With the holiday coming up, Eric Fretz and M. N. Dahan look back on Christopher Columbus’ role in slavery and native genocide, and at the recent wave of activism in response.
Every year around this time the debate rises about why the United States still celebrates Columbus Day and its nationalist myths. Millions of American schoolchildren learned “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” along with the story of the fearless navigator who proved the earth was round and discovered America, a land there for the taking. The myths and story-making surrounding the so-called “discovery” of the Americas are part and parcel of the mythologizing of the founding of this, “our glorious nation.” The real story of course, accessible to all who peek behind the empty phrases, is one of plunder, theft and murder. Shannon Speed, a Chickasaw Nation citizen, describes what really happened when Columbus and his gang accidentally landed in the Caribbean. Their activities are best described “as pillaging, raping and generally setting in motion a genocide of the people who were already here.” She rightly concludes: “That’s not something we want to celebrate.”
The call has been gaining momentum over the years as an increasing number of people, especially the young, have been digging deeper into the history of this country and finding themselves horrified by what they are learning. The waves of activism we have witnessed in the last few years, from the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and indigenous environmentalism, to immigrant rights and the Movement for Black Lives, are challenging the false narrative of American history. In the course of the past couple of years, protesters were able to topple statues of those who fought to preserve slavery and the huge profits they made from it. The latest infamous statue to be brought down was that of Robert E. Lee, the general and leader of the Confederacy, in Richmond, Virginia. In the same spirit, calls for removing the statues of Christopher Columbus and renaming the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day have been growing and found some success in cities in the US. This is part of the effort to undermine the false and reactionary myths that shore up the right’s attacks on workers and the oppressed and all who side with them.
The entire popular story of Columbus is full of myths. One: while textbooks tell of Columbus proving to superstitious sailors the world was round, the Islamic countries had retained the knowledge of a spherical globe from the ancient Greeks and Romans. In 1459 the Florentine Paolo Toscanelli had already approached King Alfonzo of Portugal with the idea of getting to the spices of the Indies (and gold in Japan) by sailing West. Two, while Columbus is called the founder of America, he never set foot in the continental US, and continued to think he was in the East Indies. Three, the lands he “discovered” were already heavily populated, with around a million people in the island he named Hispaniola (today’s island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). And, most importantly, his was not a scientific voyage of discovery, but one of plunder.
The myth of the European mariner/scientist/discoverer of a new world was useful for an America trying to justify not only its genocidal past towards the native population, but its own imperialist outreach. Historian Matthew Restall shows how 19th century historians, most influentially William Prescott, “repackage … and rework [the writings of earlier historians of Columbus] into an ideology of imperial justification.” The classroom myths of Columbus’s discovery find a similar echo in the Zionist myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
Columbus first described the “New World” he “discovered” as “both fertile and beautiful.” The Taíno who greeted him when he first landed in the Bahamas were a peaceful Arawak people in an agrarian society with a matrilineal line of descent. The people, he wrote, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.” Their gold jewelry and lack of metal weapons also caught his eye. The much celebrated “hero” continues: “They would make fine servants… With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” In a note sent to the King and Queen of Spain to promote his project he promised: “as much gold as they need and as many slaves as they ask.”
Columbus did not sail just to be a servant of the Spanish monarchy, but to gain a cut of the lucrative spice trail from the Indies. He sailed under contract to receive 10 percent of all revenues from the new lands, and be given governorship over the captured territories.
Columbus took three more trips to the “New World,” though adamant to the day he died that he had landed in India. As Howard Zinn writes, “Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given 17 ships and more than 1,200 men.” He also tried to emulate the Portuguese in West Africa, trading for gold and slaves, but found no significant market economy in the new world. He planted a colony on the north shore of Hispaniola to do this, but found everyone dead on his return.
By 1500, Columbus and other Spanish counterparts had sent nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders to European markets to be sold. Thousand others were forced to mine gold, quickly leading to death from malnourishment, overwork and disease. The Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote an early account of the atrocities committed by the Europeans. In his History of the Indies, he describes in horrific detail the methods used by the Spaniards to “spread terror among the Indians.”
“There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over 3,000,000 people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”
Several contemporaries accused Columbus of significant brutality not only against the native Taínos, but also the Spanish who crossed him. He was soon removed from the post of colonial governor, and later arrested.
Between the military conquest, prolonged forced overwork, and the progress of disease, Columbus’ landing kicked off what Restall calls the “greatest demographic disaster” in human history, so far.
Gold and Christianity
Columbus, a devout Catholic, had no worries for his soul, since as he wrote: “Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is lord of all he wants. With gold, it is even possible to open for souls the way to paradise.”
As Mike Haynes analyses, Columbus sailed at a time when hardened feudal values were dissolving, and a “distinctive materialism was emerging which reflected and reinforced capitalist development.” Wealth was being redefined in terms of gold which in turn created social mobility. Adam Smith, wrote in his Wealth of Nations, almost 300 years later, that when “the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries … Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project. But the hope of finding treasures of gold there was the sole motive which prompted him to undertake it.”
Naturally, people fought back. Many such struggles are well documented, especially on the island of Cuba which had been run by Spanish colonists ever since Columbus’ invasion in 1493. Three years of guerrilla warfare erupted while the local population fought against massacres from Spanish invaders. Despite the resistance, Columbus and his army were determined to conquer a land that would become instrumental in establishing Spanish dominance in the region.
Columbus bequeathed the island to the Spanish Empire, which within 250 years managed to exterminate the entire native population. The colonists came to rely increasingly on enslaved Africans to work their plantations as sugar and tobacco became the primary products of Cuba.
