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Jennings: Remembering Columbus

Departing from the port of Palos Aug. 3, 1492, Columbus sailed his maiden voyage of the Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria. On Oct. 12, Columbus reached the “New World” and the Bahamas archipelago was spotted. However, the “New World” concept only applies to Europeans as Native Americans had been living on this Great Turtle Island (what we now call the United States of America) for at least 12,000 years.

Native Americans evolved through their archaic period and by 2500 B.C. were engaged in sophisticated hunting and gathering, and by about 700 B.C. practiced a high-yield of shifting agriculture that produced crops like the cassava, yams, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, peanuts, peppers, tomatoes and tobacco. As long as the waters flowed and the sun rose and set it could not be imagined that it would be otherwise. But the Genoese navigator and colonizer would soon put two civilizations on a collision course. What could the original inhabitants of the islands have said and thought when strange looking vessels carrying strange looking people entered their visual domain?

The Genoese navigator and colonizer would soon put two civilizations on a collision course.

Dressed in his finest clothing, Columbus went ashore claiming the land in the name of Spain. He also announced the island be named San Salvador. The island people he encountered he called, “Indios” or Indians because he assumed America was part of the Indies, in Asia. The word “Indian” is a misnomer because of his geographical mistake, but remains a racial term used to describe Native Americans today.

Wanting to gain more land and wealth, Columbus and his crew continued eastward and arrived at Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) Dec. 5. There he met the Taino or “the good people,” and after remarking in his captain’s log of the hospitality he and his men received, Columbus wantonly killed and enslaved the islanders, under the installation of the encomienda system – in which entire Native villages were “commended” to individual colonists or groups of colonists to work in mines or on plantations for food, gold and spun cotton.

This forced-labor system escaped the moral censure that slavery received, but was equally brutal. At least one million Native children and adults perished to near extinction by 1550 as a result of disease, exhaustion, starvation, or being killed for resisting enslavement by Columbus and his men.

Sexual slavery was also widespread among the Spanish settlers. Columbus wrote: “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest sympathetic to the plight of Indians, described the terrible violence against them: “[the Spanish] rode the backs of the Indians as if they were in a hurry,” and they “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.”

During Columbus’ time in Haiti, he and his men hunted Taino Indians for sport, beating, raping, torturing, killing and then using their bodies as food for their hunting dogs.

Columbus Day celebrates his discovery of the New World, but does not take into proper account the level of cultural exchange that took place between the Americas and the West.

In 1502, the first African slaves were brought to the island to replace many of the Taino who had died. Soon after the ships landed, some Africans escaped to the woods and found a new home among the Indians. This shift in the labor force had bred a new population of mixed Africans and Native Americans; and by 1650 Mexico alone had an African-Indian population (some with white ancestry) of 100,000.

The conquest was a major turning point in the history of the Americas. It marked not only Columbus’ violent victory over the people on the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola, but set in motion the medieval process of a new social edifice bringing conquered dominions into Christendom.

Columbus’ reign of terror would be replicated a half-century later by Cortez (in Mexico) and Pizarro (in Peru). The expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1513, Coronado in 1540, and de Soto launched similar crusades effecting the same pattern on the North American continent.

The Spanish example was followed and furthered by the British, beginning at Roanoke in 1585, followed by Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. Overall, the process of English colonization along the Atlantic Coast was marked by enslavement and a series of massacres of Native people as unyielding and as destructive as any perpetrated by the Spaniards.

In 1971, Congress declared Columbus Day a federal public holiday, commemorated on the second Monday of October. As a traditional holiday, Columbus Day celebrates his discovery of the New World, but does not take into proper account the level of cultural exchange that took place between the Americas and the West. Many New World crops and goods became global successes and were highly significant to European development. The holiday unilaterally celebrates European settlement of the New World, but ignores the tally of human life and suffering experienced by indigenous people, and the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade that brought as many as 20 million Africans to the New World.

At least one million Native children and adults perished to near extinction by 1550 as a result of disease, exhaustion, starvation, or being killed for resisting enslavement by Columbus and his men.

Columbus Day is also marked with parades, pageants and retail shopping bargains across the nation. Schools close and government employees enjoy the day off. However, some wish this chapter of our history could be forgotten, some project this as a triumph of Western civilization and Christianity over paganism and savagery, still others have marked this as the soul of American national character and that reparations or at least admission of the truth are due.

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College and her students in her 1997 summer class, “Intercultural Encounters: The West and its ‘Others,’” suggest an alternative celebration called, “Heritage Day.” Giving opportunity to tell a more truthful and balanced story of the opening of the Americas and a celebration of diversity among the cultures from Europe, the Americas and Africa.

Heritage Day could be a day of re-education, a time for critical review of times and themes during the more than 500 years of intercultural encounters. This could also be a time for cultural renewal – the commemoration of the greatest effects of Columbus’ voyages – the creation of a new mixture of people, a hybrid of cultures on the New World meeting ground of diverse peoples. In this way, we could honor all those who sacrificed their lives for the New World enterprise and not just one man, but a diversity of cultures.

What would Columbus think? What do you think? Can we escape our past and present new dialog for the sake of inclusivity of all peoples who had encountered one another in the Americas and the Caribbean? You decide how you want to remember Columbus.

Julianne Jennings, Nottoway, is adjunct professor of Anthropology at Eastern Connecticut State University and Rhode Island College.