I never thought much about Christopher Columbus until I became writing partners with Russell Means, in 1992. Russell had strong feelings about Columbus. He felt it was wrong to honor someone who oppressed Indians, and who avoided catastrophe only by the dumb luck of colliding with an unknown continent.
Often, Russell would go to Denver on Columbus Day to help lead a protest to shut down the Columbus Day Parade. Sometimes he landed in jail. This was worth it, he felt, because it made people more aware of the issues. Russell often said that jail was a good place to catch up on your reading. It was Russell’s hope that he would see the end of Columbus Day in the United States, in his lifetime. But Russell walked on in October 2012, and Columbus Day is still here. And people are still fighting about it. Why? Was Columbus a good guy or a bad guy? It’s not that complicated. What exactly did he do? Is he that truly exceptional individual who deserves his own national holiday?
When I look at video of the old protests, I see that both supporters and opponents of Columbus are passionate and vocal. What I don’t see is how intelligent people, all having access to the same set of historical facts, can’t calmly examine the facts together, and come to a rational agreement. We know certain facts about Columbus. If we look at what we know, it should be easy to agree whether this is someone we want to celebrate with a national holiday, parades, etc. Or not.
Columbus Day is the only national holiday in the United States—apart from Christmas, named after Jesus—that is named after an individual. That’s some elite company. Jesus and Columbus. Does Christopher Columbus really deserve to be honored and exalted in this way? Nobody thought so, apparently, until 1937, when the Knights of Columbus lobbied the U.S. government for a holiday named for a Catholic. So it would be a mistake to think of Columbus Day as some hallowed ancient tradition that has been going on for centuries.
What exactly is known about Columbus? According to ships’ logs, journals and other historical records, he was a merchant sailor who became a ship captain and learned the limited navigation techniques known in Europe at the time. Additional sources report that Columbus also may have worked as a mapmaker.
Few records exist concerning Columbus’ origins or early voyages. Wild rumors and theories abound, claiming he might have been the son of an exiled Polish or Lithuanian prince, or the illegitimate offspring of a Portuguese nobleman. He reportedly sailed to England and along the northwest coast of Africa, and may even have sailed to Iceland.
For the first part of his maritime career Columbus was based in Lisbon, Portugal, where he married a young woman from an impoverished family with a royal title, thereby buying his way into the royal class. Apparently Columbus made a lot of money as a seafarer, merchant and slave trader before sailing to America, for one-third of the money that financed his first voyage was his.
Scholars report that, though Columbus was not a scholar, he was fluent in Latin, Portuguese and Castilian, and read extensively from his large library of books, As a seafarer and ship captain he had plenty of time for reading. Several of his books were heavily annotated, such as his copy of The Travels of Marco Polo. In this volume he read about the “wondrous” or “marvelous” creatures that supposedly populated far-off lands, such as birds of prey so large they carried off elephants and dropped them onto rocks before swooping down to eat them.
Columbus also owned a copy of a book called Imago Mundi, and made almost 900 notes in the margins. This book theorized that Asia could be reached by sailing west from Europe. One of Columbus’ notes alluded to a type of creature that could be found there—savages with grotesque dog-faces who were voracious man-eaters. Columbus hoped to find and capture such a “monstrous creature,” as further proof that Asia had been reached.
Columbus became obsessed with the idea of sailing west to Asia perhaps as long as 10 years before setting sail in 1492. Why sail clear around Africa, as the Portuguese were attempting? Columbus’ confidence in this scheme was based on gross underestimations he made about the size of the earth, and gross overestimations of the distance from Europe across Asia to China—the farther the Asian land mass stretched around the globe to the east, the shorter the distance by sea heading west.
Columbus was convinced that the gold and spices of the East were tantalizingly near. And while proving this theory, he planned to make himself fantastically rich, famous, and powerful, a viceroy ruling his own realm across the ocean. And he would insist on an additional title, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” (At this time the Europeans, almost entirely ignorant of the earth beyond Europe’s horizons, believed the world was girdled by one great ocean.)
