Even by the dismal standards of the 1400s, Christopher Columbus was a terrible human being.
So why does California continue to honor him with his own holiday when other states have already replaced it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day? A brief review of the terrors he unleashed reveals why it’s time to make Columbus Day a relic of the past.
Columbus’ use of torture and dismemberment while serving as governor of a Spanish colony in the Caribbean earned him a reputation for shocking sadism.
“He even ordered the ears and nose cut off one miscreant, who was also whipped, shackled, and banished from the island. He ordered a cabin boy’s hand nailed in public to the spot where he had pulled a trap from a river and caught a fish,” wrote Laurence Bergreen in “Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504.”
Columbus’ brother once cut out a woman’s tongue because she reminded Columbus that he started off as the son of a humble weaver. “Christopher congratulated his brother on defending the family honour,” says Spanish historian Conseulo Varela.
This was how Columbus treated his fellow Europeans, but it was nothing compared to the horrors he inflicted on indigenous people. Columbus’ most vicious atrocities are recounted in Bergreen’s book, as well as in an excellent summary titled “9 reasons Christopher Columbus was a murderer, tyrant and scoundrel” by Dylan Matthews of Vox.
Among Columbus’ atrocities:
Murder and mutilation
Columbus’ penchant for cutting and disfiguring human beings did not end with his Spanish subjects. Beheadings and mutilations were standard operating procedures in his treatment of the native population. He once ordered a group of native prisoners publicly beheaded in the main square. Men acting on his orders also paraded a native man to the middle of a village and cut off his ears “in retribution for the Indians’ failing to be helpful to the Spaniards when fording a stream,” according to Bergreen.
Rape and sex slavery
Columbus allowed settlers to sell girls as young as 9 or 10 into sexual slavery. “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid,” Columbus wrote in a letter, according to “Columbus: His Life, His Works, His Remains” by John Boyd Thacher. In one episode during his second voyage, Columbus gave a kidnapped native woman to a member of his crew, who later described raping her: “She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears.”
“So began the European rape of the New World,” writes Bergreen.
Genocide and slavery
When Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola, the native population of Arawak/Taíno people stood at an estimated 300,000. Sixty years after Columbus, around 500 remained. “100,000 or so died between 1494 and 1496, half of them during the mass suicide,” writes Bergreen, referring to the approximately 50,000 natives who killed themselves rather than live as slaves under Columbus’ brutal rule.
We could go on and on, but you get the gist. There’s no reason why California should continue to honor and commemorate the perpetrator of such deeds.
Five hundred years of history have not washed away the stains of Columbus’ evil. At a time when California has begun to reckon with its own genocidal history, changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a small but meaningful step towards reconciliation.
In 2019, New Mexico, Vermont, Maine and the District of Columbia all voted to do just that. Yet a 2018 California bill to rename Columbus Day never even got a hearing.
Some defenders of Columbus say we shouldn’t judge him by modern-day standards. Yet even in his own era, Columbus was considered excessively cruel and murderous. After all, he was eventually arrested, brought back to Spain as a criminal and temporarily stripped of his titles.
Then there’s the question of whether erasing Columbus from the calendar might offend Italian Americans. But Italy’s gifts to the nation and the world are rich and varied. There are plenty of better ways to honor Italy’s countless contributions to our arts, culture, politics, cuisine and history.
It’s long past time for California to join the growing number of cities and states setting the historical record straight. At a moment when the state is officially seeking “truth and healing” under the leadership of Gov. Gavin Christopher Newsom, it’s time to say goodbye to Columbus Day.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify that settlers under Columbus sold girls as young as 9 or 10 into sexual slavery.