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Christopher Columbus: Not the man we learned about as schoolchildren

toppled statue of Christopher Columbus
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
State Patrol officers stand guard as employees of Twin Cities Transport and Recovery work to clear the toppled statue of Christopher Columbus on Wednesday.

State Patrol officers had an unusual assignment at the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul on Wednesday as they stood guard when workers cleaned up the just toppled 10-foot statue of Christopher Columbus. It was international news as protesters also damaged or destroyed similar monuments to Columbus in Massachusetts and Virginia

The justification for this, according to Native American activist and protest leader Mike Forcia, was an extension of demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequalities after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25. “It was the right thing to do and it was the right time to do it,” said Forcia. 

Native American activists have long protested against the honoring of Columbus in any way because his four expeditions to the Americas led to colonization and genocide. 

The fallen monument had been created by sculptor Carlo Brioschi and dedicated in 1931 as a gift from Italian-Americans in Minnesota. Forcia said he may be arrested as a result of the incident. 

Alhambra, Spain, visit in 2010 

My wife and I learned about the mixed legacy of Columbus in Spain 10 years ago when we stayed and explored Alhambra, a well-preserved palace and fortress in Granada dating to AD 889. Ferdinand and Isabella reigned and Columbus lived there in the late 15th century. 

Chuck Slocum
Chuck Slocum
Christian King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the underwriters of Columbus global travels, declared that everyone living in their kingdom — much of modern-day Spain — must be Christian; they launched the infamous Inquisition against so-called heretics, and expelled all Jews and Muslims after years of war.

Columbus had asked the reluctant Ferdinand and Isabella multiple times to back his planned voyages. The king and queen finally stabilized their government but were in desperate need of money. Believing foreign commerce, trade, and empire were keys to their future prosperity and deciding that the possible benefits in backing Columbus’ outweighed the overall monetary risk, the king and queen finally agreed to his request. The deal included Columbus being the “admiral, viceroy and governor” of any land he discovered, keeping 10% of the wealth he acquired. 

Columbus initially believed he was going to a quicker route to Asia, the richest part of the world at that time. Instead, in 1492 he landed in the Americas, bringing ships and crosses with him. Columbus would return three more times over the next 12 years. 

Forced into slavery

In the places that Columbus landed, natives were forced into slavery and punished with flogging, loss of limb or death if they did not perform to such expectations as collecting enough gold each day from the mines. Columbus and his fellow travelers also brought with them diseases that ravaged the welcoming natives of the new land, estimated to have eventually killed 90% of them. 

Columbus proved to be a greedy, cruel invader, a reckless adventurer and a fraud in that he never planted the flag of Spain in North America. Eventually, others brought word back to Europe of Columbus’ horrific treatment of the population amounting to genocide and in 1499 he was arrested, chained up and brought back to Spain and stripped of his royal titles. He died in 1506 at the age of 54.  

Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day 

Oct. 12, 2020, is Columbus Day in America — a national holiday in many other countries as well — officially celebrating the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492. There has been significant pushback, however. Context does matter and the context of Columbus Day is horrific.

The turning point began in 1990, when South Dakota changed the name of the holiday to Native American Day as part of a year of reconciliation with its tribes. Berkeley, California, became the first city to officially jettison the Columbus Day name; the new moniker became Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992. 

In 2014 Minneapolis designated the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples Day. Several other Minnesota cities followed. In 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statewide proclamation saying that Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, was Indigenous Peoples Day. And in 2019, some 10 months after taking office, Gov. Tim Walz likewise issued an official proclamation that Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples Day. 

Chuck Slocum, founder and president of The Williston Group, can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/12/2020 - 02:14 pm.

    Thanks for writing this. I had no idea that Columbus was recognized as a monstrous criminal in his own lifetime. I will have to read up to see how he got rehabilitated and became a hero.

  2. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/12/2020 - 02:45 pm.

    The atrocities he, and his men committed are pretty well documented. This is the result of his landing on Haiti: “In two years, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead, either through murder, mutilation or suicide.”
    Natives were killing their children to save them from the Spanish. As I said these thing are well documented so the folks who were teaching us how great his was back in the 60’s had to have known what Columbus and his men did, yet we were still taught to revere him. Why was that done?

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/12/2020 - 04:42 pm.

      I’m going to guess that several (dozen) books have already been written about “why that was done.” I’ve kept a couple of my college American history texts from the early 1960s, and where they’re not overtly racist, they largely omit the side of the story that describes the impacts on natives and other people of color of Columbus and his successors. We still have plenty of people in the country who revere Robert E. Lee and a dozen other leaders of the Confederaby, why not Christopher Columbus? At least, that sort of thinking still seems fairly common, which is part of the problem. I had plenty of students in the late 1980s and early 1990s – not all of them white – who had never heard of W.E.B. DuBois, or Malcom X, and whose knowledge of Martin Luther King was limited to a few news clips of his “I have a dream” speech.

