Today is Monday, October 12th, 2020, and this day is celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States. It commemorates Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas and is a national holiday where everyone gets the day off from school or work. But the celebration of Columbus begs the question, should we really be celebrating him? In order to critically assess Columbus, we must be presented with the primary source accounts of his arrival in the Americas. Through looking at these sources, we can come to an informed conclusion about the appropriate response to the question of celebrating Columbus.
One of the premier primary sources that survives to this day are the writings of the Spanish priest, Bartolome de las Casas. As Howard Zinn points out in A People’s History of the United States, De las Casas began as a plantation owner with indigenous slaves, but eventually he became an ardent critic of Spanish cruelty.
Zinn quotes various passages from De Las Casas’s History of the Indies, which is worth looking at more in depth. De Las Casas wrote about the Spanish treatment of the Indegenous Arawak people on Hispaniola (where Columbus first landed and present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic):
“Endless testimonies prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then. The admiral [Columbus], it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.”
It could be assumed that De Las Casas only used the term “irreparable crimes” because the word genocide did not yet exist. Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines genocide as any acts intending to destroy “in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” According to Zinn, by 1650, the entire Arawak population had been killed, and none of their descendants remained on the island. Columbus knowingly killed and enslaved the indigenous Arawaks in pursuit of gold for the Spanish crown. Even if the application of the term genocide appears too harsh, Columbus oversaw a campaign of mass murder and enslavement.
The analysis of these historical facts brings to light that, as many historians have argued, Columbus should not be celebrated. The teaching of history is so important precisely because it allows us to examine our own traditions and understand the people behind them. We should not accept Columbus uncritically simply because the United States created a national holiday in his honor. New historical sources continually come to light, and these sources should be used to critique past analysis and expand upon our knowledge of the past.
It is perfectly acceptable and even beneficial to disagree with others provided that both sides use historical facts. I admit that I often interpret history from a left-wing perspective, although I think it is fine if people wish to write a more right-wing approach to history. What frustrates me is the censorship of historical facts to further a particular approach to history. The examination of De Las Casas’ writings should shed new light on Columbus. What is not acceptable are assertions that we should not bring up discussions of Columbus’s faults because to do so is unpatriotic.
I would now like to turn to a frankly disturbing piece of propaganda issued by the Trump administration to celebrate Columbus Day. This proclamation constitutes an attack on the historical profession and on truth as a whole. It is not an exaggeration to say that because the proclamation advocates an uncritical view of American history where the truth should be conveniently shoved into the closet in favor of a narrative of unrelenting greatness and progress. I will now highlight a few particularly disturbing passages from the press release and analyze why they pose such a grave threat for writing history and thinking critically. I will then conclude with a plea for promoting critical thinking in American education and exploring alternatives to Columbus Day.
The proclamation begins with a befuddling argument that Italian Americans place great pride in Columbus, so he must be respected. Although there are some indications that Italian Americans are proud of Columbus as a symbol of the success of immigrants coming to the Americas, he is still a brutal figure who committed genocide. Even this mythical vision of Columbus represented success for white immigrants, while immigrants of color were unable to find similar success. However, the connection of Columbus to Italian Americans is not nearly as troubling as the following paragraphs.
The proclamation mentions how there have been attempts to revise views of Columbus in light of new historical evidence. This is how the proclamation frames such attempts:
“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history. We must teach future generations about our storied heritage, starting with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus. This June, I [Trump] signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
First of all, the characterization of historians who have analyzed historical facts to criticize Columbus as extremists constitutes a grave attack on the entire historical profession. How can historians do their job if they cannot analyze primary sources? Such a view of history amounts to proclaiming that the United States has and always will be a great nation. The extreme irony of this statement is that the Trump administration is seeking to squash dissent of any historical views with which they disagree, while at the same time proclaiming that their opponents are trying to squash the positive views of Columbus.
The issue of monuments is also relevant. Views of figures change relative to the context and new historical views that come to light. It is perfectly acceptable to take down statues of Columbus now just as it was acceptable for the builders of the statues to put them up in the first place. Different viewpoints have necessitated a change in how we view Columbus. He was a hero in the popular imagination and now he is a perpetrator of genocide, so his statues should be taken down. The next paragraph is also quite disturbing, especially with its use of patriotism.
“I have also taken steps to ensure that we preserve our Nation’s history and promote patriotic education. In July, I signed another Executive Order to build and rebuild monuments to iconic American figures in a National Garden of American Heroes. In September, I announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor our founding. In addition, last month I signed an Executive Order to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage. Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.”
In the White House Announcement for the 1776 commission, Trump described the purpose of teaching history as follows: “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” There are serious issues with teaching your children that your country is exceptional because it promotes an uncritical view of history. The problem of American exceptionalism is particularly rampant in the teaching of history in the United States.
While phrases like “honor our founding” may sound innocent, what they imply is a glorification of the founding fathers without a critical examination of them. Washington and Jefferson (among many others) were slave owners, and while this fact about their life is not the only fact, it could easily be ignored when weaving grand tales of American exceptionalism. Beyond exceptionalism, Trump also mentions that historical teaching should be patriotic.
Patriotic education has particularly sinister overtones of totalitarian rule. The Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany were indoctrinated with so-called patriotic education. While there is much to criticize about the United States, there are also good things. However, it is extremely damaging to ignore those events, which reflect poorly on the country (like support for the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende of Chile, for example). I am not advocating for teaching an unrelentingly negative version of American history. However, teaching a so-called “patriotic” version of American history would ignore the lives of millions of Americans in favor of mentioning a few great men on America’s path to prosperity and progress. One can be patriotic and also critical, but patriotism should not be used as an excuse for censorship of historical facts.
The final sentence of this paragraph is also extremely ironic because patriotic education would spread hate, particularly with its presumed focus on the white male to the exclusion of other people. Safeguarding history involves a deep and critical engagement with historical sources, not the censorship of perspectives with which you disagree. The anti-intellectualism that weaves through this proclamation is extremely concerning, and academia and teachers must not be afraid to continue teaching history in a way that advocates critical analysis of sources and critical examining of the work of other historians.
Critical Thinking and Fighting Back against Columbus Day
This proclamation continues a worrying trend by the Trump administration and conservatives, in general, in downplaying the truth to suit their own narratives. It is extremely important for the American education system to teach critical thinking in a better way than they do now. Students should be presented with the tools they need (such as primary sources), and they should analyze them. There should never be a censorship of sources due to “patriotism.” It is important to counter conspiracy theories in schools and promote the use of evidence-based thinking when making historical arguments.
One of the ways that historians can challenge the narratives promoted by Trump is to engage with modern forms of resistance to Columbus Day. The counter-event to Columbus Day is Indigenous Peoples’ Day (introduced in 1977), which honors Native Americans who were impacted by the ravages of colonialism. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is so powerful because it is a testament to the fact that the truth cannot be hidden forever. Trump may try to hide and censor historical views critical of the United States, but Indigenous Peoples’ Day brings attention to marginalized people of color and shows that Trump cannot censor history. So, let us protect and promote critical thinking in schools and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day today!