Why Is Columbus Day Still A Thing?

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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On the second Monday in October, we’re supposed to celebrate Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It’s a federal holiday: if you’re a “non-essential government employee” you’re off work, and offices like banks, DMVs, and post offices are closed. Bonus, or not, depending on your check-cashing and mailing needs. For most of us, Columbus Day is only one more random holiday, just a date on a calendar: either yay (because holiday) or annoying (it’s taking another goddamn day to process my check.)

Let’s wade out of our white American apathy for approximately three minutes and round up what we recall about Columbus. Start with grade school. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. His three ships were named — and this is like, a third-grade Jeopardy! question — the Niña, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Let’s go sixth grade. Born in Italy, Columbus knew the world was round, but so did every-fucking-body else by then. Cut through that bullshit about hopes and dreams and new worlds to filthy lucre. Columbus thought if he sailed West for long enough, he’d hit China and India, with their imagined hordes of silk, gold, and spices.

So he asked various European royalty for cash to back him. Including Elizabeth I, they said hell to the no. But Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain threw him some gold, ships, and people (mostly by forcing the people of Palos to do so) and let him set sail. In return, he promised the crown 10% of all profits. And that he’d convert people to Catholicism.

Psst… that’s called “colonialism.” Let’s not go all Howard Zinn here. Instead, we’ll boil down every humanities dissertation in the late twentieth century to, “Colonialism is bad.”

Then Columbus landed… in the Bahamas.

As anyone who’s taken a Disney cruise or listened to the song “Bitchin’ Camero,” knows, the Bahamas are islands. The Native people in the area called that island “Guanahani.” Now, we think Columbus likely landed on San Salvador. But we don’t really know. Takeaway: Columbus did not set foot in the Americas.

That doesn’t mean shit did not go very, very bad very, very quickly.

Particularly Egregious Crimes of Christopher Columbus

Let’s cut the hero-worship about “discovering new worlds” and point out that you can’t discover a thing someone’s already in possession of, namely, what white people like to call “The New World.” In fact, Columbus didn’t know he’d discovered a damn thing. He thought he’d reached India. That’s why we call the Bahamas “The West Indies” and Native Americans/First People “American Indians.”

Hahaha, isn’t that funny? No, it’s not. Imagine your name came from a stupid-ass white man’s mistake. Some have chosen to embrace it, others find it offensive. Always let native people take the lead when it comes to preferred terminology. It’s the least we white people can give them.

Briefly: Columbus came for gold and spices. Ooops, no spices, and very, very, little gold. How about some slaves? Slaves, anyone? Slaves all around! On his second voyage, Columbus seized native people, ordered 500 sent back to Spain (200 died en route), and gave 600 to Spanish people for slaves. That’s more than a thousand people that he, personally, ordered enslaved. We are celebrating a guy who personally enslaved a thousand people. Remember that when your post office is closed.

And since there wasn’t much gold, Columbus and company forced native people to work in mines or farm cotton. When they met a quota, they were given a token to hang around their neck. Howard Zinn says that people caught without a token “had their hands cut off and bled to death.”

Rather than deal with the Spanish, over 50,000 native people died by suicide. One source explains: “They plunged off cliffs, they poisoned themselves with roots, and they starved themselves to death. Oppressed by the impossible requirement to deliver tributes of gold, the Indians were no longer able to tend their fields, or care for their sick, children, and elderly. They had given up and committed mass suicide to avoid being killed or captured by Christians.”

There’s a lot of other stuff about mutilation and murder and sex trafficking children, but after a while, it becoming so numbing and awful you can’t read any more.

Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who saw Columbus’s conquest of Cuba and later became a vehement critic, says that, “from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?” Answer: apparently not the white people celebrating Columbus Day.

Boil it down to:

  1. Columbus was a bad man.
  2. Columbus began a pattern of Native American genocide
  3. That genocide included an erasure of Native American culture

Remember, Columbus Didn’t Discover Anything

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Archeology just published a paper confirming that human footprints discovered in New Mexico’s White Sands Park have been dated to 23,000 years ago, confirming that people were in the Americas pre-Clovis (12,000 BC). While mechanisms of their arrival remain debated, they shared what’s now the United States of America with giant ground sloths, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant armadillos, giant beavers, and the goddamn American lion.

You cannot discover a people who have been in the same place since they fought off giant ground sloths, which were truly fucking giant. No, really. Go look up some pictures of Megatherium.

Yeah, that thing doesn’t need a nap, does it?

FINE. Columbus was the first European to come to America, even if he didn’t actually set foot on America.

WRONG. Remember Leif Erikson? He and his Norse buddies remain the first European people to come to the Americas. There’s even evidence of a Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, found in Canada, which is actually part of America. It’s dated to 950-1050 AD, and looks to be a winter camp, showing evidence of iron smelting and woodworking.

So The Holiday Is A Fraud?

Mostly, yeah.

Columbus Day actually started in 1892, a year after 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans. Italians wanted to celebrate a man of their own heritage, “humanizing” themselves and making themselves more acceptable to mainstream America. So many of them see Columbus Day as a day to celebrate not just Columbus, but themselves and their contributions to… America?

Do you really want your contribution to be “starting a pattern of genocide”?

Some Caucasian eyes need to be opened. Pick one reason listed above. That single reason is enough to invalidate someone’s holiday-getting status (except in South Carolina, which celebrates Confederate Memorial Day). Well, unfortunately not the slave thing. I mean, President’s Day, amiright?

Pause to cringe. Hard.

Then remember that Washington was known as a particularly unkind slavemaster. Cringe harder.

But at least Washington wasn’t directly responsible for mass suicides. So there’s that.

Anyway, even if Columbus and the Spanish hadn’t been spectacularly garbage people who set off a pattern that killed millions, they didn’t discover shit, and it’s insulting to claim they did. So stop celebrating Columbus Day. Now. Many places have replaced the holiday with “Native Peoples’ Day” or some variation thereof, and it’s the least we can do.

Instead of bitching about that post office closure, learn whose land you really live on.

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