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No Hero Here

Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day?

By James Donahue

As far as we know, school textbooks are still filling our children with the mythological account of Christopher Columbus, his dynamic discovery of America in 1492, and thus portraying him as a heroic figure in the nation’s history. But it is a lie.

Columbus set sail in search of a better trade route to India. When he landed on San Salvador and the other islands in the region, including Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba, he brought with him a legacy of death and destruction.

After that first voyage, Queen Isabella appointed him Viceroy and Governor of the Indies, and he ruled from Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. After this, things got ugly. It is known that Columbus captured 10 to 25 natives and brought them back to Spain. Only six arrived alive. One report said Columbus has been "vilified as a symbol of slavery and genocide and the celebration of his arrival likened to a celebration of Hitler and the holocaust."

On his second voyage to Hispaniola, Columbus found that a fort he had erected on the northern coast of Haiti, was in ruins and the Spaniards that had stayed behind were murdered. In retaliation, Columbus demanded that all native Tainos over 14 years of age bring a hawk’s bell filled with gold powder or 25 pounds of spun cotton every three months as punishment. Those that failed to make delivery had their hands cut off and were then left to bleed to death.

The atrocities on Hispaniola were found out after the court appointed Francisco de Babadilla as the new governor while Columbus was away in 1500. Babadilla was immediately ravaged by complaints about Columbus and his two brothers, Bartolome and Diego. The charges against the brothers were vaguely recorded even though they were arrested and brought in chains back to Spain. There they waited in jail for six weeks before King Ferdinand released them and financed a fourth and final voyage.

A document discovered much later is said to be a record of Columbus’s trial and contains the alleged testimony of 23 witnesses. They accused Columbus of regularly using barbaric acts of torture to govern Hispaniola. Spanish historian Consuelo Varela wrote: "Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place."

One terrible result of the introduction of the Spanish to the islands was a pandemic of smallpox that ravaged the natives, leaving most of them dead within a few years. In an ironic twist of fate, it was said the same voyagers introduced syphilis to Spain, which they picked up among the island natives.

Columbus did bring a squadron of ships from Spain to the Americas, all right. He made four different voyages, but never got closer than Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. His ships also touched Trinidad and the tip of South America on the third voyage. He never regarded the Islands he reached as a new world, but rather believed he had reached the Asian Continent. The reference to the aboriginal people as "Indians" suggests that he believed he had traveled to India.

While the history books credit Columbus as the man who discovered America, there is clear archaeological evidence that the Vikings the perhaps even the Chinese were on the North American Continent long before Columbus arrived. Also the continent had already been populated for thousands of years, some of these people having left evidence of having once built cities and developed culturally. The difference was that Columbus’ trip in 1492 was so highly publicized throughout Europe that it sparked more exploration and triggered the European settlements that led to the eventual take-over of the land.

Of course the result of all of this was the seafront colonies that eventually revolted and formed the beginning of what became the United States of America. The very name, America, was taken from that of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer and cartographer who in about 1502 was the first to show that Brazil and the West Indies were part of new continents and were in no way connected to Asia. Thus he exposed the existence of a new "super continent" that became known as America.

Our celebration of Columbus Day on October 12 marks the anniversary of the date that Columbus landed at San Salvador in 1492. The idea of celebrating the day was first conceived in San Francisco in 1869. It became established as a national holiday in 1937. Most people notice it because there is no mail delivery and public services are closed for the day.