Why does Columbus deserve a holiday?

October 13, 2003|By Patrick W. Gavin

THERE ARE only two individuals in the totality of American history who have federal holidays named after them: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Christopher Columbus. Presidents Washington and Lincoln once were in that company, but their birthdays were morphed into President's Day.

If Washington and Lincoln were passed over for this honor, it really must take something to get on this holiday list. So on this Columbus Day, it's worth examining the legacy of Columbus and why we bestow such a high honor upon him.

The obvious reason is Columbus's discovery of America, sort of. That, of course, implies that those who were already on American soil before 1492 don't really count. So perhaps we ought to make an addendum to Columbus' claim: Columbus did discover America - for the Europeans, whose wealth and prominence dominated the time period and, thus, the history.

But even that is only a half-truth. The more we unearth the past, the more it becomes increasingly doubtful that Columbus was, in fact, even the first European to bump into America. Although the evidence is - understandably - never conclusive, there is good reason to believe that Europeans made it to the Americas in the early 15th century or even earlier. And Gavin Menzies' recent book, 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America, makes a strong - albeit imperfect - case for a Chinese landing(s) along the West Coast.

But what is true is that Columbus, while not necessarily the first to stumble upon America, was the first who, given the backing of a powerful, wealthy and technologically advanced Spanish monarchy, was able to take financial and imperial advantage of his discovery.

If Columbus' main claim to fame, then, isn't watertight, clearly there must be other reasons for our tribute, right? Maybe not.

Even Columbus' biggest supporter would (or should) concede that Columbus' behavior (and that of his subordinates) after coming ashore stands out as some of the most repugnant in all of American history. We are fortunate to have firsthand information from journals written at the time to tell us exactly what happened - no spin necessary.

Columbus describes in his journal the overwhelmingly warm reception he received from the natives upon his arrival. "They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest -without knowledge of what is evil - nor do they murder or steal ... they love their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest talk in the world ... always laughing."

But in a letter to a friend back in Spain, Columbus revealed his true motives during these initial meet-and-greets: "With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

And so they did.

So cruel were many of the acts of violence performed upon the natives that their descriptions here would be grossly inappropriate. Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who accompanied Columbus on his voyages, later concluded, "What we have committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [Indian slavery] as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them." And he was one of Columbus' colleagues.

As always, there are two sides to every story.

Yes, Columbus was under great pressure from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to bring back results (meaning gold) at any costs, the price for failure being his own head.

Yes, it was a very daring adventure, but since when do we give away holidays simply to thrill-seekers?

Yes, it's unfair to blame Columbus for the millions of Native Americans who died because Columbus & Co. carried with them diseases from which the natives had no immunity; how could Columbus have known?

And, yes, history teaches that progress always comes at a very high price for someone.

The assault on our nation's icons happens all too frequently these days, and often without merit. All of us have our faults, and we've all made mistakes. That includes our founders, and their mistakes shouldn't cloud our appreciation of the many great things they accomplished.

Yet a nation's values can often be reflected in whom it chooses to revere, and our praise of Columbus - a man who, however great his accomplishments, never espoused traditional American values - is outdated and unjustified. And it sends a clear message to Native Americans that their side of the story doesn't really count.

We ought to be honest about what really happened in 1492 and use this holiday not simply as an exclusive celebration of Columbus but as a celebration of all of our early visitors.

Patrick W. Gavin is a former history teacher who lives in Washington.

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