It certainly took a kind of semi-delusional visionary fanatic to think that any of this could ever happen, and to bet his fortune and reputation on making it work. Though his calculations were all wrong, his plan fatally flawed, and his journey ended almost 9,000 miles from his intended destination, by the incredible luck of stumbling upon an unknown continent, Columbus almost surpassed his wildest dreams before crashing back to earth.
The historical accounts of Columbus trying to sell his ideas to various kings, in order to get his voyage financed, shows us an incredibly determined and stubborn man. He just wouldn’t give up. Though he failed to get an audience with the King of England, he found more receptive ears in both Spain and Portugal, and went back to both courts time and again to try to win them over. When teams of Spanish and Portuguese navigators and geographers were brought in to evaluate Columbus’ plan, they declared it completely flawed—Columbus had no conception of the vast size of the earth.
These were arguably the top navigators in the world. Columbus’ reaction to their critique shows an almost insane stubbornness—he refused to believe them. Columbus was wrong, the navigators were right—anyone trying to sail west from Europe to Asia would starve to death long before they got there, if the didn’t run into the Americas first.
When you consider the timing—early in the “Age of Discovery,” when successful voyages of exploration were bringing huge returns to the investors who financed them—it is not far-fetched to imagine a sea captain/chart maker/merchant/slave trader could develop the connections to propose such a plan to various European monarchs. People were making big money off trade. The Portuguese and Dutch and English and French were all sending ships out to look for treasure. It was a gold rush, literally—but also included other big-money items like spices, slaves, gems, and silver. This created a certain demand for seagoing entrepreneurs. Columbus proposed to do what everyone else was doing, but by a different route. A short-cut to the East.
Columbus’ Portuguese wife died about the same time that the Portuguese king turned down his plan to sail west, and within a year Columbus had relocated to Spain. Apparently he didn’t care much for the social conventions of his age, as he lived with a woman out of wedlock in Spain, and fathered a son.
Columbus pitched his get-rich scheme to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella several times. Certain high-placed churchmen helped in this. Columbus was rejected twice but he kept at it. Finally his timing was right—he somehow got an audience with Ferdinand and Isabella just as their army drove the Moors out of Granada. After 500 years the Moors were finally defeated, and the Christians in Spain saw the dawning of a new age.
The Church was on Columbus’ side for several reasons. Profits from his journey could help finance a new Crusade to re-take the Holy Land, which shouldn’t be hard now that they had the infidels on the run. Sailing west could also work as a pincer movement, circling around to simultaneously attack the Muslims from east and west. Columbus was instructed to look for Prester John’s Christian Kingdom, which was rumored to lie in lands east of the infidel. He was also given a letter of introduction from the king and queen to the “Great Khan of the Golden Horde,” as they called the Emperor of China, who was rumored to be interested in Christianity.
It’s important to remember that this was a different world from ours, and people had much different beliefs from today. A lot of what sounds crazy to us would, to people of that time, sound normal. For example, the Franciscan Order was preparing for the end of the world at this time, as prophesied in the Revelation to John. They believed that as soon as the Holy Land was conquered, and a Christian Emperor established in the Holy Land, the whole human race would be converted to Christianity and the stage would be set for the Last Judgment. Bring on the Rapture!
Columbus’ proposed journey fit in with this scheme perfectly. As an added bonus, he argued that sailing west gave him a real shot at finding the Holy Grail, since those who had searched by traveling east had all failed, and nobody would expect him to be coming around from the other side.
The Spanish king and queen liked the plan enough to sink some real money into it. They expected big profits, a huge return on their investment. The Portuguese were making serious progress on their attempts to duplicate the ancient Phoenician feat of circumnavigating Africa, and Spain’s only chance of getting to China first might just be Columbus’ off-the-wall scheme to reach the East by sailing west.
Columbus’ first actions upon finding land in the Americas does not bode well for his campaign to keep his national holiday. According to his own sailors, land was first sighted by a sailor named Rodrigo. However, a reward had been offered to the first man who saw land, so Columbus claimed he had seen the land before Rodrigo. Columbus took the reward,apparently more interested in the money than in his reputation or personal honor. This in spite of the fact that Columbus’ deal with the Spanish crown gave him 10% of all the gold and treasure obtained in any lands he found, plus titles of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and Viceroy (“vice-king”) of the lands he claimed for Spain. Viceroy was a hereditary royal title that was to be passed on to his sons.
