Why Do We Celebrate Men Like Christopher Columbus?

“In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”


This children’s song essentially sums up the depth of our education in regards to Christopher Columbus.  I suppose “In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue to see how many slaves he could accrue”   wasn’t as catchy.

I posted the Columbus Day gag card on my wall this past week but, all joking aside, I wanted to quickly address the sadness in celebrating a holiday such as Columbus day and what the history of that day truly is.

Nothing is more striking than hearing from the descendants of the people enslaved by Columbus and for that purpose I want to share the following video:


.What does it say of our culture that we neglect to celebrate heroes such as Harriet Tubman or Cesar Chavez but instead dedicate days to the memory of men such as Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus and the men he traveled with brought disease, religious persecution, and an end to freedom to the people they encountered.  They enslaved native inhabitants, forced them to convert to Christianity, and “conquered” them with violence in order to fulfill promises made to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

In his journals, Columbus is even quoted as saying, “Your hignesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes who love the holy Christian faith, and the propagation of it, and who are enemies to the sect of Mahoma [Islam] and to all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Cristóbal Colon, to the said parts of India to see the said princes … with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith …. Thus, after having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms and lordships … your Highnesses gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go to the said parts of India …. I shall forget sleep, and shall work at the business of navigation, so that the service is performed.”

On the first day he encountered the native people of the Americas, Columbus wrote in his journal: “They should be good servants …. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses.

This mindset became the basis for European interaction with First Nation inhabitants.  By 1514 Spanish conquerors had adopted “the Requirement,” an ultimatum in which Indians were forced to accept “the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world” or face persecution. If people did not immediately comply, the Requirement warned them:

.“We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can.”

James W. Loewen addresses the egregious historical inaccuracy in our need to celebrate a man like Columbus, Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass. […] Columbus’s own writings reflect this increasing racism. When Columbus was selling Queen Isabella on the wonders of the Americas, the Indians were “well built” and “of quick intelligence.” “They have very good customs,” he wrote, “and the king maintains a very marvelous state, of a style so orderly that it is a pleasure to see it, and they have good memories and they wish to see everything and ask what it is and for what it is used.” Later, when Columbus was justifying his wars and his enslavement of the Indians, they became “cruel” and “stupid,” “a people warlike and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from ours. It is always useful to think badly about people one has exploited or plans to exploit. Modifying one’s opinions to bring them into line with one’s actions or planned actions is the most common outcome of the process known as “cognitive dissonance,” according to the social psychologist Leon Festinger. No one likes to think of himself or herself as a bad person. To treat badly another person whom we consider a reasonable human being creates a tension between act and attitude that demands resolution. We cannot erase what we have done, and to alter our future behavior may not be in our interest. To change our attitude is easier. Columbus gives us the first recorded example of cognitive dissonance in the Americas, for although the Indians may have changed from hospitable to angry, they could hardly have evolved from intelligent to stupid so quickly. The change had to be in Columbus.”


Teaching an honest account of our history to future generations is one thing… celebrating the launch of a genocide is something else entirely.


5 thoughts on “Why Do We Celebrate Men Like Christopher Columbus?

  1. Wow. As an Australian I didn’t really know all that much about the history of Columbus, and that’s terrible. It is curious that it’s even a holiday. I have to say though, the history of ‘Australia Day’ isn’t all that better when you look into it.

    • Australia Day? Tell me more!

      I’ve never heard of it and I a more than absurdly obsessed with Australia :)

      • Basically Australia day is for celebrating when British settlers came to Australia. Of course it kind of ignores how the indigenous population were treated by these settlers; apparently (according to wikipedia) there are indigenous protests each year on Australia day suggesting it should instead be called ‘Invasion Day’. However this doesn’t seem to be publicised in the media much.

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