      Columbus was a product of his times, and (fortunately) times have changed. One unearned side effect of condemning Columbus is to mistakenly condemn Italy as being somehow responsible for his conduct in the New World. That is a mistake. There was no Italy in 1492, nor would there be until the late 1800s, more than 300 years later. Columbus came from the city-state of Genoa, which is now part of Italy, but in the 15th century was completely independent.

      • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/13/2020 - 08:38 am.

        Textbooks are influenced (and sometimes edited) by the larger school systems that use them.

      • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/15/2020 - 01:26 pm.

        Maybe he was productive of his times, but he was sent back to Spain in chains at one point and stripped of his titles, so maybe an extreme example of those times. I think the much simpler reason can be found in John Evans’ post below.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 06/12/2020 - 05:37 pm.

      Italian-Americans wanted their own sort of Saint Patrick’s day on which to parade and celebrate their American-ness. The holiday also resonated with Catholics as a whole, who had been viewed as sort of un-American. (Remember that Kennedy’s nomination was somewhat controversial for this reason.)

      It’s just unfortunate that Italian-Americans picked the wrong hero. It’s too bad that protesters felt they had to destroy public property to get this done, but good riddance!

    • Submitted by HELEN DECONINCK on 06/29/2020 - 08:12 pm.

      Here is the song we learned in grade school:

      “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He sailed and sailed and sailed and sailed, and found this land for you and me:. End of song.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/12/2020 - 04:18 pm.

    I’m not interested in defending Columbus. I do, though, wonder about the bringing of diseases.

    It’s a given that with increased technology, eventually it would become widespread knowledge that there were millions of people living on two continents mostly unknown until then. If peaceful explorers had initiated contact, it’s a safe bet that even with the best of intentions, diseases unknown to those native to the Americas would have suffered greatly. So on the disease score, I’d give Columbus, Europeans, or whoever a pass.

    My memory is a bit foggy, but I believe Jared Diamond has said something about how people in the old world got diseases from living in close proximity to live stock. Those with better immune systems were able to survive. It stands to reason if those native to the Americas did not raise live stock of the type people on the other side of the globe did, they wouldn’t have developed any immunities to small pox, etc.

    Expecting the new & old worlds to never meet, ever, is a bit like someone in 1932 hoping that Bloomington remain farmland for the next 200 years. A nice idea perhaps, but not very realistic.

    Barring deliberate spreading of European diseases to natives, I’d just as soon this no longer be laid at the feet of Columbus. Like the sun rising in the east, it was going to happen someday.

    • Submitted by Mike Hindin on 06/13/2020 - 06:20 am.

      Some of the disease spreading was deliberate. “Small pox blankets” were a later example.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/13/2020 - 12:51 pm.

        Please read my last paragraph, and parse my words more carefully.

        Are you telling me that Columbus deliberately spread diseases? Was anyone that sophisticated yet?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/15/2020 - 10:12 am.

        “Smallpox blankets” is the term used to describe infected blankets distributed by the US government to Native Americans. It probably was not deliberate, as the idea that diseases are spread by germs was not fully developed until the 1880s.

  4. Submitted by James Drew on 06/12/2020 - 05:46 pm.

    Nice try Chuck. Washington Irving went to Spain and wrote 3 volumes on CC. Wallbuilders, an American research group, has the history, the myths, the origin of the lies, the real time written biographical accounts and the truth of the Columbus Character.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/12/2020 - 10:28 pm.

    I learned that he discovered the Americas, although folks in Alexandria might disagree. It would have been nice if a perfect man had made the journey.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/14/2020 - 12:20 am.

      It would have been nice if an average man had done it. Or even a dishonest jerk. Unfortunately, it was a man so monstrous and evil that he was recognized as disgrace even in his own time.

    • Submitted by James Sandberg on 06/15/2020 - 07:27 am.

      Columbus discovered NOTHING. It is well documented that Vikings made numerous visits to Newfoundland, and probably to Northern parts of what we call New England in the 10th & 11th Centuries, 500 years before Columbus’ trips to rape, pillage & commit purposeful genocide. This is notwithstanding the outside possibility of Vikings in Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by Gib Ahlstrand on 06/13/2020 - 10:30 am.

    I read in the news that Native groups had petitioned the state government to have the statue removed, but have gotten nowhere with that approach.

    The statuary on the capitol mall area is maintained/administered by the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, a “12-member non-partisan Board appointed by Governor, City of Saint Paul, and Legislature, and CHAIRED BY THE LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR” (emphasis added).

