Saturday, October 14, 2017

Columbus Day

1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them..

Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world and they were meaner than anybody else and they had gunpowder...The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their ability to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were."-Kurt Vonnegut
This past Monday, October 9th was Columbus Day. It's a federal holiday but many people do not receive the day off. Increasingly Columbus Day has become a flashpoint between people who would like to bring to light that there were already people living in the "New World" in 1492 and those who see any attempt to revise bad history as a simplistic scurrilous attack on whites, Italians, or Western Civilization. I was reminded of how the second group thinks when I was listening to a local white (supposedly liberal) radio host bemoan the city of Detroit's planned renaming of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. The radio host and most of his callers were of the opinion that everyone (by which they meant non-whites) was just too sensitive these days. They said that well sure maybe Columbus did some bad things but Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't perfect either. 

And in their view because America existed now that made everything okay. The radio host closed out with what he thought was the devastating conclusion that Columbus was good because "our European ancestors never would have made it here were it not for Columbus".  Wow. How can anyone argue with that logic.

Falling right in line with the "liberal" radio host's argument, the conservative writer Ben Shapiro posted an explicitly racist video arguing that the genocide of the Native Americans was all in all a good thing. Now, it is certainly true that ideas about what is right and what is wrong vary from culture to culture and across time. But it's also true that no one likes being enslaved. No one likes being raped. No one likes being tortured. No one likes being mutilated. No one likes being killed. Those things are wrong no matter where you are. It's probably worthwhile here to give some examples of just what Columbus and his thugs did once they encountered the Taino (Arawak).

On Columbus’s first trip to the Caribbean, he later returned to Spain and left behind 39 men who went ahead and helped themselves to Native women. Upon his return the men were all dead. With 1,200 more soldiers at his disposal, rape and pillaging became rampant as well as tolerated by Columbus. This is supported by a reported close friend of Columbus, Michele de Cuneo who wrote the first disturbing account of a relation between himself and a Native female gift given to him by Columbus.
“While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that (to tell you the end of it all), I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”
Several accounts of cruelty and murder include Spaniards testing the sharpness of blades on Native people by cutting them in half, beheading them in contests and throwing Natives into vats of boiling soap. There are also accounts of suckling infants being lifted from their mother’s breasts by Spaniards, only to be dashed headfirst into large rocks.

Bartolome De Las Casas, a former slave owner who became Bishop of Chiapas, described these exploits. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” he wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

Columbus forced the Natives to work in gold mines until exhaustion. Those who opposed were beheaded or had their ears cut off. In the provinces of Cicao all persons over 14 had to supply at least a thimble of gold dust every three months and were given copper necklaces as proof of their compliance. Those who did not fulfill their obligation had their hands cut off, which were tied around their necks while they bled to death—some 10,000 died handless.

In two years’ time, approximately 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. Many deaths included mass suicides or intentional poisonings or mothers killing their babies to avoid persecution. In addition to putting the Natives to work as slaves in his gold mines, Columbus also sold sex slaves to his men—some as young as 9. Columbus and his men also raided villages for sex and sport. In the year 1500, Columbus wrote: “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”


So even back in 1492 people knew that rape, murder and mutilation were wrong. Once they had murdered virtually all of the Taino the Spanish brought in African slaves to exploit. Does any of this sound like activities that can be handwaved away by saying well no one's perfect? Of course not. These things were generally not taught in schools. You have to go looking for it. Schools are more interested in creating propaganda. But good and evil are concepts that apply to more than our own particular group. If you're unable to see or admit evil in people that look like you you're morally blind.

Unfortunately that sort of moral blindness is very common among some Americans. Columbus committed great evils. Even other white people of Columbus' time knew that chopping people's hands off because they didn't gather enough gold was morally bankrupt. We should not be surprised that some of the people who are related to those that were enslaved, raped and murdered by Columbus and the other European invaders don't see Columbus as a hero. Just because something good happens after something bad happens doesn't mean the bad act was justified. Israel would not exist without the Holocaust. Are you going to see commemorations to Heydrich or Himmler in Tel Aviv? No. No you will not. The historical narrative about Columbus has only been told from one side. It's past time that people face the truth. It's not pretty. And we can't change it. But there it is. This is what adults do-face the truth. It's uttlerly asinine and solipsistic to suggest that people don't like Columbus Day because they don't like white people. No. Some people don't like Columbus Day because they see no reason to celebrate their own genocide. The very same people who froth at the mouth about historical Muslim invasions and atrocities fall over themselves to defend Columbus. This needs to stop. The world wasn't only made for whites, to quote a Bruce Cockburn lyric. And it's up to all of us to do what we can to make the world a better place.

Detroit — City officials have officially canceled Columbus Day. Instead, Detroit will now celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October after the City Council unanimously approved a proposal to recognize it. Columbus Day is a federal holiday, but Detroit city workers do not receive it as a paid day off. Several people spoke out against the proposal, saying Columbus Day should be kept and viewing it as an attack on Italian-Americans. 

But council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who proposed the resolution, said the day will be about about recognizing native ancestors and shedding light on history that’s often “overlooked by mainstream society.” “I think a lot of people recognize that there’s a lot of information just left out of what’s in their history books,” Castaneda-Lopez said Tuesday. “A lot of crimes were committed against the native and indigenous people that we should be aware of.”


We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams." Peter Beagle

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