Should We Abolish Columbus Day?

Marlen Suyanpa Bodden
 

Opinion:

The question whether we should abolish Columbus Day should be posed to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization that, in the early 1930s, successfully petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the federal holiday. This writer contacted the Knights of Columbus to ask the question: Knowing the truth about Columbus and what he did to the ancestors of indigenous and Black people in the Caribbean, should you reverse support for a holiday in his honor?  The Knights of Columbus declined to make a statement in response, but its website explained why it fought to have a federal holiday in Columbus’s honor.

The Knights of Columbus’s website stated that it initially named its organization after the Italian explorer, rather than an Irish saint, because the American public embraced Columbus at a time when anti-Catholic and anti-immigration sentiments were strong. The organization added that using Columbus as the order’s namesake “asserted an important truth: that not only was there a place for Catholics and immigrants within American society, but that such a person had already played a part in creating the young, free world around them.” 

It is a preposterous statement that Columbus played a part in creating a free world, given not only what is known about him today, but what was known about him in the 16th century. The Knights of Columbus should know, better than anyone else, the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas, a Catholic friar, who, after having participated in massacres of native people in the Caribbean, had a change of heart about mass homicides and abuse of indigenous people by the Spanish.

 

 

De las Casas left his assignment in the Caribbean in 1515 and returned to Spain to ask the Spanish Crown to end mistreatment of the native people of the New World. De las Casas, notably, did not have a problem with enslavement and abuse of Africans. The Catholic Church, therefore, has known about the massacres and abuse of the indigenous people since at least 1515.  Later in the 16th century, De las Casas wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which was published in 1875. In 1934, the Knights of Columbus should have known that Columbus had no role in creating a “free world.”

Despite the Knights’ stance regarding Columbus Day, the American public is increasingly joining Native Americans in calling for abolishment of Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As of September 23, 2019, eight states, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, Alaska, North Carolina, Maine, Vermont, and Louisiana, and more than 130 cities and towns, including Berkeley, New York City, and Seattle, celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  

Those who propose abolishing Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day argue that celebrating Columbus is to honor a murderer and rapist. Opponents of this view state that Columbus Day simply is meant to honor Italian-Americans, not Columbus. To answer the question whether Columbus Day should be abolished, however, we should investigate who Columbus really was.  Perhaps learning the details about of his life -- more than that he sailed the ocean blue – will cause Italian-Americans to no longer want to be associated with Columbus.  

Let us dive into what we know about the life of Christopher Columbus, who was born in Genoa, and, as a young man, went to Portugal, where the Crown hired him to conduct razzias, or voyages to kidnap and enslave people in West Africa. In 1485, as an experienced maritime commander, kidnapper, and enslaver, Columbus, after having been rejected by the Portuguese, started following the peripatetic court of Isabella and Ferdinand, asking them to fund a voyage across the Atlantic, then called the Ocean Sea, to India and Japan.  It was not until 1492, however, that the Spanish monarchs approved his venture, chiefly because the Turkish empire had blocked their trade routes to the east.

Columbus’s voyage to the New World began on August 3, 1492; his expedition landed on October 12 at Guanahaní, now known as Watling Island, in the Bahamas. It is peculiar that the U.S. has a federal holiday named after someone who never stepped foot on this land.

 

 

From Guanahaní, the invaders sailed to other Bahamian islands, including one where they kidnapped and enslaved seven people and forced them on their ships. The invaders asked for gold everywhere they went and, using signs, they learned from native people, who pointed at an island across the sea, “Colba,” or Cuba, where they could find the precious metal.  The conquerors went to Cuba, which Columbus thought was Japan. There, Columbus kidnapped more native people, the Tainos, and sailed with them to his next stop, Haiti, where he noted gold in river sands. After naming Haiti “La Española,” he began his return journey to Spain with the kidnapped natives, including Haitian Tainos.

At the time, Isabella and Ferdinand were in Barcelona. Therethe monarchs threw Columbus his own Columbus Day parade. Columbus then presented Isabella and Ferdinand with exhibits, including six indigenous men wearing gold jewelry, wild rats, monkeys, parrots, and a small quantity of gold. He then obtained approval for a second voyage and left Spain on September 25, 1493.  

Back in La Espanola, Columbus proceeded to kidnap and enslave the natives, and he forced them to build towns and pan for gold. Columbus and his men reportedly cut off the noses and ears of any native who did not obey their orders, and made each Taino leader responsible for collecting and paying Columbus tribute.

However, the explorer disappointed the monarchs because he found little gold and instead sent shiploads of enslaved native people to the Spanish slave markets, which already were stocked with enslaved Africans. 

Given what we now know, perhaps it’s time for the Knights of Columbus to acknowledge that lobbying for the creation of Columbus Day was a misstep, as Columbus does not honor the significant and important contributions of Italian-Americans to the United States.

Now that a significant portion of the American public is also joining Native American activists to call for the abolition of a holiday meant to honor someone who initiated European conquests of the New World and kidnapped, enslaved, and brutalized indigenous and Black people, the Knights of Columbus should reverse its support for a historical figure who, along with his fellow conquerors, lives in the dark shadows of history.

This is an opinion piece by attorney Marlen Suyanpa Bodden.

 

Author Bio:

Marlen Suyapa Bodden is a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society in New York City – the nation’s oldest law firm for the poor – and an anti-war, anti-slavery, and anti-death penalty activist. Bodden drew on her knowledge of modern and historical human rights abuses to write her forthcoming historical fiction Arrows of Fire, which is about the European conquest of Mexico.

                                                    © 2019 Marlen Suyapa Bodden

 

Highbrow Magazine

 

 

Image Sources:

--Illustration of Christopher Columbus by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598) (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Painting of Queen Isabella and Columbus – Library of Congress (Wikipedia.org, Creative Commons)

--Semhur (Wikimedia.org, Creative Commons)

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