Becoming Whole Out of Darkness: Demystifying "Columbus Day"

12 Oct 2016 12:15 PM | Jordan Fowler

Smithsonian Magazine, 'Columbus carried ideas that boded ill for the Native indies' (Gallery Collection--Corbis)

While President Roosevelt designated the second Monday in October as the national federal holiday, October 12th marks the recognized anniversary date of Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean.  Many Americans will associate Columbus Day with the discovery and unveiling of the New World—supposedly marking the inception of the Americas while bringing honor and glory to the pioneering explorers of Western Europe.  Popular culture celebrates the legacy of Columbus from a lens that magnifies the spirit of discovery, establishing a mythological heroism disproportionate to true historical accounts of the man.  Publicly held views of Columbus and Columbus Day celebrations fail to acknowledge the accuracy in more morbid accounts of his ventures.  From popular perspective, Columbus’s work sought to enlighten and expand the world view of his time, however, knowledge of the New World predated Columbus’s accounts by centuries. The optimism and forward leaning hope characteristic of American culture seeks to highlight the best of humanity, but even so, we would be remiss to ignore the historical facts revealing the darkness in histories that have not been sufficiently exposed.

Academic scholars can attest to true accounts of Columbus in their totality.  As a nautical expert and master navigator of his time, Columbus possessed great talents; but it is integral to demystify the man who committed horrible crimes against humanity for the sake of fame and glory.  The carefully crafted well-intentions projected by some academic spheres fail to address the reality of the times and does a great injustice to the realities of the indigenous people.  Let’s not allow ourselves to be disillusioned by the socially constructed mythical historical figure of Columbus; historians have a responsibility to present all facts and preserve all histories. 

Let’s tell the Truth…the WHOLE truth

Grade school history books and lesson plans paint the hyper-romanticized vision of Columbus as a national hero, charting unknown waters and destined for new lands in the name of patriotism and adventure. History books do not teach of the pre-Columbus ‘discoveries’ and exploration of the New World nor do they address how Columbus’ ideology and strategy laid the groundwork for the foundation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  The trans-oceanic discoveries of explorers long before the time of Columbus are neither openly acknowledged nor widely celebrated during Columbus Day in America.  The glory and fame associated with Columbus, further perpetuated though the subliminal association of colonization with the establishment of ‘civilized’ society, dangerously assumes the superiority of Western theory and documentation over the very real historic accomplishments, discoveries and realizations of other preceding cultures.

The widely held belief surrounding the famed name of Christopher Columbus suggests that as a legendary explorer, his expeditions paved the way for European colonization of the Americas.  However, Columbus did not actually discover the Americas: not only did Columbus never set foot on the mainland continent of the Americas, his observations and records served only as revelations for the Western worlds of the Spanish realm on the Iberian Peninsula.  Seldom are people taught about the explorers and other peoples of the world whose previous travels informed and inspired Columbus himself!  Cultures hundreds of years before Columbus, including Polynesian explorers, Irish priests and even other western European peoples (just to name a few) had made earlier contact with the Americas, expanding beliefs of worlds outside of their own. U.S. Uncut History Magazine, 'Columbus' voyage'

 We credit one man with an accomplishment achieved by many others before him solely because he belongs to a culture that traditionally dominated the construction and dissemination of historic narratives.  Viewing history solely through an ethnocentric lens that highlights a skewed Eurocentric perspective of greatness, intelligence, progress and civility deprives us of the richness of other cultures that existed simultaneously and were equally integral to the formation of our modern world.  Competing timelines around the globe reveal the discoveries and accomplishments of cultures that existed in isolation of each other.  Through intercommunication, discovery and colonization, the natural progression of historic world events would expand and blend knowledge of diverse ways of life while challenging perceptions of self and other.  We do ourselves no justice and instead debase and decry the validity of underrepresented historical facts when we choose not to honor the Truth in its totality.  Even Columbus himself was inspired to dream based on the earlier findings of other scholars whose accounts make note of a new world beyond their own.


