Columbus Day commemorates a holocaust
October 2, 2001
On Oct. 12, 1492, a lost ship's captain stumbled upon a Caribbean isle, thereby revealing a whole "New World" to Europe.
Christopher Columbus was half a world away from where he thought he was when he hit the beach on "Espanola." The "Great Navigator" reported to his employers in all seriousness that he'd located the biblical Garden of Eden.
One of Columbus's first misdeeds was to kidnap a hapless group of the island's native residents, carrying them off to Spain, thus beginning the transatlantic slave trade.
It was after his second voyage that things got really ugly. Returning to Espanola in 1493, Columbus was no longer the "simple seaman" his apologists present. He'd been named a Spanish viceroy, appointed governor of the island and held the military rank of admiral. In his official capacity, he quickly established the "encomiendo," a system of forced labor imposed on every "Indio" in his domain.
The rule was that the Indians would be worked until they died, which they did in great numbers.
No one really knows how many Indians perished during the years Columbus held sway. Bartolome de Las Casas, a priest who became the first European historian of the Americas, was on Espanola at the time. He estimated there were 3 million native people on the island when the Spanish arrived. More modern and scientific demographers have offered figures as high as 8 million. Either way, there were barely 100,000 survivors when Columbus departed in 1500, and even those remnants were extinct a few years later.
The record is also replete with accounts of Columbus presiding over the wholesale butchery of the native population. Sometimes the killing was undertaken to "enforce the law" or "send a message" about who was boss. Often, it was done for sport. Sometimes, religious motives were apparently involved, as in the practice of roasting alive 13 Indians at a time -- the number signifying Christ and the 12 disciples -- on Easter Sunday.
What's worse than Columbus's personal record is the precedent he set. In his wake came Hernando Cortes, Francisco Pizarro and all the other conquistadors, each of whom perpetrated horrendous atrocities. Nor were the French, English and Dutch about to be outdone by their Iberian counterparts.
Ultimately, the European invasion and the conquest and colonization of the New World consumed more than 90 percent of the land therein and, with it, well more than 90 percent of the population indigenous to it. That translates to upward of 100 million human beings. To say that a holocaust of such dimension is unparalleled in recorded history is to understate things dramatically.
It is one thing to be the inadvertent beneficiary of Columbus's legacy. It is quite another to celebrate it.
But this is exactly what happens on Columbus Day every Oct. 12. It's as if the Germans had been victorious in World War II and had decided to conduct triumphal parades each year to commemorate the "achievements" of Adolf Hitler or Heinrich Himmler. One can well imagine the reaction of the local Jewish community.
American Indians view celebrations of Columbus in precisely the same light and for essentially the same reasons. Polemics about the First Amendment and how Euro Americans are only displaying a "legitimate pride in their heritage" when engaging in such activities do nothing to redeem the situation.
Nobody can undo history, of course. The past cannot be changed. Equally true, nonetheless, is that the past can be understood for what it was and that the resulting knowledge can be used to facilitate healing.
In this regard, ending the celebration of genocide, which is ColumbusDay, would seem an excellent place to start.
Ward Churchill is professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado. He's the author of "A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present" (City Lights Books, 1998) and "Struggle For the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Expropriation in Contemporary North America" (Common Courage Press, 1992). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.