The second Monday of the month of October has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1937. The reason? Columbus Day. The landing of Christopher Columbus on the shores of Hispaniola in 1492, and the subsequent European incursion into the native American territories, has been the subject of official commemorations and celebrations. Columbus Day is the time when American audiences are exhorted to celebrate the ostensibly heroic adventure of the great explorer, and subsequent economic and political success of the European project to colonise the indigenous civilisations of the American continents. This laid the groundwork for the emergence of the American nation-state as a capitalist entity. The story of great explorers from Europe, discovering hitherto ‘untouched’ lands, and forging the path to a new settled and urbanised white-settler nation-state has particular resonance in Australia.
The story of the intrepid and entrepreneurial Columbus, actively seeking out an imperial patron in his determined quest to discover new lands for adventure, excitement and the expansion of scientific understanding, is taught in American schools and universities. A native of Genoa, an Italian trading city-state, he courted the European monarchs of his time, finally finding acceptance at the Spanish court. The Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, had done their bit of ethnic cleansing in the Iberian peninsula, expelling the Spanish Jewish community in 1492, and conquering the largely Moorish territory of Granada, thus forcibly converting the entirety of the Iberian territories to their brand of Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition was given free reign to extend its fanatic savagery. Classical books, libraries, manuscripts that had been preserved by the educated Moorish Islamic emirate were systematically destroyed. The civilisation that had flourished in Granada, its cultural and educational contributions, had to be wiped out.
What has that got to do with Columbus? In the same year, the Spanish royals gave their consent to Columbus’ proposed journey of conquest – a fact not lost on Columbus himself, who recorded as much in his diaries. The Spanish royalty had enforced its religious and political conformity on their Iberian territory, defeating and expelling the Jewish and Muslim communities. Now, the stage was set for the barbarity of European expansion to begin.
Columbus did not actually discover the Americas – he was lost and thought he had reached India. However, with that out of the way, Columbus set about making a tremendous impact both demographically and economically on the native civilisations that initially welcomed his presence. The late Howard Zinn, the socialist American historian, wrote of how the Bahama Indians, the Arawaks, were quite hospitable towards the new arrivals – the boat people – but Columbus had other plans. He immediately began to take slaves, subjugating whole tribes and nations to his project of exploiting the natural and mineral resources of Hispaniola. Setting up gold mines, he forced thousands to work to death, taking hostages, killing any recalcitrant persons, and using brute force to implant his economic system on the population.
Howard Zinn wrote that:
In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the 500 best specimens to load onto ships. Of those 500, 200 died en route.
Too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
Apart from the lucrative gold mines, Columbus found another use for the indigenous people – as slave labour on enormous landed estates, the encomiendas. The indigenous population was not only physically subjugated, but its culture, languages, and education had to be eliminated. He also engaged in another form of entrepreneurial activity – sexual slavery. Columbus himself wrote that:
A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.
Back in 2004, in an article called ‘Rethinking Columbus Day’, published in Counterpunch magazine, Patrick W. Gavin quotes the words of Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who wrote of what he saw while accompanying Columbus on his exploits. De Las Casas recorded what he had witnessed:
“What we have committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [Indian slavery] as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them.” Natives who did not deliver enough gold had their hands cut off. Those who ran away were hunted down by dogs. Prisoners were burned to death. Las Casas wrote that his countrymen “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” To avoid such treatment, many natives committed suicide, and mothers killed their children to spare them from such an abject life.
The European enslavement of the Americas is no cause for celebration. As James Nevius wrote in an article published in Common Dreams online magazine, Columbus was a lost sadist, and does not deserve a holiday in his honour. The Columbus Day narrative feeds into a false history of the Americas as untamed, wild nature, which was subdued and flourished due to the economic and cultural enhancements brought by European settlement. The purpose of removing this holiday and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day is not just to regurgitate a painful history, necessary as that is. It is also to celebrate a series of cultures and nations that have been struggling to find acceptance and understanding.
Movement to abolish Columbus Day based in indigenous people’s resistance
A number of American cities have moved to officially replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, and this is a welcome achievement. Seattle city authorities abolished Columbus Day last year, 9 other cities have followed suit this year, and Alaska has become the first state to rename Columbus Day the Indigenous Peoples Day. We must stop celebrating an enemy, and recognise the reality of the Indigenous nations, and their suffering at the hands of European conquest. The push to abolish Columbus Day has broader political, social and cultural implications.
It compels all of those nations that have their origins in colonial-settler projects – like Australia – to face up to uncomfortable truths about history and identity. Columbus represents the European conquistador, much like Captain James Cook is the archetypal British pirate………sorry, explorer. Columbus, in a similar way to Cook, was the first boat person, to establish his presence on lands that had complex and cultured civilisations. The resistance of the indigenous nations forms the basis for the abolition of Columbus Day, and also sets a necessary precedent for those of us in Australia who originate from the non-Indigenous nations to re-examine our own history of pushing the indigenous people to the margins. We can start by heeding the words of socialist councillor in Seattle, Kshama Sawant, who stated that abolishing Columbus Day is part of a wider struggle against racism and discrimination:
The 15th-century explorer “played such a pivotal role in the worst genocide humankind has ever known,” Sawant said, referring to the decimation of the Native American population in the decades after Columbus.
“Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination and poverty that indigenous communities face to this day.”