Columbus Not the Hero Americans Believe
The 1992 celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America was dampened by the realization that Columbus may not be the hero Americans believe him to be. Many Americans learned some disturbing details for the first time.
The story we learned in school was sadly incomplete. For starters he didn’t “discover” America. During four separate trips that started with the one in 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas as well as the island later called Hispaniola. He also explored the Central and South American coasts. But he didn’t reach North America, which, of course, was already inhabited by millions of Native Americans, Articles in national magazines have reported gruesome details of Columbus’ rule over the Caribbean.
The fact that Columbus has become controversial puzzles many, since media coverage does not mesh with the heroic story we learned in school. The public’s puzzlement is often resolved by dismissing the critics as a bunch of crazies, mixed in with a few Indians who are surprisingly ungrateful for the benefits of European civilization. Since Columbus has his vocal supporters, it becomes easy for many to ignore the troublesome calls for reevaluation and to simply dismiss the question: Why celebrate genocide and slavery? Those who make the effort to educate themselves about the reality behind the Columbus myth, however, are typically shocked by what they find .
Part of the shock relates to Columbus himself, who was directly and personally responsible for the enslavement, torture, mutilation and murder of thousands of Indians of the Caribbean islands he and his brothers ruled. Most of these atrocities occurred after Columbus’ first voyage in 1492, when he returned again and again to search for gold. Part of the shock goes beyond Columbus himself to the legacy he left for those who extended his policies: the institutionalization of slavery and mass murder of the Indians; the slavery of millions of Africans stolen from their homes and brought here to produce riches for Europeans; the destruction of a natural environment that had nurtured millions of Indians in thousands of cultures from the Arctic to the tip of South America; and the common belief that might makes right.
There is still another kind of shock: the shock of realizing we were lied to. Why is our childhood memory of Columbus so hazy and positive? Why were we never taught what he actually did to those smiling, friendly Indians pictured in the books we read as children? Why didn’t we learn about the torture, the mutilation, the rapes, the slaves, the single-minded pursuit of gold? The details have been readily available for years, as in Hans Koning’s Columbus: His Enterprise, a short but eye-opening book first published in 1976, and more recently in Kirkpatrick Sales’ detailed The Conquest of Paradise.
Why, then, are our children still learning the old myths? Is it simply that everyone loves a good story, and that no one wants to rain on a parade? Or might questioning the Columbus myth lead students to question the continuation of his policies today? Even the Ridley Scott film 1492, widely described as “revisionist” because it depicts atrocities against the Indians, manages not only to understate those atrocities but to blame them on a few evil individuals (inaccurately not even including Columbus!) rather than on the system of oppression intentionally created as European policy.
From high school teams named Redskins, to the continuing U.S. refusal to honor treaties with Indian nations, to the destruction of Amazon rainforests and Amazon peoples, to the reliance on force to maintain U.S. dominance of the New World Order, Columbus lives on.
Now is an appropriate time to reconsider our past as well as our common future. Celebrating Columbus leads in one direction.