The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

In 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Nowadays, there is perhaps no holiday in America culture more defined by ambivalence than Columbus Day. While most working professionals—particularly of the millennial generation—are happy enough getting a day off from work in October, no matter what the occasion, some are finding it harder and harder to memorialize the “Admiral of the Ocean” without feelings of cynicism. These people may not go as far as to agree with scholars like Ward Churchill, or the American historian Alfred W. Crosby—who ended his groundbreaking book The Columbian Exchange (1972) on an extremely pessimistic note about the consequences of European discovery—but most of them harbor at least a vague understanding that the century following European arrival in the Americas is not an historical period with which to be particularly proud or patriotic. At the same time, critics recognize that there is something undeniably important about remembering the pivotal, historical changes that occurred during this period.

The modern dilemma of Columbus Day is partly attached to the atrocities that its namesake and his companions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Indeed, some people know about the 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor of the island of Hispaniola after Columbus, from 1500-1502. Testimonies in this report indicate that Columbus faced serious indictments for torturing, mutilating, and enslaving the indigenous population, most notably the Lucayan people of present-day Bahamas and the Taíno people of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Among other things, these reports state that Columbus suppressed numerous indigenous revolts, afterward reaffirming his authority by parading dismembered bodies through the street, cutting off noses, shipping natives to the Iberian peninsula in shackles (most of them dying en route), and generally instituting one of the most brutal systems of forced labor that history would ever bear witness to. Since the rediscovery of this specific report in the Spanish archives, a series of short, History-channel documentaries, collectively entitled the “Columbus Controversy,” has attempted to integrate these atrocities into our general understanding of the famous and infamous conquistador.

But the modern dilemma of celebrating Columbus Day is also much greater than the appalling behavior of its namesake. For many people, Christopher Columbus is less of an isolated historical figure, and more of an historical representative for a protracted period of imperialism, slavery, and genocide. Those familiar with the historiography of the Spanish conquest may chalk this interpretation up to the “Black Legend,” a popular and carefully cultivated narrative that associates the Spanish conquest of the Americas with all things oppressive and unjust. Perhaps these critics will invoke the sixteenth-century Dominican priest, and forebear of the “Black Legend,” Bartolomé de las Casas, who impugned Columbus in his History of the Indies (1527). “The admiral,” La Casas writes, “was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.”

But, speaking more generally, these critics are concerned with what happened after Columbus left the picture. They are concerned with the widespread decimation of indigenous people as a result of the harsh encomienda and mita systems, the campaigns of ethnocide in the name of spreading “Christianity,” the devastating introduction of virulent European and African diseases—namely smallpox, measles, mumps, influenza, and malaria—and the sporadic continuance of warfare in pursuit of wealth, land, resources, and a very idiomatic sense of righteousness. As the official historian of the Indies, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, wrote in the year 1548, the population of indigenous Taíno people had decreased by roughly 274, 500 in the first fifty years since discovery—a death toll that is completely unimaginable by yardsticks of today.

Notwithstanding these atrocities, the “discovery” of the Americas by European explorers was, undoubtedly, a watershed moment in the history of human civilization. Some scholars have gone so far as to place this event alongside such moments as the opening of the Bering Strait or the onset of the Neolithic revolution. The astounding impact of the manifold changes that were set in motion by this “discovery” explains why posterity chooses to memorialize Columbus, despite the probability that he died having no idea where he had actually been. It also explains why we do not celebrate a day in remembrance of Bjarni Herjólfsson or Leif Eriksson, even though these Norse mariners “discovered” the continent of North American centuries prior to Columbus. Likewise, if theories set forth by the British author Rowan Gavin Paton Menzies, in his controversial book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, should prove that the Ming-dynasty explorer Admiral Zheng visited America decades before Columbus, it is unlikely that Americans would begin celebrating a Zheng Day.

In thinking about our recognition of Columbus, the bestowal of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to current president Barack Obama might offer an opportunity for analogy. In this case, many critics believed that Barack Obama did not deserve the prize because they were looking solely at what he had achieved (or not achieved) rather than what he had come to represent as a cultural symbol. Although the situation with Christopher Columbus is completely different from that of Barack Obama in almost every other respect, it is similar in the fact that both figures were chosen as representatives for pivotal moments in history rather than on an unanimous sense of their individual merit. In this parallel, the important question is not whether Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, or whether Columbus discovered America. The important question is whether memorializing these figures can adequately capture the transformative nature of their times, or whether there is a better approach at hand.