Columbus’ sailors didn’t respect a captain who would cheat a seaman out of a reward, and the threat of mutiny became constant. One captain of a ship in his flotilla deserted Columbus and sailed off to explore on his own. His fellow colonizers rebelled and threw Columbus out of power at the first opportunity, appealing to Ferdinand and Isabella for a royal investigation into Columbus’ cruel and capricious rule. But that comes later.
On his first day in the New World, Columbus ordered seven Taino Indians to be captured because he believed they would make good slaves. Nobody disputes that Columbus enslaved and killed friendly Indians. There are two many written accounts of this, including the one Columbus wrote, to pretend ignorance or claim it never happened. He sailed around from island to island, looking for gold, and enslaving Indians when he couldn’t get his hands on enough gold to pay back his investors.
What was Columbus’ impression of the Indians? He described them as “well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” And the Indians are “so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no…they are good to be ordered about, to work and to sow, and do all that may be necessary…”
At every landfall, the Indians either greeted Columbus with friendship or fled into the jungle. The Spanish were never attacked or treated with hostility. In his journal, Columbus describes the Indians as “generous to a fault.”
He repaid this hospitality by demanding gold and taking slaves. We can read in the journals of Columbus’ lieutenants and cronies how he gave his men gifts of slave girls—ages 9 or 10 were preferred—to rape and use as sex slaves. Given these facts, is Columbus someone we really want to celebrate with a national holiday?
Columbus’ first voyage ended when the “Great Navigator” wrecked his flagship, the Santa Maria, running aground off the coast of Hispañiola (the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). With the Niña and Pinta incapable of transporting all his sailors and captured slaves back to Europe, Columbus had his men use wood from the wrecked ship to build a fort, and left 39 Spaniards behind when he sailed for home.
Columbus observed that some of the Taino Indians on Hispañiola wore jewelry with traces of gold ornamentation. Convinced that rich gold mines were not far off, he returned to Spain for reinforcements.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards he left at the fort ran amok, roaming the island looking for gold, capturing slaves and raping and slaughtering Indians. Finally the locals retaliated. By the time Columbus returned the next year, with 17 ships and 1,500 men, the fort was burned to the ground and its garrison wiped out.
Columbus, as governor of the new lands, instituted a quota system that required every Indian over the age of 14 to deliver a certain amount of gold every 3 months, or have their hands cut off. As he sailed around the Caribbean in search of more riches, he allowed his Spanish subjects to treat the Indians any way they liked. Spaniards wagered among themselves whether they could slice natives in half with one stroke of their sword. They tested their blades’ sharpness by decapitating Indians.
The Spanish hunted Indians down as a food supply for their attack dogs, as the flesh of Indians was the Spaniards’ primary source of dogfood. Witnesses describe seeing live Indian babies being fed to dogs—sometimes in front of their parents. Things got so bad that Indians began committing suicide en masse. Within 60 years of Columbus’ arrival, the Indian population of Hispañiola—1,100,000 according to the first Spanish census in 1496, which only counted adults, and estimated by some historians to be as high as 8,000,000 in 1492—was completely wiped out. Other Caribbean islands fared the same. The scale of genocide was unprecedented in history.
Enslaving Indians didn’t work out so well. More labor was needed as Indians died off from smallpox, malnutrition, overwork, murder and mayhem, despair. Columbus solved the problem by creating the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, importing slaves from Africa. Columbus was not only the first but also possibly the largest Trans-Atlantic slave-trader in history, bringing in over 5,000 Africans to work gold mines and plantations.
Many Columbus apologists try to excuse his crimes by saying he was a product of his times, that his values and ethics were no different from anyone else’s. This is nonsense. Several of his own contemporaries condemned his actions at the time, disgusted by his cruelty. The Spanish Crown, during some of the darkest days of the Inquisition, was so repelled by Columbus’ actions in the New World that they publicly condemned his brutality toward Indians. (Cortés was also censured by the Crown for excessive cruelty.)
Another Spaniard, Bartolomé de Las Casas, came to America as a conquistador, but was so appalled by the treatment of Indians that he became a priest and lifelong advocate for Indian people. Las Casas wrote, “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.” This was all created under Columbus’ administration.
