Columbus Day Is… Complicated (OPINION)

Oct 9, 2015
9:23 AM
'Landing of Columbus' by John Vanderlyn (Public Domain)

‘Landing of Columbus’ by John Vanderlyn (Public Domain)

You can read a response to this op-ed here. In addition, we spoke to the author of the following piece last night. Like we have said several times, our editorial team does not agree all with this op-ed, but we did publish it no matter, and we would publish it again. It’s not like other outlets (see The Daily Kos) have not published similar opinion pieces. We have changed the piece’s headline.

Whether a man is praised or criticized, he is often given credit or blame for things he had little do with. The human character is such that it is attracted to superficial historical figures, with the nuances of their legacies replaced by blanket statements and broad assertions. In the internet age, this problem is epidemic. Moral superiority and trite arrogance is the law of the land on social media, and while some might say that sharing information to de-mythologize a historical figure is necessary for us to have a “fair and balanced” education, the manner in which this de-mythologizing occurs is just as damning, as damaging, and as narrow minded as the historical accounts the user wishes to remedy.

The problem comes down to depicting a famed figure as good or bad in order to minimize their accomplishment(s), as though human achievement is impossible unless the person in question was a perfect saint. Historical figures are especially susceptible to this given that most people’s view of history is progressive, that is, society improves along a linear track. This mindset allows us to feel superior to our ancestors for their owning slaves, while ignoring modern human rights violations. This mindset also leads to presentism, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” Most historians criticize presentism, rightly in my view, because it removes objectivity and context from historical events.

To put it simply, our condemning historical figures because they did not act according to 21st-century norms is not only wrong but misleading. It also makes no sense. Why would you assume that people in the past ought to have behaved the same way as people today (and why assume that everything we do today is better or all that different)? Those questions are at the heart of why I feel Columbus Day is an important holiday. We are not really celebrating Columbus the man, we are celebrating his achievement of connecting the Europeans with the Americas, an achievement we should be very proud of, because without it, the societies we love would not exist.

Americans are suckers for myths, and the myth of Europeans being nothing but evil and the Native Americans as solely pure-hearted, highly-evolved, peace-loving victims has grown in prevalence along with the online culture of moral superiority. The problem with this myth is that it possesses the same tendency as what it is rebelling against, treating human beings as virtuous innocents is just as dehumanizing as depicting them as savages. History is not facts and figures: history is the real actions of real, complex people and times. History is bloody, messy and full of nuances that are overlooked or disregarded. To make my argument, I am going to focus on three aspects of Columbus and the subsequent European colonization of the Americas that are most scrutinized.

"Columbus map", drawn c. 1490 in the Lisbon workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus (Public Domain)

“Columbus map”, drawn c. 1490 in the Lisbon workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus (Public Domain)

Columbus brought disease and mass genocide on the native people.

When I was an undergrad taking Latin American history courses, I asked my teacher a question that had always bothered me: “Why did the Spaniards not contract any American diseases?” His answer may surprise you. For one, the Spaniards did contract a few diseases, most notably syphilis. Of course, syphilis does not have the airborne capacity of smallpox, so it was not as devastating. The other reason is that the Americas, unlike the conjoined continents of Eurasia and Africa, is incredibly difficult to navigate, meaning that many, if not most, peoples in the Americas were isolated from one another. This prevented diseases to work their way into populations and strengthen immune systems, as had occurred in the Old World. This had the greatest prevalence in rural areas and islands, which is why practically zero natives exist from the Caribbean: their immune systems were weaker because of isolation. The Spaniards had no concept of this, however, so really, you’re going to blame them for that? The mass genocide caused by the disease is terrible, but much like the plagues that ravaged Europe in the centuries prior, it was not something that the people of that time could have prevented given their limited medical knowledge.

Another aspect of this that people have no problem forgetting is that Columbus died in 1506, prior to the conquests of Mexico (1519) and Peru (1532). Arguably, the worst things the Spaniards ever did happened decades after Columbus’s death, and placing blame on one person for the crimes of people who came after him, and had no connection to him, is illogical. It’s like blaming George Washington for FDR imprisoning Japanese Americans during World War II.

Replicas of Niña, Pinta and Santa María sailing from Spain to the Chicago Columbian Exposition, 1893 (Public Domain)

Replicas of Niña, Pinta and Santa María sailing from Spain to the Chicago Columbian Exposition, 1893 (Public Domain)

Columbus was a slave owner and a tyrant.

To this I say, so what? As any historian will tell you, many of the most famous people in history were tyrants, misogynists, rapists or just plain assholes. And that goes for the Native Americans as well. The various kingdoms and empires of the Americas were not perfect societies. The people were not any more peaceful than the Europeans were. To give greater perspective on this, let’s talk about the Incans. Their empire, called Tawantinsuyu, or the “Four Regions,” was the Rome of the Americas. It expanded across a wide and vast territory that absorbed hundreds of different tribes, cultures and languages. How do you think this was accomplished? Do you really think the Incans were just these friendly engineers and everyone liked them so much after they built roads connecting their villages that they agreed, peacefully, to let the Incans control them? Of course not.

The Incans were warlords. They conquered via military conquests, and when they took over territories, they established state dominance that included educational policies meant to replace local religions, languages and mythologies, not unlike what every imperial nation has done all over the world since time immemorial. For this reason, when the Spaniards had aristocratic children translate local myths and histories into Spanish, the children made it seem like the Incans had always been in charge, and that Quechua was the only language of the empire (read Guaman Poma’s account of Spanish colonization of Peru for more about how life was before and after the Spaniards). The Incan government was highly centralized; its methods of collective farming, aided by thousands of years of Andean civilization that had developed freeze drying, social programs, state-assigned jobs for every citizen and its practice of crushing descent through work camps and relocation programs inspired both Karl Marx and the Soviet Union. Much like the Soviet Union, the Incan empire did not even last 100 years.

