Monday, October 14, 2013

Christopher Columbus was a Jerk

I had a wonderful day off from work today. Went for a run, out to breakfast with a friend, long day in the park: essentially just what I like to do with an extra day to myself. But despite my idyllic October Monday away from work, I can’t help but feel uneasy about the man behind today’s national holiday. I felt my unease trying to explain to a non-American why the deeds of Christopher Columbus warrant a national day of goofing off. It really hit home when I read an excellent web-comic by one of my favorite blogs The Oatmeal. That feeling of unease came from one simple fact: Christopher Columbus is a huge d-bag, and his history of rape, murder, and enslavement of the native people of the Americas is something I like to celebrate about as much as I like the thought of a staple-filled enema.

In case you don’t have time to read the full web-comic (and I highly recommend you do, it is after all the inspiration for this article), it’s essentially a long history of why exactly Cristóbal Colón was a human rights violator on a grand scale, and you should all know how I feel about human rights violators. The guy even has a section of his Wikipedia article titled “Accusations of Tyranny and Genocide.” Maybe I’m reading the wrong Wikipedia articles, but that seems like a tough accusation to come by unwittingly. Columbus’s initial voyages to the “New World” started off with a trip to the Bahamas where he lovingly wrote of his friendly interactions with the Lucayan natives he met there, who even helped rescue some of his men who landed on the island in a shipwreck. When the time came to return to his Spanish overlords and convince them to fund another voyage, he brought along twenty-five new Lucayan friends, only seven of whom survived the voyage. Yet Columbus’s next two extended voyages to the Caribbean were about to make his first eighteen victims pale in comparison.

When Columbus returned to the Americas, he was set up as Governor of Hispaniola, to rule from the capital of Santo Domingo. He was sent back to the Bahamas with a fighting force of 1,500 hundred men to eke out all the gold and wealth they could find. Now, he had gotten Queen Isabella super hyped up over the idea of a “New World” containing riches beyond imagining, so Columbus had to drum up some riches pretty darn quick or find himself rotting in the dungeon of a Spanish prison. His super-original-not-to-be-repeated-dozens-of-times-throughout-history idea was to greet the Lucayan native friends he made from his first voyage, and demand they hand over all their wealth. While they were at it, Columbus demanded his men have sexual rights to the native women. When some of the natives had the nerve to be like, “Uh, no way, bro,” Columbus hacked off their ears and noses as a warning to the rest of the Lucayans.

Over the next few years, Columbus brutally repressed a native revolt, sending 500 Lucayans to Spain to be sold as slaves (don’t worry though, only 300 actually made it). He also instituted a tribute system whereby natives who delivered valuables or gold to Columbus were rewarded with a token that saved them from brutal punishment for a while. Those who failed to deliver had their hands chopped off and hung around their necks as their “token.” Oh, and he also made sexual slaves of the female natives for his lieutenants, and personally wrote about how the nine- and ten-year-olds were particularly popular among his men; nothing to inspire a national holiday like a little child rape and slavery.

Columbus’s reign as governor was so horrendous that even the Spanish royals, not a duo known for their concern for other human beings (they also launched a little thing called the Spanish Inquisition), eventually had Columbus and his brothers arrested and sent back to Spain in chains for their cruelty. They were brought before a court and duly punished for their crimes. Just kidding of course, the royals pardoned Columbus six weeks after he arrived back in Spain and then funded another voyage to the New World, because genocide wasn’t a thing yet and everyone deserves a second chance (unless you were Jewish or Muslim in Spain at the time).

It boggles my mind that anyone could want to celebrate this total tool of an “explorer,” but apparently in the 1930s (also known as the heyday of human rights in America, HA) the Knights of Columbus needed a white, Catholic celebrity to exalt and so pressured FDR into giving them a holiday in his name. So there you have it, folks, ignorant white guys: screwing up national holidays since forever. To be fair, Italian-Americans have celebrated Columbus Day for a while longer than the country at large, mostly as a way of celebrating their Italian heritage.

No matter the recent origins of Columbus Day, and in the full support of this continuing to be a Get Out of Work Free Day in the future, I say there are so many greater heroes of the Age of Discovery we, as Americans, could be celebrating. The Oatmeal comic offers the example of Bartolomé de las Casas, a man who lived in Columbus’s colony for a time. He arrived in the “New World” a conqueror/explorer, just like Columbus, even owning a plantation worked by slaves at first. Yet over time, after witnessing the atrocities committed by his cohorts against the natives, de las Casas renounced his lands, freed his slaves, and spent the rest of his life publicizing and protesting the plight of the native Americans. He has some dicey history – at first, he advocated for replacing native slave labor with African slaves – but he later repented these views. Since he appears to be one of the first advocates of universal human rights at a time when even the colonists’ rights at home amounted to the right to STFU and do what the monarch says, this is pretty damn impressive.

I stand with The Oatmeal author Matt Inman when I say, let’s celebrate people like Bartolomé de las Casas today. Or let’s just celebrate human rights, or more appropriately, the indigenous peoples of the Americas who, despite the best efforts of the European colonists, are still around today. But please, whatever you do, don’t celebrate Columbus Day. That guy was a genocidaire, a rapist, a human rights abuser, and an all around douche.

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