A Holiday-Worthy American Hero, in His Own Words

This week, many of us will enjoy a day off from work, as well as the occasion to pay reverent homage to someone we’ve been taught is a genuine hero: brave, courageous, and diligent, a man whose singular accomplishments made life for all us holiday takers possible.

Grand parades will proceed down festive avenues, and schoolkids will be reminded once again of the glorious events of 1492. A small minority of party-poopers will put their focus on less cheerful subjects, like murder and rape. But all of us will in one way or another commemorate the life of Christopher Columbus.

Since the man has streets and universities and whole cities named after him, you know he’s not only an important historic figure but also a righteous one — because, obviously, a great country like the United States of America (getting greater every day), wouldn’t lionize any person with un-American values. So I decided to learn a little more about the intrepid explorer. Turns out Christopher Columbus was “American” before there was an America. No wonder we idolize him!

Re-reading his Captain’s log memorializing the Europeans’ first contact with New World savages, the Arawaks — Indians, some called them; or aborigines — shows that Columbus was a man of tremendous foresight:

“They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

And when his ships failed to be filled with the gold he had pledged his sponsors back in Spain, he promised to bring back something alternatively valuable:

“The savages are so naive and free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. I shall bring as many slaves as you ask.”

In 1495, after going on a rampage through Haiti, Columbus rounded up 1500 Arawak men, women and children, put them in pens guarded by dogs, and selected the 500 “best” specimens for shipment back to a more civilized place. About 300 survived the journey and were promptly put up for sale by the recipient Spanish archdeacon. Of this episode, Columbus wrote:

“Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.

In less than two years of constant murder, suicide or forced exile, fully half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

On the other hand — and we really should be even-handed about this — he was an excellent sailor.

To the descendants of the millions Columbus helped conquer, kill, or enslave, no amount of speechifying and rationalizing makes the statues and the parades and the bank holidays remotely legitimate. They’re all annual reminders that with enough creative story-telling the rich, powerful and violent can blithely re-write history, making heroes out of barbarians.


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