Cancel Columbus Day
On Columbus Day in 1989, the late Native American activist Russell Means led an American Indian Movement protest, pouring buckets of fake blood over the Columbus statue in downtown Denver. That same year, activists in South Dakota were successful in renaming Columbus Day Native American Day.
The fight to change the name of the holiday gained momentum with the quincentenary anniversary of Columbus’ arrival on these shores. The city of Berkeley, California stopped officially observing Columbus Day in 1992, and called for a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People,” followed by Santa Cruz CA in 1994. In 2014, the socialist Seattle City Council member Dr. Kshama Sawant helped push the re-designation of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This came after the Minneapolis’ vote in April of that year. By 2015, nine cities recast the October holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day: Albuquerque, N.M., Anadarko, Okla., Portland, Ore., St. Paul, Minn., and Olympia, Wash. Today over 50 cities from across the country have adopted “Indigenous Peoples Day” instead of celebrating a pillager and a murderer. The inspiring indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock has also helped build this movement.
South of the US border, the day is treated differently, but crowds still protest the meaning of Columbus statues. In Mexico, Columbus Day was renamed “Dia de la Raza.” A large statue of Columbus and four missionaries that stood in Mexico City’s central boulevard since 1877, became the frequent target of graffiti and protest and has now been taken down. A statue of an Indigenous woman will fill its place. Similarly, in Caracas, Venezuela, the day was changed to Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in 2002. Two years later, a crowd of people tore down a statue of Columbus.
In Canada, they don’t celebrate Columbus Day, but a parallel movement is growing stronger, exploding after finding the hidden remains of 751 Indigenous children at a Catholic “Indian Residential School” in the Cowessess First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan. Not only did Indigenous people express profound grief and anger at this example of cruelty, genocide, and erasure, but it led to a massive movement to cancel the yearly Canada Day, sucesssful in many cities.
In the US protests against the statues of Columbus grew along with the movement against prominent monuments to the Civil War figures from the pro-slavery South and those who profited from slavery.
After the re-ignition of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd, many more Columbus statues were defaced or destroyed. One statue was dumped in Baltimore harbor as thousands of people joined protests across the United States on the Fourth of July. In Richmond Virginia protesters both toppled a statue of Confederate Jefferson Davis and threw one of Columbus into a lake. Other Columbus monuments were officially removed in Newark, NJ, Buffalo, NY, and even Columbus, Ohio (the toppled monuments archive gives one list). Unfortunately, the work is far from over. A recent audit of almost 50,000 remaining public statues and monuments found they overwhelmingly honor white men, and half of the top 50 figures were slaveholders. Christopher Columbus is the third most frequent figure depicted.
New York City still holds an enormous 76-foot tall statue of Columbus erected in Columbus Circle. And despite promises to bring down the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by a Native American man and an African man, standing outside the Museum of Natural History in New York City, nothing has yet been done.
Those who defend Columbus Day often claim the criticism is an attack on Italian heritage and Italian achievements, ignoring the fact that Italians were vilified and faced religious and ethnic discrimination when the day was first celebrated in 1892. Just a year earlier, 11 Italian Americans had been brutally killed by a bigoted mob in New Orleans. Despite the conservative politics of many official Italian organizations now sponsoring Columbus Day parades, Italian Americans played a large role in radical US working class history. They should be celebrated, but Columbus should not be their symbol.
There are many better figures to celebrate Italian heritage: in the sciences, arts and literature, Dante, Galileo, Michelangelo spring to mind. Better yet, let us celebrate the radical Italian Americans: Sacco and Vanzetti, or the IWW organizer and anti-fascist Carlo Tresca, or the union organizer and environmentalist Tony Mazzocchi, or the gay rights activist and film historian Vito Russo who was active in ACT-UP New York. Or even better, let us unearth the stories of the thousands of lesser-known Italian-American radical women, like Cammella Teoli and Maria Roda in the garment trades and radical groups. All of these figures stand head and shoulders above Christopher Columbus.
Biden’s Forked Tongue
Despite the local resolutions, Columbus Day remains a federal holiday. While still a candidate, Biden released a statement admitting “Our nation has never lived up to our full promise of equality for all — especially not when it comes to the rights of the indigenous people.” He claimed he would “make tribal sovereignty and upholding our federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations the cornerstones of federal Indian policy.” Yet his presidency has followed his eight years as Vice President and decades in the Senate by doing none of this, despite winning early praise for appointing liberal Native American Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior.
In June the Biden administration backed the Trump approval of the giant Line 3 pipeline against a challenge by Chippewa and Ojibwe Indians and environmental groups. The pipeline (carrying the carbon equivalent of 50 new coal-burning power plants) would cross waterways on treaty-protected tribal lands and has been the subject of mass protests. Winona LaDuke of the native Honor the Earth organization called the administration’s decision “a betrayal of the Indian people.”
Fighting against a larger system
While Biden vainly tries to sideline activists with liberal acknowledgements while maintaining the imperialist status quo, others in government are desperately trying to turn the clock back.
It is chilling to see how the right is desperately trying to push back against the teaching of history based on anti-racist curriculum. It is perhaps a measure of our success that those intent on keeping the old status quo based on the immiseration of peoples are so rattled by challenges to history written by and for the oppressors.
The fight has to be waged on many fronts. Activists know modern-day racism is not all caused by Columbus, and it is not just a question of the past. There is an entire system of oppression that continues to this day. The statues and the continued teaching of myths are part of the ideology that help prop up that system. The fight against them is part of a larger fight to dismantle those systems and create a better world.
The week-long “People vs Fossil Fuel” action in Washington DC October 11th-15th begins with an Indigenous People’s Day celebration on Monday, 10/11.