Speaking of a better approach, there are some viable options on the table regarding the future of Columbus Day in America. In highlighting these options below, I have chosen to leave out the option of “doing away with the holiday altogether,” partly because, from the perspective of an historian, perhaps the only thing worse than memorializing genocide, ethnocide, and holocaust in the name of a perpetrator is choosing to forget the event altogether. On another note, I think that most people believe that just because an historical period is hurtful to remember does not mean that it should be ignored. As the saying goes, in appeasing our conscience today, we should forget out humanity tomorrow.

I want to conclude this post by calling for a plebiscite on the question of Columbus Day. Regardless of whether you like any of the options featured below, or whether you have an entirely different perspective to share, please do not hesitate to post your comments.

Option One: The first option is to accept the name Columbus Day—first instituted as the national holiday in 1937—as part of our history, constantly reminding ourselves to produce literature, art, and conversation that draws attention to its controversial nature. While this approach involves no change in the name of the holiday, it requires serious vigilance and creativity on those who wish to manage its legacy. For a humorous look at this approach, we may consider ideas from the online business, which has published a series of satirical images. One of these images features a haughty and pompous conquistador, next to the sarcastic line “Let’s celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone’s house and telling them we live here now.”

Option Two: The second option is to rename the holiday after a more admirable, historical figure. In this sense, The Oatmeal has published an argumentative presentation on why Columbus Day should be renamed after the previously-mentioned Bartolomé de las Casas. Although it has been argued that Las Cases is an equally problematic figure to memorialize (particularly because of his endorsement of African slavery during the Valladolid debates), the idea behind Bartolomé Day suggests that we can keep our remembrance of the Columbian exchange, and the cultural binding of the transatlantic, while shucking off the association with the tyrannical Columbus. Notwithstanding the appeal of this approach, it may displease people who believe that attaching the prodigious changes wrought by the European “discovery” of the New World to an individual figure is tantamount to academic dishonesty. On the flip side, it might be argued that attaching the Columbian exchange to a specific person is the best way of assuring its remembrance for posterity.

Option Three: The third option is to rename the holiday in a way that suggests its importance but is not attached to a specific, historical figure. In this sense, proponents should look to the holiday names that are associated with Columbus Day in other countries of the Americas. In the Bahamas, for example, the arrival of Christopher Columbus is commemorated as “Discovery Day.” In Argentina, it is called Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural, or the “Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity,” and, in Uruguay and Belize, it is called Día de las Américas, or “Day of the Americas.” The only concern here is that, apropos to the analogy of Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize, does an idea or historical period stand a better chance of being remembered if it takes the form of an individual person? After all, it is called Martin Luther King Jr. Day, not Civil Rights Day.

What do you think?

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


3 thoughts on “The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

  1. Thanks for your post Devin! Memorialization is almost unequivocally a contentious topic. Some historians defend that we should not encourage the idea that a single individual made a difference in the historical process. However, Columbus’ expeditions did have an impact, and what an impact! In Spain, we celebrate the Dia de la Hispanidad. It could no be a more charged term, as there is a military parade on the capital and all! But in the context of the US, what does the average American think of Columbus Day? And, for that matter, what about the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, President’s Day, and Christmas? Gringos use 5 de Mayo as an excuse to get drunk while Mexicans usually don’t give much thought to the historical relevance of the date. If Columbus Day serves a medium to initiate a discussion about power relations, race, genocide, and civil rights in classrooms, subways, and family reunions, why would you want to change it?

  2. Federico, what a great point! While Columbus Day is contentious, perhaps that is the point; it serves as an annual reminder to discuss things which deserve re-evaluation. I really like your phrasing there, “if Columbus serves as a medium to initiate a discussion…why would you want to change it.” Very well said. Also, your insights on Spain are great. I do not think Chicagoans would be very welcoming to the sight of a military parade in Chicago.

  3. Option 2 or 3 sounds good. If we remove the holiday it would resolve emotional issues and we could replace it with some other celebration for that month. Society evolves and the ideas and views change. Allowing people to make changes is important while at the same time preservation of history is important. To manage controversial topics would be exhausting and people would loose interest. What needs to happen is a reconciliation. For example, we know what he did, but he did it and he did other things that were good. Recognize history for what it is do not sweep it away because we do not like it. At the same time we should be respectful of people and their feelings. There is nothing we can do to fix what our ancestors did. But here we are in this time and place so we make the best of it. Much of history about Natives is one sided or two sided with no context or anything to really think about. This will change as scholars catch up. Perhaps when they do more will have a better understanding of what happened in the past to be able to accept it today and make decisions in the future of how they want to preserve and memorialize it.

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