Slave Trader. Murderer. National Hero?

Columbus coloring pageThis is how, years ago, I demonstrated to my children the concept that Columbus Discovered America: I stood up, turned away from where they sat eating dinner, turned back, and—with an arm raised in triumph—declared, “I have discovered this table!” And then I sat on my daughter.

Sometimes I think I would be good at homeschooling.

I’d be good at the subtext part, anyway: teasing out the flaw in the idea that a place isn’t “discovered” until Europeans discover it.

The text part, well . . . I’d have to look that up. What I vaguely remember from my childhood was that, after an arduous journey, Columbus, the first European to cross the Atlantic, landed in North America, shocking the folks back home by not falling off the edge of the world they had presumed flat.

Half a minute of internet research reveals that, almost 500 years after Leif Eriksson had first crossed the Atlantic, Columbus made it not to North America but to the Caribbean Islands (which he thought was Asia), and everyone back home had known since Aristotle that the earth was round.

1492? Yes. But was the ocean blue? Doubtful.

Ten more minutes of internet research put me off my breakfast. Columbus presided over and/or perpetrated the worst stuff you can imagine people doing to other people. Selling native girls (I mean girls—9 or 10) into sexual slavery. Cutting off the hands of natives who failed to produce their quota of gold dust. Burning people alive for trying to escape, or sic’ing dogs on them, or cutting off ears, noses, legs. And I’m sparing you the gory details.

On the one hand, Columbus Day is but another example of a tradition that persists although it obviously conflicts with pretty much everyone’s moral system—including that of the people who promote it. How many elementary school teachers could even bear to read about the behavior of the man whose Xeroxed picture they annually ask their students to color in?

On the other hand, there’s hope. Public opinion does change; we do learn. Hawaii, South Dakota, Alaska, and Oregon do not celebrate the holiday. Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, and so did Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, and Seattle. New York State’s kindergarten curriculum now suggests that teachers at least “Explain that native people were already living on the continent where Columbus’s ships landed.” The high school curriculum recommends teaching Columbus’ voyage as a “turning point.” I guess you could argue that’s like calling the Holocaust a “turning point,” but still, it’s better than teaching the voyage as a triumph and the explorer as a hero.

An element of hero worship persists, however. New York City’s official celebration begins with a solemn wreath-laying at the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle. And then there’s the parade—“the world’s largest celebration of Italian American culture,” according to the event organizers. This year, its 70th, the parade will feature 35,000 marchers and attract over a million spectators.

How much irrefutable historical evidence will it take to undo that?

I say, keep the parade. Keep celebrating Italian Americans. Just turn the whole thing around, and head south down Fifth Avenue to 23rd Street. There, at the entrance to Eataly, lay a giant wreath of bay leaves at the orange-Croc’d feet of a far superior exemplar of America’s Italian heritage: Mario Batali.

You’ve heard of Batali, right? He discovered olive oil.


  1. Hi, Kate! I don’t disagree with your sentiments that there seems to be a disconnect between celebrating Italian heritage and celebrating a myth. Columbus represents, I guess, an age of discovery of the Western hemisphere by Europeans and “manifest destiny,” which Americans adopted and are still influenced by to this day. In that sense, I guess you could say it was a turning point from the European perspective, and for indigenous people, as you well describe in your post.

    I don’t understand the parallelism you make to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was not a turning point for anything. The Jews have been a focal point of many holocausts throughout European history. The Holocaust did not stop antisemitism, as we read about “Gas the Jews” in Germany and other parts of Europe even today.

    1. I was questioning the idea of using a neutral term like “turning point” to describe the effect of the arrival of Columbus on natives in the “new world.” Indeed, we would never say that about the Holocaust. Could you make an argument that world history changed with, say, the establishment of the State of Israel? Maybe you could. But that’s not the point, is it? And perhaps it shouldn’t be the point in this case either.

      Still, it’s better than “triumph”!

  2. So right on. You could write a clever version of “People’s History of the US.” The amazing Howard Zinn starts off with Columbus as I recall. And it ain’t no bed time story. Really liked this essay.

  3. Wouldn’t it be better if they taught kids the true, horrid, story of the human race in school and encouraged them to act less human and more civilized in how they proceeded to live their lives? Mythologizing history and propagating fantasies (not the least of which are religious and patriotic- interesting that the two last refuges of a scoundrel are patriotism and religion depending on whom you quote) only serves to produce more of the same behavior in the next generation.

  4. Another big misconception about Columbus is that he discovered/proved that the world was round. At the time it was commonly known that the world was round, The debate was regarding how far it was, and if going west would be shorter than heading east.

    The point here is that there are so many falsities taught, well intended or not, the best defense is to provide a broad exposure to kids and consciously avoid ‘group think’

  5. Kate, you’re a genius!
    It’s funny how French people reacted when we explained them that you had a holiday to celebrate Columbus day. First reaction was indeed:”what about the natives?”

  6. For me, it was the end of his life that made him heroic. Something to understand: the Vatican pushed through a European treaty, abt 30 years after Columbus, that Indians had to be treated justly… paid for their land… etc. You couldn’t just pay off a chief, for example. The reason for that is that when Columbus sat on his dau… discovered the gold, he reported back that indians were animals in human form; and the Vatican concluded, if they are animals, they have no rights. In very short order, word started coming back from other missionaries, ‘you’ve made a terrible mistake’. Thus, the treaty, which of course has been ignored and violated about as regularly as the US constitution. (I can give more details if req’d). Anyhow, Columbus left the new World and went back to spain. But when he came back and saw the horror that was his own, he revolted and attempted to stop it. Spain wanted the gold though, and imprisoned him for the rest of his life for getting in the way.

    Sometimes, the only good thing you can do is be sorry for what you have done, and struggle to undo it.

    Until I found out about that last bit of the story, I too had no konor for him. But the last bit does give him some humanity.

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