Should We Celebrate Columbus Day? | Andrew Gu
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions of Pulse Magazine as a whole.
Content Warning: This article deals with murder, sexual violence, and sex trafficking.
Let’s get one important statement out of the way first: Christopher Columbus was, by any modern standard, a terrible, terrible person. He participated in the kidnapping and sexual abuse of thousands of indigenous people. He executed and tortured natives and Spanish colonists alike for the sake of profit. He conquered an island and massacred thousands of people for resisting. If you’re looking for a moral defense of Columbus, you can look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a defense of Columbus Day, you can also look elsewhere.
However, just getting rid of Columbus Day and attacking Christopher Columbus specifically isn’t enough. Columbus wasn’t a particularly awful person by the standards of his era; rather, he was just one talented cog in an imperial machine that feasted off of human suffering in the pursuit of glory and profit. Pinning all the blame on Columbus for the Spanish Empire, the transatlantic slave trade, or colonialism as a whole is a bit like saying that your neighbor Greg caused climate change by not turning off his AC — it’s somewhat unfair, very counterproductive, and too convenient to be true.
To begin our discussion, let’s go over some basic facts about Columbus. As an explorer for the newly-unified Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon (in other words, Spain), he set off on four expeditions to the Americas between 1492 and 1502. The first voyage involved the first lasting contact between Native Americans (in this case the Taino, Arawak, and Lucayan of the Caribbean) and Europeans in human history, as well as plenty of looting, probable kidnapping, and robbery. The second, much larger voyage began in late 1493 and began the first real attempts at long-term settlement in the Americas (Columbus had left behind an outpost of 39 soldiers after his first voyage, but they were wiped out by local Taino resistance). Later, in 1495, Columbus and his soldiers began the brutal conquest and exploitation of Haiti, which resulted in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of people.
The third expedition, beginning in 1498, was a mess and ended with Columbus and his two brothers being arrested for mismanagement and sent back to Spain. However, during his six-week stay in prison, Columbus managed to shift some of the blame to other people (hurray!) and convince the king and queen of Spain that his third voyage not only hadn’t been a dismal failure, but that he’d gotten close to finding the Garden of Eden. The king and queen allowed him to undertake one final, tiny voyage to the Americas in 1502. That trip was a stunning success! Just kidding, Columbus’ ships ran aground, stranding him and his crews, and two of his captains needed to row hundreds of miles in canoes to Haiti to find rescue. After somehow surviving and returning to Spain in 1504, Columbus spent the last two years of his life in relative comfort badgering the king of Spain for one last shot before he died in 1506 at the age of 55.
When evaluating his legacy, it’s important to note that Columbus was only in charge of the Spanish presence in the Americas for eight years (1492 until his arrest in 1500), and while those eight years certainly weren’t pretty, Columbus is often blamed today for the awful treatment of natives up to 1542, 36 years after his death and 42 years after his removal, which is … strange, but understandable. The story of the abuse and massacre of the people of Haiti, for example, is a lot easier to digest when it has one famous villain, but the truth is that that crime required an entire cast of rapacious governors and murderous soldiers who, by comparison, make Columbus seem like a normal person.
That entire other cast of people also raises an interesting point: Columbus wasn’t a bad apple at all by the standards of the times. The late 1400s saw the Christian reconquest of Muslim southern Spain (with the entire peninsula falling under Christian control by 1492), with the bloody, grinding conclusion to centuries of brutal on-and-off warfare. The early 1500s would see the forced conversion of all Muslims living in Spain in 1502 and the merciless conquests of the Inca and Aztecs by Spanish soldiers. The conquest state that was early modern Spain (and to some extent that entire part of the world in the early modern period) was built on literally centuries of fighting, and it incentivized exploitation and violence as normal methods of social advancement. The dehumanization of subject, non-Christian populations was nothing new or particularly unusual for the time, and as long as it made money, who cared?
And therein lies the importance of Columbus Day. We today are the beneficiaries of a global system that’s perfectly comfortable with trading lives for comfort and profit, and when it comes to working against that system, it’s almost impossible to figure out where to start. We prefer getting rid of single, tangible villains, whether they be Columbus or Donald Trump or Elon Musk, but achieving lasting change on a scale that’s both meaningful and possible is a lot more complicated than getting rid of an individual.
So, with that, screw Columbus Day, but screw imperialism too.