Thursday, October 6, 2011

24 - Columbus Day

This week-end in Massachusetts, Columbus Day will be celebrated. There is a large Italian American community, and no doubt, somewhere in the city of Boston, there will be parties to celebrate the famous explorer, who sailed for Spain and discovered a great new world.

I am not celebrating this holiday. Officially that is, for the first time. Truthfully, I have never celebrated Columbus Day. I have always opted to host a party for my Canadian friends, where we cook a turkey and watch the Patriots play football. A bit of both American and Canadian worlds. Yes, this is the week-end that Canada celebrates Thanksgiving, so that's what this displaced Canadian will do along with my friends who live in the area. I also plan to unveil a beautiful new photo of a Mi'kmaq warrior that will hang in my living room as a tribute to my heritage.

There is a movement afoot here in the United States to do away with Columbus Day. Only some states still observe this day and there is a national movement to abolish it completely. The Native American communities are pushing to create an Aboriginal Awareness Day. It is not without controversy. The Italian American community view Columbus as a hero and celebrate him as such while the American Indian community views him as a murderer who began the genocide of many nations throughout the continents of the Americas.

I have been doing some research on this man and his legacy. I do understand the Italian community's position and mean no disrespect to these people. Italian Americans were also discriminated against in the early formation of the United States and Columbus was a worthy hero when one was needed. He was a great navigator. He is given credit for discovering these continents, but I don't think that many of us here in the United States have the facts. It was not just about three boats accidentally discovering a continent where people traded freely as we are led to believe. There is a lot more to it than this. This story deserves a closer look. 

People are writing doctoral dissertations and lengthy books about this subject. I cannot possibly do it justice in this short piece, but I will at least give you an idea and encourage anyone who is interested to read some of the books out there about this subject. Probably the best example of the situation are the words of Christopher Columbus himself. 
  "....since they have become more assured, and are losing that terror, they are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts...And they know no sect nor idolatry; save that they believe that power and goodness are in the sky...And this comes not because they are ignorant: on the contrary, they are men of subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelous good account of everything... And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force....their (Spanish) Highness may see that I shall give them (the Spanish crown) as much gold as they may need... and slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped, and these shall be from idolaters." Pg. 9 (Letter from Columbus in Forbes, The Indian in America's Past)

"Columbus proceeded to enslave these "loving' people, shipping thousands of them to Europe and Africa for a profit. Then he and his European cohorts enslaved tens of thousands of others and liquidated several millions of other humans in the islands within a generation. " Pg. 31 (Columbus and other Cannibals, Jack D. Forbes)

There is, of course, the knowledge that Columbus did not discover the new world in the first place. How does someone discover a place when there are people already living there? If it is determined by European acknowledgement as is often an argument in favor of Columbus, the Norse had been there already and established a settlement in Newfoundland until being driven out by the Beothuk hundreds of years before. There are also theories that Columbus had prior knowledge of these "Indian" civilizations because some "Indian merchants had been blown by a storm to the coasts of Germany (probably Netherlands). Writers living in the sixteenth century cited this account when they discussed the background for the voyages of Columbus, since these "Indians" must have come from across the Atlantic." page 37 (Columbus and other Cannibals) The reason that most of us have learned to celebrate him is not because "he recorded his voyage" as I was taught in school, but simply because another racial group needed him  to be a hero figure. The rest of the story was simply omitted because it wasn't convenient. 

Whatever the real truth is, whether he came with the intention to exploit these people or not, he did just that. Columbus and his associates murdered, terrorized and enslaved thousands of the the Taino (Arawak) people, almost completely destroying them. His views and actions set the stage for not only the enslavement of the Taino people, but the African slave trade as well and the control and slaughter of other American Indian people for hundreds of years to come. Through these actions, disease and opportunists who followed Columbus' lead, the population of the Americas and its indigenous people was reduced by millions. 

The definition of genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group. This story of Christopher Columbus's legacy is not one of new discoveries but of death, destruction and yes, genocide. Let's call it what it is. In the end, we have a choice in who we honor. 

So long Christopher.

Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends and family!

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