Columbus: Saint or sinner?

By Sara Scheler

Two weeks ago, our country celebrated Columbus Day. This national holiday commemorates Christopher Columbus as the intrepid explorer who discovered the Americas. It is, undoubtedly, the most controversial holiday of the year.

While many people celebrate Columbus Day as a day of national pride, many others think of it as a day of white supremacy, oppression and the celebration of indigenous genocide.

Some media outlets, including the New York Times, argue that we should not use the word “discover” when we refer to Columbus’ voyage. He did not discover the Americas, these voices argue, he simply reached them. The word “discover” implies that the lands were uninhabited in 1492 but this cannot be further from the truth. Millions of people were living in the Americas at that time. Many of them had developed sophisticated political systems, impressive structures and elaborately-built cities that rendered the Spanish speechless.

Columbus and his comrades wreaked havoc on the Americas. Historical records recount grotesque details of enslavement, murder, rape, dismemberment and countless other crimes that the Spaniards committed against indigenous peoples. It is impossible to determine how many indigenous people were in the Americas at the point of Spanish contact but estimates run as high as 100 million. In 1542, just 50 years later, an estimated 90 percent of them had perished. This is an unfathomable destruction of life.

The Spaniards’ primary goal was to extract wealth from this newfound land. They wanted to get rich and spread the Christian message to the Indians along the way. Columbus believed his mission was sanctioned by God: “Our Lord in his piety, guide me that I may find the gold,” he penned in his 1492 diary.

The Spanish brought many beneficial things to the Americas, including technology, tools, horses and crops. They also brought invasive plants, animals and diseases that caused the death of countless Indians who lacked immunity.

Columbus and his comrades were high on the Spanish fever that was common at the time. Repeated success against Muslim invaders turned Spain into one of the wealthiest and powerful places in the world (though it was not the united country of Spain until later). Religious conversion was at the forefront of the Spanish Crown’s mind and Ferdinand and Isabella were looking for eager explorers to conquer new lands and gather more subjects.

Some say, then, that Columbus was not gifted or brave or even extraordinarily intelligent, he was simply in the right place at the right time. Put any self-assured Spaniard jazzed up for adventure and eager to gain power and prestige on a quest to discover new land and you may have had the same result.

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