When Columbus’ second voyage failed to produce enough gold to make a profit, he sent back shiploads of slaves instead. Most died en route. Five hundred choice slaves were his gift to Queen Isabella. She was horrified, and sent them back—she was operating under the delusion that natives in the found lands would become Spanish subjects, and Catholics. To enslave fellow Christians—even recently converted ones—was punishable by immediate excommunication since 1435.
However, Isabella didn’t have any problem enslaving natives who were cannibals. European scholars at this time firmly believed that far-away lands such as Asia were populated with “monstrous races,” and though Columbus had to admit that he hadn’t actually seen any such monstrous races, he did dutifully report hearing from the Taino Indians about dog-faced men, and men with one eye resembling the Cyclops, who were cannibals, who tore off the heads of their victims, drank their blood and cut off their genitals. How this was communicated, with no common language and no interpreter, is a mystery.
Neither Columbus nor any of his men had ever seen an Indian of the Carib Nation, but this didn’t stop him from classifying them as man-eaters, and their mispronounced name became the root of the word “cannibal.” Columbus argued vehemently that the “Caniba,” as he called them, must be the people of the Great Khan, and that the treasures of the exotic East were very near.
Now that Columbus assured them that it was cannibals the Spaniards were dealing with, enslavement, carnage, and all atrocities were justified. The monstrous heathens had to be saved from themselves. Not by conversion to Christianity, for then they would be worth nothing to the conquerors. They were saved by death or enslavement (which almost always resulted in death). Neither Columbus nor any of his men every produced any evidence of cannibalism among the Indians of the Caribbean.
Columbus came under heavy criticism from Church officials, who saw that the money Columbus was making by selling Indians as slaves was overshadowing his duty to convert the Indians to Christianity. Once converted, Indians could not be enslaved, and they would have no value to Columbus or the slave trade.
The Spanish at this time remained totally confused as to what lands they were pillaging. Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus instructions on how to behave toward Vasco da Gama if they happened to run into each other while snooping around the coast of “Asia.” Columbus was convinced that Hispaniola was the Biblical land of Sheba, and that Cuba was the mainland of China. On his 2nd voyage he made his sailors swear an affidavit to this “fact”—while threatening to cut out the tongue of any man who later disagreed that Cuba was Asia.
With disappointing returns from the first 2 voyages, Columbus was given only six ships for his 3rd voyage. He explored farther south, running across South America but disappointed not to find the rich gold mines of King Solomon, which were said to be at a similar latitude. Meanwhile, Spanish colonists on Hispañiola rebelled against his cruel and inept administration, and Columbus restored order upon his return by hanging several. Complaints to the king and queen resulted in an official investigation, and Columbus was disposed as governor and “vice-king” of the new lands. Columbus was replaced by Francisco de Bobadilla as governor. Bobadilla conducted an investigation of Columbus, which remained lost until 2006, in which 23 witnesses—both enemies and supporters of Columbus—attest to his cruelty as governor, using torture, mutilation and hangings to force obedience. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea was arrested in 1500 and taken back to Spain in chains.
Columbus talked his way back into royal favor—sort of—with an argument that seems bizarre today, but must have been convincing at the time. On his 3rd voyage he had observed unexpected movement, or declination, of the North Star. This happens because the North Star isn’t exactly above the North Pole. But this fact wasn’t known at the time. Columbus’ explanation for the polestar’s movement as he sailed westward was that the ocean he was sailing must be ascending, or sloping upward. Why this slope in the ocean didn’t result in a strong current pushing his ships back is not explained.
Columbus hypothesized that his ship was gaining altitude, and the only “reasonable” explanation was that he was approaching the outer regions of the “Earthly Paradise.” At that time, it was a common belief among Europeans that the “Earthly Paradise”—also sometimes referred to as the Garden of Eden—was believed to be an actual place on Earth where you could physically enter through the Gates of Paradise to Heaven itself, without having to die first.
Columbus mistook the Orinoco River for the Rivers of Paradise flowing into the sea. This must mean that he was very near the realms of gold that were known to lie near Paradise. Though he hadn’t yet found the gold, Columbus knew where it was, and with one more try was sure to find it.