 True, Columbus was a renowned navigator of his time,

but history reveals much more than that…

Columbus’s navigated his way to Hispañola in the Caribbean, what is today known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  As a natural inquirer and explorer, Columbus’s diary entries show a deep appreciation for nature and truly his knowledge depth of botany and love of geography are impressive. If only his appreciation of and admiration for nature could be translated to equal compassion and respect towards the native peoples of the islands upon which he landed… In the same breath that he describes the physical flora and fauna of the New World with such grace and admiration, Columbus proudly notes his conquest of and control over the native peoples. As he took captives from one island of San Salvador (present Bahamas), Columbus noted:

*“My desire was not to pass any island without taking possession, so that, one having been taken, the same may be said of all. I anchored, and remained until to-day, Tuesday, when I went to the shore with the boats armed, and landed.

 In order to justify his crusades to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Columbus had to prove that their investment in his ventures would yield profit for the King and Queen.  Thus, Columbus was charged with securing riches for the crown as well as spreading their religious beliefs.  Believing that the native peoples possessed gold and could be further utilized as a work force, Columbus noted that *“they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.”  Considering that the Catholic church did not allow for the enslavement of Christians, Columbus and his men did not baptize the natives or convert them to their religion—it was regarded as more advantageous to enslave the natives and force them to mine for gold.  The notion that foreign people could be colonized and forced to labor in captivity is not uncommon to the time considering the possession of slaves as spoils of war during La Reconquista, the war between the Moors and Spaniards on the Iberian Peninsula.  However, Columbus had no respect for the Natives and employed the most brutal and dehumanizing tactics in asserting his control over the people and resources of the New World.

 “I have given order for a tower and a fort, both well-built… not because I believe that such defenses will be necessary. I believe that with the force I have with me I could subjugate the whole island, which I believe to be larger than Portugal, and the population double. But they are naked and without arms and hopelessly timid… The people may thus know the skill of the subjects of your highnesses, and what they can do; and will obey them with love and fear.” 

Through the process of trial and error, Columbus and those under his command worked to establish a slave trade that would benefit their efforts in the colonized lands as well as Spain: Natives were shipped from their homeland to Spain and sold as slaves in addition to being forced into servitude in their own land.  While the treatment of natives varied depending on the time and colonizing power, Columbus’s own accounts show little to no respect for the native peoples of the land on which he arrived.  True, there were no such concepts as human rights or woman’s rights during the time of Columbus… but the inhumane acts committed and permitted through and in the colonization efforts were far from noble.  This process of exploiting captured peoples and trading slaves for financial gain evolved as a process, setting the tone for the foundation of the African enslavement.  When efforts to enslave native people failed, colonists would later transport African slaves to the Caribbean, marking the beginning of the slave trade system that would soon define the Americas.  The ancestral blood and stories of these African survivors live on in the people that we know today to reside in the Caribbean. U.S Uncut History Magazine, 'Columbus delivering Natives to Queen Isabella'

 In all our scholarly studies, we strive to uncover and honor the truth. The painful and tragic atrocities committed in the name of discovery by Columbus are neither widely taught nor openly acknowledged in common American history.  To separate out the happenings of the brutal acts of colonization and solely celebrate Columbus’s vision would be a travesty.  It is not commendable to justify and legitimize the treatment of native peoples and the atrocities committed in the name of science and discovery through the celebration of Columbus.

Just as we advocate for transparency and equal acknowledgement of ALL histories in the diversity of our nation, to disregard the foundation of the slave trade while ignoring the plight of Native peoples under Columbus does our own efforts a huge disservice.  However, while Columbus was neither saint or hero, the actions and crimes of the men under his command cannot be attributed wholly unto him.  But the brutality and inhumanity scribed in Columbus’s own hand chronicle his experience in telling ways that contradict the flowery portrayal of him as a legendary hero.  We discredit ourselves and our own efforts in racial equity in scholarship and the education system if we over simplify and fail to accurately recount history and instead pick and choose which aspects of Columbus’s accounts we embrace. 


