HISTORY OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION:
1648 TO PRESENT
WHY DO WE CELEBRATE COLUMBUS DAY?
Astrolabe. England. 1574 CE.
British Museum, London.
“It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am
of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no
religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord,
I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn
our language. I saw no beasts in the island, nor any sort of animals except parrots.”
Columbus, Journal, 11 October 1492
On the part of the king, Don Ferdinand, and of Dona Juana, his daughter . . . subduers of the
barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord
our God, living and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman, of
whom you and we, and all the men of the world, were and are descendants, as well as all those
who come after us . . . Of all these nations God our lord gave charge to one man called St. Peter,
that he should be lord and superior to all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that
he should be the head of the whole human race, whenever men should live, and under whatever
law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction. . . .
Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require that you consider what we have said to you, and
that you take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it, and that you
acknowledge the Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world and the high priest called
Pope and in his name the king and queen Dona Juana our lords, in his place, as superiors and
lords and kings of these islands and this mainland by virtue of the said donation, and that you
consent and permit that these religious fathers declare and preach to you the aforesaid.
But if you do not do this or if you maliciously delay in doing it, I certify to you that with the help of
God we shall forcefully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and
manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their
highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods and shall do to you all the harm
and damage that we can . . .
Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566). 16th century.
Archivo general de Indias, Sevilla, España
“The Spaniards first assaulted the
innocent Sheep, so qualified by the
Almighty, as is premention'd, like
most cruel Tygers, Wolves and
Lions hunger-starv'd, studying
nothing, for the space of Forty
Years, after their first landing, but
the Massacre of these Wretches,
whom they have so inhumanely
and barbarously butcher'd and
harass'd with several kinds of
Torments, never before known, or
heard that of Three Millions of
Persons, which lived in Hispaniola
itself, there is at present but the
inconsiderable remnant of scarce
Three Hundred.” -- A Brief
Account of the Destruction of the
In this Isle [Hispaniola], which, as we have said, the Spaniards first attempted, the
bloody slaughter and destruction of Men first began: for they violently forced away
Women and Children to make them Slaves, and ill-treated them . . . . Now being
oppressed by such evil usage, and afflicted with such greate Torments and violent
Entertainment they began to understand that such Men as those had not their Mission
from Heaven . . . . they began to consider by what wayes and means they might expel
the Spaniards out of their Countrey, and immediately took up Arms. But, good God,
what Arms, do you imagin? Namely such, both Offensive and Defensive, as resemble
Reeds wherewith Boys sport with one another, more than Manly Arms and Weapons.
Which the Spaniards no sooner perceived, but they, mounted on generous Steeds, well
weapon'd with Lances and Swords, begin to exercise their bloody Butcheries and
Strategems, and overrunning their Cities and Towns, spar'd no Age, or Sex, nay not so
much as Women with Child, but ripping up their Bellies, tore them alive in pieces. They
laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a
Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man, with the greatest
dexterity; nay farther, which should sheath his Sword in the Bowels of a Man with the
quickest dispatch and expedition.
They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of
those innocents against the Rocks; others they cast into Rivers scoffing and jeering
them, and call'd upon their Bodies when falling with derision, the true testimony of their
Cruelty, to come to them, and inhumanely exposing others to their Merciless Swords,
together with the Mothers that gave them Life.
They erected certain Gibbets, large, but low made, so that their feet almost reacht the
ground, every one of which was so order'd as to bear Thirteen Persons in Honour and
Reverence (as they said blasphemously) of our Redeemer and his Twelve Apostles,
under which they made a Fire to burn them to Ashes whilst hanging on them: But those
they intended to preserve alive, they dismiss'd, their Hands half cut, and still hanging
by the Skin, to carry their Letters missive to those that fly from us and ly sculking on the
Mountains, as an exprobation of their flight.
The Lords and Persons of Noble Extract were usually expos'd to this kind of Death;
they order'd Gridirons to be placed and supported with wooden Forks, and putting a
small Fire under them, these miserable Wretches by degrees and with loud Shreiks
and exquisite Torments, at last Expir'd.
Thomas Bailey, The American Pageant (1966 ed.):
Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped
upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy,
resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the
persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the
vision of civilized man.
Bailey sums up that the “discovery” of America was a “sensational
achievement, “but states that “The American continents were
slow to yield their virginity.”
When we say, “Columbus discovered America,” we mean only that his
voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to
permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and
Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from
Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic
elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped
immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the
Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to
dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at
home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more
favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried Niña, Pinta,
and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the
last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and
other hostile refuges.
Richard Hofstadter’s The American Republic, which was co-authored by
Daniel Aaron and William Miller (1959; rev. 1970)
“When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it
all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day
is a celebration . . . . To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his
successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their
genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves-
unwittingly-to justify what was done. My point is not that we must, in telling
history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for
that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy
acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for
progreass (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization;
Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save
us all)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is
that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive
wastes are buried in containers in the earth.
Howard Zin, "Chapter 1: Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress,"
in A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present (Harper
Perennial, 2003), 1-22