It was unacceptable for the Spanish Crown to let someone else stumble upon Paradise first, and since Columbus had a good idea where it was located, they gave him one more chance. On his 4th voyage, commanding a flotilla of just 4 leaking worm-eaten ships, Columbus was forbidden to visit Hispañiola because his erratic method of governing there had caused nothing but dissension and revolt.
He stopped anyway, but the new governor refused to let him land, so he sailed on to Central America, where two of his ships sank. With the remaining two leaking badly, Columbus made a run for Hispañiola, but turned north too soon and ended up shipwrecked on the coast of Jamaica. Two of his ship captains successfully crossed 450 miles of open water in a small boat, taking news of the shipwrecked admiral and his crew back to the Spanish authorities. Because of the contempt felt for Columbus throughout the Spanish colonies, nobody bothered picking him up for over a year. Having lost all his ships, he sailed back to Spain as a passenger.
Columbus could have come in peace. History would be much different. He was greeted peacefully, time after time. The Indians had clearly never encountered anyone like the bloodthirsty Europeans, crazed for gold and treasure. They never imagined men could behave with such sadistic cruelty. Columbus called them “naïve” for being so kind and generous. The Indians had no idea that across the ocean lay a savage overcrowded land filled with misery, slaves, disease, poverty, ignorance and greed—Europe, a land where gold or wealth could buy anything: “royal” status (whatever that means), respect, concubines…even honor. By this point in history, all this could be bought, if you had enough gold.
Knowing the facts of Columbus’ life, it seems astonishing that he is still treated with honor in many places. Was he elevated to hero status because nobody knew the real story about Columbus’ inhumanity, his atrocities, his delusions, his failures? Or does history consider his crimes insignificant because his victims were mostly Indians?
Christopher Columbus can’t lay claim to being the first European in recorded history who came to the Americas and killed Indians. He wasn't. Thorvald Erikson, son of Eric the Red and brother of Leif, murdered the first 8 Indians he met, in cold blood, half a millennium before Columbus.
But Columbus can lay claim to being the first heavily armed European to invade, loot and plunder new lands in the Americas. He created a blueprint. Arrive uninvited. Pretend friendship. Take over. Enslave all natives who aren't slaughtered. Make money shipping slaves overseas. Keep some slaves to dig for gold and treasure.
This happened again and again, following the protocol Columbus invented. This was the real discovery of Columbus—how Europe could pillage and get rich off the Americas and the rest of the world.
As a final note, it’s worth looking at the claim that Columbus was a brilliant navigator. This is an example of how history is often distorted by describing so-called great men as the opposite of what they truly were. How do Columbus’ supporters back up their claim that Columbus was a great navigator? Where’s the proof?
Is Columbus a great navigator because he stumbled on America? It is nearly impossible to sail west from Europe and not run into America. The truly competent navigators of his time rejected Columbus’ plan of reaching Asia by sailing west. Not because they believed the world was flat—it was the American writer Washington Irving who created the myth that people of Columbus’ time thought the earth was flat. In fact no educated person has believed in a flat earth since the 3rd century BC. The competent navigators he consulted knew that the distances were too vast. Columbus’ calculations were way off. He had China plotted at just east of San Diego. He just couldn’t do the math.
The truly astonishing thing about the “Great Navigator” is that he was farther from his intended destination at the end of his voyage than at the start. Spain is 5,400 miles from China, whereas Hispaniola and China are separated by 8,600 miles. So when the “Great Navigator” declared he had successfully reached China, he was actually 3,200 miles farther away from China than when he started his voyage. “Great Navigator?”
Columbus went to his grave believing he had sailed to Asia. The “Great Navigator” was lost, and remained lost, nearly halfway around the globe from where he thought he was. Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue, but the waters of America have run red with Indian blood ever since. Why is there any opposition anywhere to eliminating the travesty of “Columbus Day”? Who could possibly be in favor of it, given the facts? Is Columbus really a person who deserves to be honored with a national holiday?
Bayard Johnson was a writing partner with Russell Means for 20 years, beginning in 1992, when Means came to L.A. for the release of his first feature film, Last of the Mohicans. Among their collaborations is the book, If You've Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You've Lost Your Way.