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Christopher Columbus: Not the man we learned about as schoolchildren

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. 

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

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. 

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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.  

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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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