Had the Incans lasted another hundred years (and given the vicious civil war between Huáscar and Atahualpa, which started before the Spaniards arrived, it is not guaranteed that would have happened), the Spaniards would likely have found a completely homogenous society, made so through state-run oppression of the variety that modern people are always inclined to attribute to the Spaniards and other Europeans.

The Aztecs, who were actually just one of three kingdoms that formed a federation, and who like the Incans had only been in power for less than 100 years, were also pretty horrible to their citizens, which is why, and this is always overlooked in discussions about the Spanish conquest and those diabolical Europeans, the Spaniards were able to rely on local groups to help them overthrow the great city of Tenochtitlan.

I am not trying to say that because the Incans and Aztecs were no angels that they deserved what happened to them (and what has “deserved” ever had to do with human history?). I am not trying to make false equivalence. What I am saying is that we need to stop lying about there having been “good” societies versus “bad” ones. People in power, no matter what their ethnicity, are inclined to act in terrible ways in order to maintain that power. Nobody is immune to behaving badly, and we should not base our admiration of a particular people because of any semblance of perfection, because that will inevitably lead to disillusionment. Injustice most definitely occurred under Spanish rule, but from a historical perspective, such cruelty is commonplace, and may just be a part of human nature. The world would be a different place if people were not blinded by false mythologies and accepted that the natural state of man is manipulative and selfish, and that goodness is the real anomaly.

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo (Public Domain)

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo (Public Domain)

The Europeans did not respect the Native populations and destroyed entire civilizations intentionally and unrepentantly.

Did some American civilizations accomplish incredible feats of architecture, engineering and astronomy? Absolutely, and if you read the journals of Cortés or the writings of Guaman Poma or the various journals of conquistadors involved in the conquest of the great nations of the Incans and the Aztecs, you will find that they were amazed by the feats of those civilizations. The Spaniards were so impressed, in fact, they actually used Incan armor to fight them, because it was both stronger and lighter than what they had. The achievements of the great American empires played a crucial role in Bartolomé de las Casas convincing the Spanish crown to defend Native rights with the passage of the so-called “New Laws.” Given, those laws were never successfully implemented in the Americas, but that can be mostly blamed on the inability of the Spanish crown to effectively legislate the colonies in a time when technology (or lack thereof) made it impossible, compounded by the effect of power on most men.

The Spaniards did a great deal to document and preserve native cultures. What we know about those civilizations is because, in order to convert and control those populations, the Spaniards had to first learn about the languages and customs. As Guaman Poma documents, the monks played a huge role in documenting the iconography and mythology of the Andean people, given, it was so they could relate those mythologies to Christianity in an attempt to convert them, but the fact that they took the time to document and learn those customs is proof that the Spaniards were not just mindless brutes who looked down on the cultures they encountered. (The role the Reconquista — the 800 year war against Muslim domination of the Iberian peninsula — had on the attitudes of the Spaniards is sadly disregarded in discussions about the conquest of the Americas. But that could make up an article all its own.) Poma emphasized how much the Andean people loved the monks but hated the parish priests, who were openly hypocritical rapists. (A particularly surprising detail of his book is his assertion that the Andean people saw themselves as better Christians than the Spaniards.) I am not saying that the Spaniards were secretly lovers of Native American culture, but they did not completely dismiss it either. The truth is more complicated, and more human, than the indignation of college activists on social media would have you think.

So why celebrate Columbus Day? Because Columbus set off the last great human migration. In all previous migrations, the same massacres, injustices and hybridization of cultures occurred. Culture is in constant flux, and this is because of the long and storied tradition of migration. I brought up the short time spans of the Incan and Aztec empires to drive home that those civilizations replaced ones before them. I never hear anyone wish for the bygone era of the Olmecs. When was the last time there were efforts for a Pheonician revival? An Anasazi revival? Why not bring back the Hittites, or any other civilization that has passed on and been absorbed by other cultures? The great migrations of ancient times undoubtedly lead to massive death and destruction of entire civilizations in much the same way the American conquest did, yet no one mourns them. Perhaps the most damning aspect of the conquest of the Americas is that it occurred after the birth of the printing press, so every misdeed could be documented to the smallest detail.

Modern people, especially in the vast and varied Latino community, hold on for dear life to these long-gone peoples and sanctify them, but this is an injustice to those men and women who lived, breathed, had families, made mistakes, and lived quite human lives. As a Boricua, I have definitely participated in idolizing Taíno culture, but is that idolization tied to reality, or to a mythological civilization that bears no resemblance to the actual one that existed throughout the Caribbean?

I have already established that human history is a long series of death, but it also a long series of rebirth, and we can recognize the enormous loss of life and knowledge that occurred as a result of European conquest without denying that the conquest is also a part of who we are. We are a blend of cultures, ideologies, but more than that, we are a blend of horrific and unforgivable acts. You have every right to be appalled by the events of the conquest; it was a truly chaotic and traumatic time, but it was a time that made the societies we now love and associate ourselves with. Without that clash of civilizations, we wouldn’t exist.

Columbus Day should be celebrated because it marks the defining event of how our modern world came to be. The real legacy of that time is best captured in Latino celebrations, which are a blend of Native American, African and European traditions merging to create music, foods and customs that are the basis for our happiest memories. From trauma and injustice, our humanity has been reborn into a new people, and whether we like it or not, that transformation began with one flawed man stepping foot in the Bahamas in 1492.

The views expressed by the author do not reflect those of the editors.


Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books, Kings of 7th Avenue and The Feast of San Sebastian, deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in creative writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at