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Background on Columbus and his voyages

Maps of Columbus' first voyage

Background on the Taino Indians

Why the American Indian Movement opposes Columbus Day

Columbus' reputation examined

Petition for a Native American holiday


Hero? Villian? The Team Gets MAD about Columbus

In fourteen-hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Should we believe the rest is true?

Here it is October, and Columbus Day is coming up. It's one of only two federal holidays named after people, the other being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January. You've probably studied Dr. King in school, and know that he led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in which he fought non-violently for the equality of black people -- despite countless threats to his life, including the bullet that finally killed him. Dr. King was then and is now a hero whose words and deeds bring hope and inspiration to the downtrodden, a man truly deserving of a federal holiday.

Was Christopher Columbus such a man? What heroic deeds did he perform? Why do we celebrate a day in his honor?

With any luck your history textbook is up to date and doesn't tell you that Christopher Columbus discovered America. That just isn't true; he never set foot on what is now American soil. Even if he had, there were millions of indigenous, or native, peoples living on this land. They were here first.

What Columbus did do is wander into and explore islands farther south, in the Caribbean Sea, which also were already inhabited. He discovered nothing, but brought new information back to Spain and the monarchs who financed his voyages, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

But there's more to the story than the Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, and the four voyages Columbus made between 1492 and 1504. Judging by today's standards, Columbus was a man seemingly obsessed with glory, deluded by his own ego and guilty of destroying lives and cultures without remorse.

Columbus won financial backing for his journeys by convincing Ferdinand and Isabella that he would discover a "back door" route to the riches of Asia - Cathay (now China), India and the spice islands - by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean instead of east, the route used thus far.

The son of an Italian wool worker and small merchant, he sought riches for himself and his family, and to work his way up the Spanish nobility ladder. So when he landed in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492, probably on this island of San Salvador, he was convinced he'd found resource-rich Asia, and refused to believe anything else -- despite natives telling him that the land mass we know as Cuba was an island and not China, and despite zero evidence of the great cities of the East.

Columbus was so single-minded in his thinking that he missed landing in Florida, the tip of one continent, and another continent all together, South America. But believing you've found lands full of exotic riches is one thing. Trying to prove it with human lives is another.

When Columbus left for Spain three months later to ask for another voyage, he brought with him evidence to support his claim of having found the lands he had said he would. For Ferdinand and Isabella he brought back gold, parrots, spices - and human beings. According to one account, by Macalaster College anthropologist Jack Weatherford:

He seized 1,200 Taino Indians from the island of Hispaniola [now Haiti and the Dominican Republic], crammed as many onto his ships as would fit and sent them to Spain, where they were paraded naked through the streets of Seville and sold as slaves in 1495. Columbus tore children from their parents, husbands from wives. On board Columbus' slave ships, hundreds died; the sailors tossed the Indian bodies into the Atlantic.

The fate of these and other native peoples (Columbus called them Indians, thinking he had reached India) at the hands of Columbus is why we must reconsider his reputation and place in history, and why some groups in this country want to get rid of the Columbus Day holiday.

Different groups of indigenous peoples lived throughout the Caribbean islands when Columbus showed up, but the Taino people numbered the most, perhaps as many as one to two million. They were gentle and peaceful, and showed Columbus great hospitality when he first landed in the area, trading with the Spanish and acting as guides.

But the Spanish lust for gold throughout Columbus' four voyages was great, and the colonists saw the natives as nothing but forced labor. The Taino were put to work in gold mines and on plantations through a system whereby each person was expected to produce a certain amount of gold or cotton for the Spanish. If they failed to produce, the Taino were forced to work for the Spanish themselves.

Worse yet, the Taino were beaten, raped, tortured and killed by the Spanish. In one account, two Spanish officers were watching a Taino chief load bread onto a Spanish ship. One of the officers had an attack dog that was acting up, and joked with the other officer about setting the dog on the Taino chief. The dog was let go and killed the chief.

And finally, when there was room on board a ship, natives were taken off their islands and imported to Europe - acts which some say were the beginning of the slave trade over the Atlantic Ocean.

All this contributed to the demise of the Taino Indians. Murder, forced labor and European diseases such as smallpox drastically cut their numbers, some say to the hundreds.

Today, indigenous peoples in this country and elsewhere refuse to celebrate a man they view as responsible for destroying countless lives and entire cultures. They believe their lands were stolen from them by Europeans who showed no respect for their ancestors or their ways. An attitude exists that the natives actually needed to be civilized; Native Americans counter that the Taino were in fact a highly ordered society that saved Europeans from starvation by sharing their agriculture, and that demonstrated the first political democracy in the western hemisphere.

A collection of Native American groups known as the American Indian Movement wants to get rid of not only Columbus Day, but all statues, street names and public parks honoring Christopher Columbus. Instead, the AIM wants a holiday celebrating the diversity of cultures that make up the Americas and to promote an atmosphere of mutual respect and inclusiveness.

To be fair, it can be said that Columbus was a product of his time - a time when Christian Europeans fought with Muslims over control of commercial centers; when the Spanish feared that the Portugese would discover the all-important trade route first; and when it became part of Columbus' marching orders to convert as many people as possible - including indigenous tribes from thousands of miles away - to Christianity.

But if we consider the time he lived in as background for the actions taken by Columbus, shouldn't we also consider what happened to the Taino and other native populations as background for the demands made by indigenous groups today?

This is where you can Make a Difference.

Question what you read in your textbooks. History, they say, is written by the winners, and we don't always get the whole story. So many times, important other sides are left out. What happened to the Taino Indians, even though it happened 500 years ago, is so important today in teaching us the horrible results of one group viewing itself as superior to another. The Taino Indians may very well have saved Columbus and his settlers from starvation and provided a model for our modern democracy, but to this day Native Americans struggle for the same rights, freedoms and respect given to Americans of European descent.

Find out more. Columbus Day is around the corner, so look outside your textbook to other sources of information. Go to the library and see what books may or may not be out there on indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Bring up the subject in class. See what's on the Internet.



Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - When greed for money can make a good idea go bad
Neda - The mysterious and spooky disappearance of an entire colony!
Irene - Could we be speaking Dutch instead of English?
Irene - The Quakers: peaceful individuals or radical rebels?
Team - Hero? villain? The team gets MAD about Columbus