When I was five, my whole family had recently relocated from Mexico to the suburbs of Maryland, where we lived for the next three years. Despite being so young, I remember something we were being taught in school struck me as... odd.
We were singing in class about some dude that "sailed the ocean blue" in 1492, and "discovered" America. Like, as if no one had ever been on it before, or there were just a bunch of monkeys and mango trees and nothing else but vast acres of untouched land?
Hold up, I knew for a fact that America was already there, existing and, in fact, thriving before 1492. Not wanting to alienate myself further from this new crowd, I sang along. This is how I learned, from a young age, that people could have different perceptions and interpretations of the world and historical facts. Especially when a particular interpretation of facts spins the circumstances as "positive" or "worth celebrating" because they licensed your position in history.
Let's take a quick little stroll through historical facts lane:
• The oldest human remains found in Mexico are 13,000 years old, indicating that humans beings were already populating Mexico 10,983 years BEFORE CHRIST (or Common Era). 11,508 years BEFORE COLUMBUS.
• Between 2000 B.C.E and 250 C.E., Ancient Mexican and West Indies* (Caribbean) Civilizations had already developed complex writing systems, a calendar, mathematics, art, architecture, and an astronomical system. The Maya people developed some of the most accurate pre-telescope astronomy in the world.
• By the time Columbus arrived in San Salvador in 1492, Mexico and other South American countries were already the home of great civilizations complete with city-states, political, and religious systems, with centuries of rich history behind them.
• Columbus was not even the first European to encounter the Americas*. Leif Erikson, a badass Viking Explorer, first reached North America in the early 11th century. He peacefully founded a small settlement called Vinland in what is now Newfoundland, Canada. This is Leif Erikson and he was cool:
So, Columbus was pretty much just the first person to invade the Americas, raping, pillaging, and slaughtering Natives.
Who was Christopher Columbus? Christopher Columbus was unfortunately born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa (now part of modern Italy). His father was a wool weaver and owned a cheese stand, something Christopher would've been better off sticking to. Who doesn't like cheese.
Christopher had three brothers (who would later travel with him to America) and one sister. He went to sea for the first time at ten years old. At around 19 years old he began an apprenticeship with important families of Genoa, and he married a woman, Filipa, with whom he had one child; Diego. His wife died while he was away on some trip and he had to go pick up Diego. Some years later he impregnated another woman, Beatriz, and had another son; Fernando.
He knew Latin, Portuguese and Spanish, and was widely interested in astronomy, geography, and history. He was also a BIG fan of the bible. Fanatic seems to be the right word. It is worth mentioning that towards the end of his life he wrote two books:
The Book Of Profecies– in which he writes down his prophecies for the apocalypse and re-interprets his career as an explorer in the light of Christian eschatology; and The Book of Privileges– in which he detailed all of the favors and rewards which he believed were owed to him and to his heirs by the Spanish crown. LOL.
These books, however, were written during his final voyages.
So, how did Columbus even stumble upon America?
Columbus took four voyages back and forth from Spain to The Americas; in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502. Columbus proposed to find a new way to reach the East Indies (South and Southeast Asia) by sailing west. After much shopping around he was denied by the Portuguese, Italian, and English Crown. Finally, he received the support of the Spanish Crown ( Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile) excited at the prospect of trading spices with Asia. Columbus received his funding, ships, and men for his first voyage. This is a map of the 4 Voyages:
His first voyage left Spain August 3rd, 1492 and arrived in San Salvador (Dominican Republic) on October 12th, 1492. 525 years ago today. The indigenous people he encountered, The Taínos, were described as "peaceful and friendly". Nonetheless, on his first day, he ordered six of the natives to be seized to serve as his personal slaves, according to his diary.
He was named first Governer of The Indies by the Spanish crown– a title that meant he ruled these new lands he found (a.k.a " West Indies")– in the name of the Crown.
Some of the Natives of the Caribbean Basin.
The intent of his second voyage was to effectively colonize the newly discovered Taíno tribe and Dominican lands, so he went back to Spain and reloaded on ammunition, weapons, ships, and men. His ships were filled with priests, farmers, and soldiers whose mission was to colonize. This time, Columbus and his men were committed to converting the natives to Christianity.
Once he landed back in the West Indies (a.k.a Americas– read note below)* on November 3, 1493, he set up a Tribute System with the Taíno tribe which dictated that indigenous residents above 14 years of age were required to find and deliver a specific quota of gold every three months. Upon doing so, they would receive tokens that they wore around their necks. Any indigenous person found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. He was known to cut off noses, limbs, tongues for disobedience and parade naked women around the village.