Out of the darkness comes light…

Many Americans regard the legacy of Columbus with reverence as one of transformational discovery and heroic proportions.  But how do the descendants of Native peoples feel about the horrors suffered by their ancestors in the name of “discovery”?  Were these chronicles of exploration motivated by untainted quest for knowledge or out of unbridled greed and thirst for glory?  The story of colonization of the New World fails to address the changing human dynamics: current teachings and interpretations of Columbus’s legacy often subtly dismiss the suffering of the native peoples and seldom address the mixing of Native and African bloodlines during the slave trade.  Consider how the second Monday in October is regarded as a day of discovery and achievement for some, while remembrance of the darker legacy of Columbus holds much pain for others.  To celebrate (in present day) the trans-oceanic colonization of the Americas, through praising and magnifying Columbus while accepting the suffering of the native peoples as unavoidable or regrettable necessary evil, distorts interpretations of Columbus’ legacy and intentions.  We do not have to condone the lack of humanity that characterizes the colonization of the New World through championing the story of Columbus.

An objective goal within the act of historic preservation is to expose and preserve historic accounts while offering factual insight into interpretations of the past.  By definition of its name, history is a story that a culture tells itself of and about itself—it is how we remember who we are.  Due to the diversity of the world and the plurality of contrasting world views and timelines, all world histories have different accounts.  But there is more than one side to every story and storytelling, at its best, should hold Truth at its core.  In all historic accounts, it would be a true travesty to ignore the aspects of our past that carry pain, shame and darkness in order to maintain an image of glory benefitting some at the expense of others.

How do we use this space of difficulty and conflict to enlighten our awareness of the Truth?  The discrepancies in widely held public accounts of the happenings and effects of Columbus’ travels reveal the dichotomy between fact and fiction.  In all professions and even in all academic spaces, knowledge is evolutionary in that our understanding is constantly evolving and expanding. Incomplete knowledge perpetuates false narratives that often err on the side of over simplification. 

"The optimism and forward leaning hope characteristic of American culture seeks to highlight the best of humanity, but even so, we would be remiss to ignore the historical facts revealing the darkness in histories that have not been sufficiently exposed..."

While the human condition is characterized by imperfection, this does not prevent us from reconciling with our past histories to learn from them.  More importantly, we must choose our heroes with great caution: the myths surrounding popularly held beliefs about Columbus’ intentions or dreams do not hold true to the reality of the man.  We must criticize the discourse of any position that unilaterally highlights one aspect of history over another without honoring the Truth in all narratives, however conflicting.  The truest account of any happening in history is not a monolithic account, but rather multidimensional in its complexity, made more complex by often conflicting personal accounts from different compounding vantage points.  Due to the misuse of history, we must work to uncover the truth from different perspectives and historical accounts that are equally as important as those perpetuated on a national stage.   Although the darker aspects of Columbus and his legacy are neither glamorous nor as uplifting as celebrated in the public sphere, it enlightens our understanding of Columbus as a historic figure and honors other accounts in their entirety. 


The world becomes a whole new place 

when you open up to other people’s Truths instead of taking your own for gospel…

Considering that discovery, pride, and patriotism reside at the heart of the desire to commemorate Columbus Day, let’s persist in the quest for knowledge: expand your horizons beyond what you think you know and embrace the fullness of the Truth.  Choose to educate yourself… you might just learn something!  The world becomes a whole new place, the more you learn.


Jordan Fowler is the Executive Assistant for 1696 Heritage Group and assists in client organizational management, social media, and programming. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Jordan served as co-producer and director of a national exhibition highlighting various multi-ethnic historical and cultural narratives across the Atlantic, funded by grants from the University of Virginia, the Institute for Shipboard Education, and the Cultural Alliance of York County. 


Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:

* Excerpts from Columbus personal accounts: This text of the present edition was prepared from and proofed against Christopher Columbus, "Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus," in Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, eds., The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503, Original Narratives of Early American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906).

Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen

Christopher Columbus, "Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus," in Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, eds., . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906.

Smithsonian Magazine:

“Columbus’ Confusion About the New World”, Edmund S Morgan

“Why Christopher Columbus Was The Perfect Icon For a New Nation Looking for a Hero”, Brian Handwerk

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

Literary works and translations of Bartolome de las Casas

The Other Slavery, Andres Resendez

Washington Post

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