Columbus Day Editorial

Posted October 13th, 2014

If Columbus deserves a “day,” so, too,  do Hitler and Jack the Ripper

by Tiger Tom

I, Tiger Tom, seldom get to write for the Gazette or the Occasional because I so seldom write about water.  But since they taught us in school that Columbus was the brave sailor who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 in his three merry ships whose names we had to memorize, his connection with water makes him fair game.

The first thing you need to know about Christopher Columbus is that he was a mediocre sailor but a skilled con man.  Above all, he was unimaginably greedy and as cruel as a snake.  Personally, Columbus was described by one historian as “an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing— not even exploitation, slavery, or twisting Biblical scripture— to advance his ambitions….”
Those are his good qualities.

Here is how historian Howard Zinn describes Columbus’ interaction with the native Anawak:

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. American Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.  (Zinn, Howard,  “A People’s History of the United States”.)

This is mild in comparison to some of the accounts by the great man’s contemporaries.  For example, the author of the multi-volume History of the Indies, the Catholic priest Bartolomé de las Casas,  who observed the region where Columbus was governor, recounted countless atrocities committed by Columbus and his followers.  Las Casas describes Spaniards driven by “insatiable greed” — “killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty.”  He describes how systematic violence was aimed at preventing “[American] Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings.”  The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing the natives by tens and twenties and cutting slices from their bodies to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas said, “My eyes have seen acts so foreign to human nature that I now tremble as I write them.”

But he did, as we like to say, “discover America,” so we have given him a “day” on our calendar.  I vote that we take it back.