From the Citizen archives, first published October 17, 2003:
Forty years ago, the United States declared a national holiday to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving. Columbus Day is one of just two American holidays to honour a specific person (the other is Martin Luther King Day in January).
Its sadly ironic our southern neighbours would choose to glorify Christopher Columbus. The myth of Columbus is the myth of America - ambition, courage, intelligence and fortitude conquering a new frontier. Greed, theft, slavery and genocide are swept under historys carpet in the interests of patriotism and a day off.
As James Loewen points out in his excellent book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, its certainly not the fault of American schoolchildren to have such a glossy impression of Columbus. The noble, heroic two-dimensional portrait of Columbus stresses 1492 and his discovery of Haiti as the beginning of a new, golden era for humanity. And it was ... for white Europeans.
For the estimated three million Arawaks living on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, it was the beginning of the end. Spanish explorers like Columbus read The Requirement in Spanish to the bewildered inhabitants upon arriving at new lands. It basically said "convert to Christianity now or well make you all slaves and if youre hurt or killed in the process, its your fault."
The Arawaks didnt convert and were forced into slavery. Columbus and members of his family would visit Haiti often in the next eight years, desperately looking for gold. Arawaks who didnt serve their Spanish masters had noses, ears and hands cut off as a lesson for the rest. They were hunted for sport and killed for dog food. Columbus would reward his top men with Arawak women to rape.
By 1516, the Arawaks numbered just 12,000 in Haiti. By the middle of the century, they were wiped off the face of the Earth.
Columbus and his colleagues were so ruthless with the native Haitian population that by 1505, Columbuss son was importing slaves from Africa to provide additional labour.
Loewen stresses that these atrocities are not the product of a historians overactive imagination but from the journals and letters of Columbus himself and members of his expeditions.
Its partly unfair to judge Columbus through the hazy fog of history, with five centuries of ethics on our side. Slavery was a growing industry in his time and the brown heathens native to the New World were just obstacles to the riches awaiting Gods chosen people. Although there was opposition in Europe to slavery and the extermination of the native population, it was a small minority.
Even his reputation as the man who discovered the Americas is false. If the millions of aboriginal people hadnt lived in North America already, theres still ample proof that expeditions from Indonesia, Japan, China, Siberia, Egypt, Morocco, Britain, Ireland and West Africa, not to mention the Vikings, beat Columbus to the New World by hundreds or thousands of years.
As Loewen soberly concludes, Columbus is historically important not for his discovery of the New World but for what he did when he got here. Countless others would follow his template to riches well into the 20th century: appropriate the territory from the indigenous populations in violent fashion and either make them slaves or bring them in from elsewhere to harvest the lands bountiful resources.
When Columbus returned to Haiti in 1493, he brought 17 ships and more than 1,000 well-armed men. His mission was not to further contact with new peoples. It was to plunder their land to make himself and his Spanish masters rich.
Columbus is an important figure in world history and deserves recognition. Naming a holiday in his honour, however, is to condone the vicious acts of a greedy oppressor and to ignore the suffering of native North Americans, then and now.
-- Managing editor Neil Godbout