Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?


In just a few weeks from my writing this, the majority of the country will have a three day weekend, thanks to a federal holiday known as Columbus Day. The holiday takes place on Oct. 8 and is a celebration of the life of Christopher Columbus, a man whose name most American children learn in preschool. But who was this man, why do we celebrate him, and more importantly, should we? To answer these questions, we must journey back to 1451, the year of Columbus’ birth and work our way forward to the present day.

Christopher Columbus was born on an unknown date in 1451 in Genoa Italy. The son of a wool trader, Columbus was not born into a wealthy family. As a result, in his early teenage years, Columbus went to sea aboard a merchant ship traveling to the Portuguese coast. In 1470, a group of French privateers attacked the ship Columbus was aboard, sinking it and killing the majority of the crew. However, by a stroke of luck, a young Columbus managed to grab hold of a loose piece of timber and miraculously floated all the way to Lisbon, the coastal city that also happens to be the capital of modern day Portugal. In Lisbon, Columbus became educated in mathematics, astronomy and navigation, skills which he would use on his later voyages. While in Lisbon, Columbus also began to develop a plan to reach India and the vast richest that awaited travelers there by sailing west rather than the traditional east. Columbus took his plan to many powerful people throughout Europe and was consistently rejected until Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain took a liking to his idea. They saw potential for great wealth in India and figured that the risk of losing Columbus and the ships they would provide him was worth the potential gargantuan rewards.

After Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to Columbus’ idea, he had to provide an estimate of the distance from his launching point, Portugal, and his end destination in Asia. Columbus eventually calculated that the distance from Portugal and Asia was approximately 3000 miles, not a difficult distance for a Spanish ship to traverse at the time period. However, Columbus had “miscalculated,” as the actual distance from Portugal to Asia was around 15,000 miles. I put “miscalculated” in quotations as it is a common misconception that Columbus’ computational mistake was entirely accidental. Columbus was actually quite geographically and mathematically knowledgeable, as he was an avid collector of old maps. When he made his calculation as to the distance of his voyage, he used the smallest posited circumference of the earth he could find in addition to the largest possible extension of the Asian continent to the east, heightening even these extremes. An explanation for this seeming incompetence can be found in Columbus’ passion for exploration. Had he presented a more accurate distance to Ferdinand and Isabella, he knew his proposal would have certainly been rejected, as no Spanish ship at the time could travel anywhere close to 15,000 miles. In making this purposeful error, Columbus was taking a huge risk with his error, gambling that he and his crew would be able to survive the journey to a land that he knew was some mysterious distance between 3,000 and 15,000 miles away. His gamble paid of as Ferdinand and Isabella provided him with three ships, the Niña, Pinta and Santa María, and he and his crew eventually hit what they believed to be India and what many now think was America. Both are incorrect.

Columbus had, in fact, landed on an island, now called Hispaniola, located in the Bahamas. Upon arriving at the island, Columbus and his men immediately encountered native residents called the Arawaks, whom Columbus incorrectly dubbed “Indians,” due to his misconception that he had landed in India. Columbus recorded his first thoughts of the Arawaks in his log, writing, “They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things … They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane … They would make fine servants. … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” We could subjugate them all. These words would prove to be a chilling premonition of what was to come for the Arawaks and the rest of the indigenous peoples who had the misfortune of being “discovered” by Europeans in the Americas. After his first encounter with the Arawaks, Columbus, by his own admission, “took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” By information, Columbus ment gold. When the Arawaks first ran down to the beach to greet Columbus and his crew, they were wearing various items of gold. Gold was of great interest to Columbus, as he was required to bring back wealth to Ferdinand and Isabella to finance his voyage. In addition, Columbus was also chasing great personal wealth.

After observing the Arawaks with gold in their possession, Columbus became convinced that the islands he had found were rich in gold, and he and his crew resorted to extreme cruelty to get it. Columbus issued an order that every native older than the age of 14 was required to bring him a certain amount of gold every three months or have both their hands cut off. However, Columbus had issued an order that was impossible to execute, as there was very little gold to be found on the islands. This lack of gold meant that a sickening amount of innocent natives had their hands brutally chopped off by Columbus and his men.

Unfortunately, Columbus’ brutalization of the natives did not end there. As an anecdote from one of Columbus’ men shows, he often gave kidnapped natives to his men as sex slaves. One of his men wrote: “While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful woman, whom the Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked — as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought she had been brought up in a school for whores.” This sickening quotation illustrates the horrific way in which Columbus took advantage of the natives and of the atrocities he committed against them.

In conclusion, the heinous acts committed against the natives by Columbus, eventually culminating in the complete annihilation of the Arawak race by 1550, should instantly disqualify him from being celebrated in any capacity. To put that in perspective, after Columbus arrived in 1492, it took only 58 years to bring the Arawak race from 500,000 people to zero. While many of the deaths can be attributed directly to slaughter or being worked to death at the hands of Columbus, many of the natives also died from diseases that the Europeans brought with them, to which they had no natural immunity. Columbus also took approximately 1,500 kidnapped natives back to Spain, as they had been unsuccessful in finding gold. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that we have a holiday in America for a man who never set foot in what is now the United States, or North America at all. Given the facts and the atrocities Columbus committed, he should not be celebrated anywhere, least of all federally in the country in which he committed said atrocities. When people learn about Columbus, it should be in an unbiased manner where they are presented the full image of the man, not just the idealized version with which most American grade school children are familiar.