As they do every year, schools will pause Monday to commemorate the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus. But given everything we now know about Columbus and what he launched in the Americas, this needs to stop.
After all, we’re celebrating a man who initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade in early February 1494, later intensifying his efforts to send Tainos Indians to Spain. Columbus described the indigenous people he enslaved as “well made and of very good intelligence,” and recommended to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that taxing slave shipments could help pay for supplies needed in the Indies.
Taino slavery in Spain turned out to be unprofitable, but Columbus later wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
African historian Basil Davidson also assigns responsibility to Columbus for initiating the African slave trade. According to Davidson, the first license granted to send enslaved Africans to the Caribbean was issued by the king and queen in 1501, during Columbus’s rule in the Indies, leading Davidson to dub Columbus the “father of the slave trade.”
From the very beginning, Columbus was not on a mission of discovery but of conquest and exploitation-he called his expedition “la empresa,” the enterprise. When slavery did not pay off, Columbus turned to a tribute system, forcing every Taino, 14 or older, to fill a hawk’s bell with gold every three months. If successful, they were safe for another three months. If not, Columbus ordered that Tainos be “punished,” by having their hands chopped off, or they were chased down by attack dogs. As the Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas wrote, this tribute system was “impossible and intolerable.”
And Columbus deserves to be remembered as the first terrorist in the Americas. When resistance mounted to the Spaniards’ violence, Columbus sent an armed force to “spread terror among the Indians to show them how strong and powerful the Christians were,” according to the Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas.
In his book “Conquest of Paradise,” Kirkpatrick Sale describes what happened when Columbus’s men encountered a force of Tainos in March of 1495 in a valley on the island of Hispaniola:
“The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and [according to Columbus’s biographer, his son Fernando] “with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.”
All this and much more has long been known and documented. As early as 1942 in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that Columbus’s policies in the Caribbean led to “complete genocide”-and Morison was a writer who admired Columbus.
If Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday. The fact that we have this holiday legitimates a curriculum that is contemptuous of the lives of peoples of color. Elementary school libraries still feature books like “Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, by Peter Sis,” which praise Columbus and say nothing of the lives destroyed by Spanish colonialism in the Americas.
Even worse, most textbooks still tip-toe around the truth. Houghton Mifflin’s “United States History: Early Years” attributes Taino deaths to “epidemics,” and concludes its section on Columbus: “The Columbian Exchange benefited people all over the world.” The section’s only review question erases Taino and African humanity: “How did the Columbian Exchange change the diet of Europeans?”
Enough already. Especially now, when the Black Lives Matter movement prompts us to look deeply into each nook and cranny of social life to ask whether our practices affirm the worth of every human being, it’s time to rethink Columbus, and to abandon the holiday that honors his crimes.
That would be something to celebrate.
Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. Email him at email@example.com