus gets his own holiday alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.? Are we to remember those who fought for or against the fundamental equality and dignity of all people? As an alternative to Columbus Day, we could perhaps honor indigenous peoples, or a specific figure of renown, like Albert Einstein or Rosa Parks. Honoring people like these could encourage a positive change in values nationally.

Americans ought to recognize the racism, economic oppression and violence that has marked their history and create a national narrative towards celebration of diversity and protection of human rights. We cannot afford to muddle the American narrative further by holding up villains like Columbus as heroes.