Every Columbus Day, I’d roll my eyes when Native American groups would protest. A typical litany of ills purportedly inflicted by Columbus included “grand theft, genocide, racism, initiating the destruction of a culture, rape, torture, and maiming of indigenous people.”
Really. How could Columbus have done all that?
I was raised in Massachusetts, where Columbus Day is a state holiday. Instead of school, you’d watch the Columbus Day parade. You'd recite rhymes — “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” — and celebrate Columbus’s homeland, Italy.
Sure, the white settlers mistreated Indians, and did indeed practice genocide. The phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” had its roots with New England's Puritans, gained widespread acceptance during the government’s 18th and 19th century wars against natives, and persisted in 20th century movie and TV culture.
But Columbus? Surely the accusations were exaggerated. Surely Columbus was just the scapegoat for all the ills of white–native relations.
That’s what I thought until I read the classic account of Columbus that won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, by Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison was a blue-blooded Boston patrician, Harvard historian, and retired U.S. Navy captain who saw action in both the North African and Pacific theaters in World War II. No left-winger him.
In his meticulously documented book, he praised Columbus for his navigation skills, his determination and focus, organizational ability, and ability to lead men. But Columbus also was a man of his time who never believed Indians were capable of being proper, civilized Christians, even if their souls might be saved upon conversion.
From the start, he treated them as less than human beings than commodities. In his writings, he noted their potential as slaves. He kidnapped them regularly to be trained as translators. As one contemporary, a priest, noted, “It appears that the Admiral did this unscrupulously … it not appearing to him that it was an offense to God and his neighbor to take free men against their will, separating fathers from sons and wives from husbands.” To help pay for future voyages, Columbus proposed, in February 1494, a regular slave trade, and during his second trip to the New World, he implemented it, sending hundreds of Indians — “the best males and females,” according to one of Columbus’ shipmates — to the Seville slave market.
While Columbus didn’t appear to practice genocide himself, his demands that Indians supply gold set a model for the systematic destruction of the natives who would be unable to meet Columbus’ demands. Morison cited a priest who called the system “irrational, most burdensome, impossible, intolerable, and abominable.” Those who couldn’t meet the quotas were tortured or killed or both; the Indian agriculture was disrupted, and many starved to death, contracted disease from the Spanish (including venereal disease), or committed suicide.
On the island of Hispaniola (shared now by the Dominican Republic and Haiti), the pre-Columbus population was 300,000. Between 1494 and 1496, it was reduced to 200,000. By 1508, only 60,000 lived. Forty years after that, perhaps 500 remained.
When Morison's book was published in 1942, people were living this kind of horror. The New York Times reviewer of Admiral of the Ocean Sea noted that Morison brought "the birth of terror home to us by suggesting that the Nazis might treat us as the men of Aragon and Castile treated the natives of Hispaniola."
How did we lose sight of this? I suspect this was a case of popular culture trumping facts — as so many parents today choose to believe discredited studies that condemn childhood immunization; of annoying truths being ignored — as the Tea Party ignores the truth that George Washington was the great proponent of a strong federal government and federal Hamiltonian bailouts; and of the power of inertia and peer pressure — as the Washington Mutual Board of Directors failed to question the assumptions of their mediocre CEO.
Yes, we'll continue to observe Columbus Day for all of these reasons. But we should not celebrate it.