Columbus: Tall Tales, and Dark Realities

by: Alenda Calderbank

    As a kid, Columbus Day was a welcome day off from school a month into the school year. As the leaves shined bright orange against the crisp blue sky and we heard the familiar sound of rustling leaves, we recited the familiar children’s poem that helped us remember the year Columbus sailed. This poem evoked the large indigo sea which he crossed. We were told that we were celebrating that the Italian explorer had “discovered” America.  Our beautiful country, a swath of land untouched and inviting, was discovered when Columbus landed in what he thought was Asia. It’s why we refer to indigenous people as “Indians”, we were told.

    Though the people of his day were well aware that the earth was round, the Pacific Ocean was unknown. Because of this, Columbus had miscalculated the size of the earth when he voyaged West in three ships sponsored by the King and Queen of Spain. Columbus bumped into what was most likely Bahaman Island believing it to be Asia. Without this happy accident, the rest of our country’s origin story would not have been possible (so the story goes).

    It’s a romantic thought that two continents’ worth of land existed pristine and untouched waiting to be tamed by settlers. A clean slate that was destined to become the land of the free and home of the brave. But more research has uncovered evidence that the American continents were populated coast to coast with large vibrant communities for thousands of years prior to the Columbian voyage.  The book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles Mann details research finding these societies were more numerous and more sophisticated than the European explorers believed. When Columbus had convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to fund his expeditions it most likely wasn’t for uncovering the numerous unique cultures around the globe. He had assured the monarchs his voyage would bring Spain greater wealth and new land.

    Britannica definition of Western colonialism: a political-economic phenomenon whereby various European nations explored, conquered, settled, and exploited large areas of the world.

   For similar reasons that the Monarchs of Spain supported Columbus, other countries in Europe began similar conquests around the globe in search of riches and routes for trade. France, Portugal, and England, in addition to Spain, began to send explorers and settlers to the newly discovered American (named after another Italian explorer) continents, which reimaged global culture and have affected politics and trade on these continents since. We can see how far colonization spread by the European languages spoken across the Western hemisphere.

    The impact of colonization has been severe and prolonged.

    Impact on Indigenous Peoples: New European colonies began the pervasive exploitation of indigenous communities. Native people were pushed off the land they had occupied for generations, and they experienced pervasive exploitation. Many native tribes were decimated by diseases brought by the Europeans which they had no immunity for.

    The Initiation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Columbus continued his voyages throughout the Caribbean Islands in search of gold and other precious goods to bring back to Spain. In addition, he and his men kidnapped scores of native people to bring to Spain as enslaved people. Although Queen Isabella rejected that gesture, kidnapped indigenous Americans were trafficked to Europe before the African slave trade became common. Eventually, the demand for labor in the new world would thrust enslavement on millions of African people.

    The Columbian Exchange: Described in the book “1493 Discovering the New World Columbus Created” Charles Mann details the many ways Columbus’s voyages changed the food, culture, and politics of regions around the world. This ranges from the seemingly benign example of tomatoes being introduced to the Mediterranean regions from South America, changing the cuisine of Italy forever. The opposite end of that spectrum is the decimation of cultures due to the mass enslavement of native people and the exploitation of resources. 

    The saying “The sun never sets on the British empire” is meant as an homage to the far-reaching influence of Britain. In the context of colonialism, it paints a different picture. The decimation of resources of one country is for the gain of the most powerful in the colonizing country. Think of the countries we know as ‘developing’ countries or what some politicians refer to as “shithole countries.” The struggles can usually be linked to colonial rule going back centuries. I’m old enough to remember the Oscar-winning film “Gandhi.” That was my first glimpse at the effects colonialism can have on a population and a fight for freedom other than the one in America’s story.

     Columbus Day had been celebrated in America as early as 1792 when the Columbian order in New York City commemorated the 300th anniversary of his landing, Since Columbus was Italian, they saw him as a symbol of their heritage, though it was Spain who funded his voyage across the Atlantic. Columbus Day became an official holiday in America in 1937. Because of the controversy surrounding the negative impact Columbus had on the native populations, alternative holidays have been introduced. Indigenous Peoples Day is becoming a more prevalent celebration in October. Instead of focusing on Columbus’s influence, Indigenous Peoples’ Day acknowledges the contributions and culture of Native American communities. Since Columbus Day has been a source of pride for many Italian Americans, a commemoration of Italian heritage and the contributions of Italians in art, science is a worthwhile alternative.

    What do you think when you hear of the controversy regarding Columbus? Does refocusing it on Indigenous People’s Day take away from celebrating America or removing a source of pride for Italian Americans? When my daughter was in middle school, she had a social studies teacher who acknowledged the holiday, teaching a lesson on Columbus and how America was “discovered”, but also talked about the unfortunate impact on indigenous Americans. She then asked each student to write about which aspect of the holiday they prefer to celebrate. The students could choose whether they wanted to celebrate Columbus, all explorers, or indigenous peoples.  I like the idea of celebrating exploration and discovery but for the good of communities.  The observance of Indigenous Peoples Day though, is one small way to recognize the cultures that were here before ours, to elevate instead of conquering. Which holiday will you be celebrating?