Monday, October 08, 2007

Christopher Columbus: Explorer And Slave Trader

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In 1492, Christopher Columbus may not have discovered America, proved that the world was round and in fact, he may never have even set foot on our continent. Nevertheless, Columbus Day (October 12) continues to be observed on the second Monday of October each year.

Similar holidays, celebrated as Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) in many countries in Latin America, Día de las Culturas (Day of the Cultures) in Costa Rica, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día de la Hispanidad in Spain, and the newly-renamed (as of 2002) Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in Venezuela, commemorate the same event.

When Columbus made his famed expedition to the Americas, he had hoped to find a naval route to India. Instead, he found an entire continent that was mostly unknown to Europe, Africa, and Asia, at the time. While other Europeans had sporadically visited the Americas earlier, and there are varied theories of even earlier contact by East Asians, Phoenicians, and others.

Opposition to the holiday cites the fact that Columbus probably never set foot on this continent, nor did he open it to the European trade. Scandinavian Vikings had already had settlements here in the eleventh century, and British fisherman, most probably, had already fished the shores of Canada...decades before Columbus.

The first European explorer (to thoroughly document his visit to North America) was the Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto, who sailed for England's King Henry VII and became known by his anglicized name, John Cabot. Caboto arrived in 1497 and claimed North America for the English sovereign while Columbus was still searching for India, in the Caribbean. After three voyages to America, and more than a decade of exploration and study, Columbus still believed that Cuba was a part of the continent of Asia, that South America was only an island, and that the coast of Central America was close to the Ganges River!

The legend of Columbus obscures the true and more sinister story of how Columbus financed his trip. The Spanish monarchy had invested in his excursion, but only on the condition that Columbus would repay this investment with profit....by bringing back gold, spices, and other valuables from Asia. His enormous need to repay his debt underlies the almost frantic tone of Columbus' diaries, as he raced from one Caribbean island to the next.....stealing anything of value.

After he failed to contact the emperor of China, the traders of India, or the merchants of Japan, Columbus decided to pay for his voyage in the one important commodity he had found....human lives. He seized 1,200 Taino (Arawak) Indians from the island of Hispaniola, crammed as many onto his ships as would fit and sent them to Spain. Stories and drawings show them, as they were paraded naked through the streets of Seville and sold as slaves in 1495. Columbus tore children from their parents, husbands from wives. While on board Columbus' slave ships, hundreds more had died and the sailors had simply tossed the Indian bodies into the Atlantic.

Because Columbus captured even more Indian slaves than he could bring to Spain, he put them to work in mines and plantations.....which he, his family and followers had created throughout the Caribbean. Within four years of Columbus' arrival on Hispaniola, his men had killed or exported one-third of the original Indian population of 300,000. Also, an estimated 85% of the Native American population was wiped out within 150 years of Columbus's arrival in America, due largely to diseases such as smallpox, which were then spread among Native American populations through the continuing migration between islands and the American continent.

Columbus's expedition triggered a great wave of European interest in the New World. Unlike the earlier visitors, Columbus aggressively popularized his discoveries and arranged for return voyages. While controversy remains about many of the actions of the era, the colonization of the Americas is still seen largely as a good thing and thus worthy of celebrating.
There has been a lot of speculation about Columbus's life: was he really truly a simple Italian sailor, son of a weaver and most likely lacking in the education necessary to have done all that he did or have created the well-written letters, all in Spanish, not Italian? Or could he have actually been the bastard son of a Portuguese prince, well educated and one who had participated in a revolt against the king and needed an alias?
In any case, if we stick with the Italian version, he was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451 and died of a heart attack at the age of 55. His remains are buried in Valladolid, but were later moved to Seville at the request of his son. In 1542, Christopher Columbus's remains were moved to Havana, Cuba until Cuba gained its independence, supposedly ending up in Sevill, again. Or did they? The church in Hispaniola, claim to still have his remains, thought DNA tests confirm that the bones in Seville, are his, or could be his.
When you hear about protests, today, and the desire of many to change the cause and focus of this otherwise celebratory day; think of the Indian slaves and their families....and the huge cost in human life and misery that has often been used to finance the gain (whether financial or political )of others. And ask yourself, just who was Christopher Columbus and why does history honor and salute heroes who just might have feet of clay?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. Yeah, Columbus -- not so much the "discoverer" we were taught about when I was in school. Though -- still important to learn about. But NOT clouded with romantic notions of what he was doing here. He can be a great lesson for students. A lesson about historical myths, about differing interpretations, and about controversy in historical interpretation. Too bad I saw a blog recently that decried the real story of Columbus (and what it can really teach us) over the mythologized version she was taught when she was a child. Sigh.

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Michele Bilyeu blogs "With Heart and Hands" as she journeys between Douglas, Alaska and Salem, Oregon.