Portrayals of Columbus' brutality towards the Natives
He introduced Indian slavery proposing that it would be profitable enough to compensate for the little supply of gold found, which he had promised his investors, would be bountiful. In 1495, he and his men went on a raid in the interior of Española (a.k.a. Haiti) capturing 1,500 Taino, men, women and children. Columbus picked the 500 best "specimens" and sent them to Spain. Two hundred of these five hundred Taino died en-route. The investors, who now not only included the Spanish but also the Portuguese, were pleased with their financial return and kept funding the motherfucker.
Columbus wanted to sail south of the Islands he has pillaged thus far, tipped off by Portugal's King John II, who suspected there was land in that direction because his navy had spotted canoes on a far-off shore.
On August 2, 1498, Columbus came ashore in present-day Trinidad and Tobago, which eventually led him to Venezuela, which was the gateway for this Tyrant to the rest of South America.
It was around this time that the Spanish Crown started receiving reports that he was mismanaging the lands from settlers that had returned from the Indies. Many of them lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish Court.
At the same time, Columbus was fatigued by chronic arthritis and ophthalmia (and probably all the killing and raping too) and sent a request to the Crown that he be appointed a royal commissioner to help him govern.
To his surprise and dismay, they sent Francisco de Bobadilla, the newly appointed Governor of the Indies, to arrest him and strip him of his titles on August 23, 1500, and send him back to Spain in chains. YASSSSS.
Columbus (and his brothers– who were his allies through all of this) were jailed for only six weeks before King Ferdinand released them; restoring their freedom and their wealth (but not his title); and after much persuasion, agreed to fund Columbus's fourth voyage. Yep.
Columbus managed to receive funding for a fourth voyage because he claimed he wanted to find a westward passage to the Indian Ocean, but once again, he casually made his way to South America, this time docking in Honduras on July 30, 1502.
He spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, made his way through Cuba, and made a pit stop in Jamaica because his ships sustained damage from a storm. He was stranded in Jamaica for a year (lol) because the Governor of The Indies at the time, who was Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres (Bobadilla, the previous governor, died in a hurricane in 1502), hated Columbus and refused to send help. Alas, he sent help in 1504, and Columbus made his way back to Spain one last time.
Columbus died in 1506 at the age of 54, due to horrible reactive arthritis that caused him to bleed from his eyes and other horrible symptoms. Sorry, not sorry.
Columbus' arrival to the "New World" in a way marked the beginning of the Age of Discovery that spanned three centuries, in which far-reaching overseas exploration became a defining part of European culture and the beginning of globalization.
So, when you're a little person and you're hearing a whole classroom of your peers being taught that Columbus triumphantly discovered the very lands in which we now stand– that he was grand, victorious, a champion; when you happen to omit one of the cruelest genocides in history– millions of Natives slaughtered and raped; when you happen to somehow imply that these natives were not really civilized human beings, as if they were still yet to become homo sapiens, when in fact they made some of the biggest discoveries in astronomy, mathematics, and political organization... when you happen to omit all of that and every second Monday of October you celebrate this man...
What are you teaching the people of the United States?
You are letting history be whitewashed. You are letting ignorance stay in the shadows. This country has a huge issue differentiating between what is worth celebrating and what is worth remembering.
Hitler is worth remembering because he serves as a lesson and changed the course of history.
Robert E. Lee is worth remembering because he serves as a lesson and changed the course of history.
Joseph Stalin is worth remembering because he serves as a lesson and changed the course of history.
Abraham Lincoln is worth celebrating because he progressed equal rights.
Martin Luther King Jr.is worth celebrating because he progressed equal rights.
Harvey Milk is worth celebrating because he progressed equal rights.
Columbus is worth remembering because he serves as a lesson and changed the course of history. What he did to millions of human beings is inexcusable and not worth celebrating.
Asshole Pictured Above
From all the historical characters above, differentiate who deserves a statue and a national holiday, and who doesn't. Remember: All of the above will always be remembered in history books, for better or worse; even if you take down their statues or national holidays– regrettably that doesn't undo the painful scars they left in the world. •
* Note: Haiti (Española), San Salvador, Venezuela, Mayans, Aztects, and more are all located in what is now America, South America, and the Caribbean. Back in Columbus' time they called this whole region the West Indies.
 Zinn, Howard (2009). A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present. New York, NY: Harper Collins. p. 3