    Our Lieutenant Governor, a Native American woman, has recently expressed her disgust with the statue and all it stands for. So why didn’t she hustle the activists request to have it removed through the Board long ago?

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 06/13/2020 - 11:44 am.

    Columbus was brave and enterprising, certainly not perfect. Perhaps a finer line can be drawn that distinguishes between his acts and those of the Spanish.

    Further, the Spanish and Portuguese imprinted a legacy of bad government that continues to plague the New World.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/14/2020 - 12:23 am.

      Why do people keep talking as if the problem is that Columbus was not perfect? He didn’t have to be perfect. The problem is that he was a genocidal monster.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/18/2020 - 08:31 pm.

        Who, in spite of his many faults, accomplished more in discovery terms than–you.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/19/2020 - 12:05 pm.

          And again, I am not disputing what Columbus did. I am objecting to the idea that his faults amount to him being “not perfect.” On balance, he was a piece of garbage. He should have no statues and no days.

  8. Submitted by Patricia Kurt on 06/13/2020 - 05:14 pm.

    The textbooks of the 1960s and 1970s taught me one version of Christopher Columbus (the hero version). Then my foreign exchange students needed help with their U.S. history a couple of years ago, and I saw what the textbooks of the Twenty-Teens said about the man. After I got over my case of Columbus-whiplash, I was happy to know that students today (at least in my community) are taught a more holistic version of history.

  9. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/14/2020 - 01:15 am.

    The reality is that as a result of Columbus conquistadors from Europe claimed two continents, stole the lands and riches, killed, enslaved and destroyed the cultures. All in the name of the prince of peace. Colonialism continued in the rest of the world, which many of the same objectives. Not love your enemy of the Golden Rule, but might makes right.

    All empires act the same way. Indigenous people have been waiting 500 years for better treatment and have been let down by white man broken promises for way too long. Columbus was a racist bully, thief, slave trader and murderer. Move his statue to a museum and tell the school children no more fairy tales about him.

  10. Submitted by Doug Thomson on 06/15/2020 - 10:32 am.

    Very interesting article, thanks Chuck. Good riddance to the Columbus statue.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2020 - 09:00 am.

    Pat Terry asks: “Why do people keep talking as if the problem is that Columbus was not perfect? He didn’t have to be perfect. The problem is that he was a genocidal monster.”

    That’s a really good question, and it’s cousin: “How can we judge historical figures using contemporary morality?” is another good question. Fortunately Native intellectuals and authors (among others) have answered the question.

    The assumption or claim that historical figures are beyond moral judgement because they were “men of their time” is of course a fallacy. That mentality stems from a language and narrative of conquest and colonization. There are two fundamental and related problems with this historical morality claim: 1) Even in their day, many the atrocities committed were not universally endorsed as “normal” much less moral behavior or conduct. 2) The “moral” perspective that classifies atrocities as historically moral, is a product of institutional bigotry and ongoing oppression.

    History records many atrocities, but you’ll note that historians do NOT document universal consent for those atrocities. Sure, ancient armies would sack cities and murder the entire populations, but nowhere is it recorded that everyone was OK with that. Often times one atrocity was a revenge for a previous atrocity so clearly atrocities weren’t universally sanctioned. Why would anyone seek revenge for something that wasn’t immoral? There were always moral voices of the time that denounced the actions we denounce today. And the idea that morality is determined by majority opinion of some kind is morally incoherent.

    Consider the more recent history of the Holocaust for instance: On one hand some could say that Nazis running the camps were just men of their times. But the truth is that even these monsters knew they were committing atrocities and crimes, we know they tried to obscure what was happening and hide it from their own people, they documented what they were doing in code so future historians (or maybe even prosecutors) would have trouble recognizing what was actually happening. This has become the essence of Holocaust denial, but note, even Holocaust denial is driven by the acknowledgement that genocide is immoral, it is after all “denial”.

    Now imagine a scenario wherein the Third Reich survived the war, or even prevailed. Would future generations look back on the world without Jews and conclude that genocide was just a normal product of our “times”?

    This brings us to the second observation that historical moral relativity is a narrative of conquest and colonization. That perspective, that historical atrocities were “normal” for their time, can only be held by those who descend from those who committed the atrocities. Obviously those who were the target of these atrocities, and their descendants don’t share THAT perspective. When someone says: “well we can’t judge Columbus with modern morality” it’s really just racism colonizing mindsets refusing to judge itself.

    The mentality that monsters of the past were just being regular guys of their times is not only historical garbage, it’s part and parcel of ongoing institutional oppression.

    The historical fact is that the arrival of Columbus was the beginning of 500 years of murder, genocide, and slavery in the “Americas”. While that may not be the ONLY historical fact we’re left with, no one can deny it by claiming he was a man of his time.

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