Explaining Columbus Day

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In 1968, Congress saw Christopher Columbus as a man who overcame major obstacles with great determination. They established a new holiday as a symbol of mankind courageously challenging the unknown. We do not celebrate his birthday, but an event that unified the globe.

Columbus ranks among the most intrepid and versatile men of any epoch. He was continually confronted by conspiracies in his ranks and the challenge of dealing humanely with the indigenous peoples. He gave equal importance to expanding Christianity as he did to trade. With this in mind, he ordered Frey Ramón Pané to learn the native language and mythologies. Pané produced a detailed study for Columbus in 1494. This was not the act of a man bent on genocide.

His first setback was the wreck of the Santa Maria on Hispaniola on Christmas Day in 1492. Leaving 39 crewmen at a fort he called Navidad with the goodwill of the local chieftain, Columbus sailed back to Spain. When he returned on his second voyage, all his men were dead. Because his mission was not of conquest, Columbus continued his policy of trade and fair dealings with the indigenous people. He exacted no retribution.

But this return voyage brought hundreds of new colonists from Spain. Columbus set up trading posts among various tribes on the island. When one tribe wiped out a new outpost in 1495, killing another 40 Spaniards, Columbus considered it an act of war. He captured 1,600 of that tribe, enslaving them as war booty, which was common practice among Indigenous and European cultures alike.

Columbus had little control over the waves of colonists sent by Spain. These included convicts and non-working hidalgos (“gentlemen”). He was famously shipped home in chains for his family’s hanging of seven Spanish rebels (he was always considered an Italian foreigner among his Iberian subordinates), but later exonerated. It was another rebel, Francisco Roldán, that changed the admiral’s trading post concept into his own feudal model, cheating the natives and forcing them to be serfs for his band of rebels. Columbus’s attempts to arrest Roldán and restore order failed. Ultimately, Roldán’s methods were grudgingly accepted by the crown and by Columbus. By 1498, native hostility and uncontrolled colonists forever changed relations in the New World. In 1499, the monarchs usurped Columbus’s monopoly, licensing other entrepreneurs to explore the Caribbean.

Columbus opened immigration to the New World, but did not initiate the African slave trade. Others did so to develop sugar cane plantations. Indigenous peoples could not fend off European or African immigration any more than we can exclude modern immigration to these shores today. Every nation and every continent has endured the trauma of invasion, unwanted immigration, disease and destruction of traditional culture. Vilifying one courageous man, who was clearly overwhelmed by circumstances, is to deny the ultimate wonder of what he accomplished for humanity.

“…my errors have not been committed with malicious intent…I have fallen into error through ignorance and by force…”
—Cristoforo Colombo, in chains, 1502

—John Mancini

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