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Christopher Columbus: Differentiating the Man from the Myth

We all know the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America in October 1492, but there is more to this adventurer than we have been told.

My fourth-grade history class covering the history of America and Colombia held one name in the spotlight, that of the Italian man who in search for an alternate route to China heroically discovered these lands, made friends with the indigenous people living there and then went back to Europe to share this new knowledge. I remember being told that he arrived to one of the Caribbean islands and that Colombia’s name derived from his name. That was about it, just his friendly encounter with Natives and how the Spanish influenced our culture.

But the truth is far away from the exciting tale I was told. Christopher Columbus is more of a criminal than of a hero. History seems to have forgiven him but, currently we cannot forget all the atrocities he committed on foreign soil.

First, we must give some context. He was born in Genoa, Italy between August and October 1451 to a small-merchant father, travelled a lot before establishing in Portugal. It was to the Portuguese monarchs that he went first asking for funding for his quest to discover a new route to the West Indies, after the usual path was closed by the Ottoman Empire. They rejected him, he then asked the English crown and was turned down as well. Columbus found success in Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave him several ships: La Niña, La Pinta and La Santa María.

The explorer made four voyages in total, the first time he arrived at La Hispaniola - now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The inhabitants of the island were called the Taino people. The new visitor seemed friendly enough at first, with ulterior motives such as establishing the first Spanish settlement. But later turned out to be a ruthless conqueror forcing the Taino's to give him their gold or risk having their hands severed.

And so, seeing their future to be one of submission and suffering, many decide to commit suicide after experiencing the cruelty that these newcomers meant. Not only did the newcomers rape women in the tribe and committed other crimes against them but also started the slave trade-off to from the new continent to Europe given that the Spanish did not find the prized Asian goods they sought after and sent back the only resource they found, working hands. It was these reasons paired with the fact that that many also died by working to find gold to pay the tribute they were forced to deliver, that this tribe had almost disappeared by 1550.

But even with all these facts and research done on this historical figure, children are still being taught that he was a hero, someone worth centuries of admiration. For instance, the multiple rhymes about him or the way he is presented in children's literature as a hero with little to no mention about Native Americans, the violence against them or slavery. Although this is not the only way in which we have remembered Christopher Columbus. Many countries have a national holiday dedicated to him, the tradition started in the United States in order to commemorate its longevity as a country but also to celebrate Italian-American heritage, the first festivities ever recorded happened on October 12th, 1792, in New York and in 1937 President Roosevelt declared it, Columbus Day. This day is also celebrated in other countries such as Spain and Italy, as well as through Latin America but with a different meaning than Columbus’s accomplishments.

After protests from many different indigenous groups, that date back to the 19th century, its significance has evolved. From hailing the success of a man to a day of remembrance - that serves to reflect on what Europeans’ arrival really meant for the people who initially inhabited the lands. In many Latin American nations, this day is referred to as Día de la raza y la hispanidad (Day of the race and hispanicity) and as Day of the encounter of Cultures in order to celebrate the rich cultural diversity. In other countries, like Venezuela, it has been dimmed Día de la resistencia indígena (Day of the Indigenous Resistance in English) since 2002 in order to remember the experience and struggle of their indigenous tribes. In the US, many states have changed the observance of this holiday to Native American or Indigenous Peoples day. This is great advance towards the recognition of what Europeans’ colonization resulted in for the Natives and how Christopher Columbus’ actions led to centuries of submission and suffering to many.

It is important that we recognize that while Columbus was a great navigator, he essentially discovered that the Earth was larger than what was originally thought, and even if he was not the first man to set foot in the American continent, he did contribute to the development of history as we know it today. But this contribution is laced with bloodshed, violence, exploitation and death. In order to understand how this process and how these countries came to be, it is imperative to not only know the names of the people who came to the “New World” but also to know the good and the bad, the nice and the ugly bits of history and find ways in which to inform and educate on this topic.

Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro

Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist DecipherGrey.

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