This article was originally posted in 2012, but is worth reprinting again given the persistent myth that Christopher Columbus was a great man and brave explorer.
"Christopher Columbus was a great man," wrote Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinel. "A man who endured much and achieved much, and his voyage of discovery deserves the celebration it once had. Like all men, great or not great, he had his faults, but they by no means detract from his achievement."
This is fairly standard narrative in American high schools, with scant attention paid to 'his faults'. Why? Because they included mass murder and sadism and infanticide.
My original piece:
The Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus is regarded in American culture as the first Westerner to discover the Americas, and he will forever be remembered as a pioneer and a hero. The historical record however, shows Columbus to be a brutal murderer who participated in indescribable crimes against Americas indigenous population, calling into question the need to celebrate him every year.
Howard Zinn captured the spirit of Columbus’s escapades in America in his phenomenal book ‘A People’s History of the United States’, using details from Columbus’s own journal and eye witness accounts, where theft, murder, rape and torture were used to subdue the indigenous population. This is an account completely contrary to the one taught in high schools around the country and celebrated on a yearly basis – a fact that should cause great concern. He writes:
In his quest for gold, Columbus, seeing bits of gold among the Indians, concluded that there were huge amounts of it. He ordered the natives to find a certain amount of gold within a certain period of time. And if they did not meet their quota, their arms were hacked off. The others were to learn from this and deliver the gold.
Documenting an eye witness account of the Spanish soldiers by Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican Priest, Zinn continues:
Las Casas saw soldiers stabbing Indians for sport, dashing babies’ heads on rocks. And when the Indians resisted, the Spaniards hunted them down, equipped for killing with horses, armor plate, lances, pikes, rifles, crossbows, and vicious dogs. Indians who took things belonging to the Spaniards—they were not accustomed to the concept of private ownership and gave freely of their own possessions—were beheaded, or burned at the stake.
Las Casas’ testimony was corroborated by other eyewitnesses. A group of Dominican friars, addressing the Spanish monarchy in 1519, hoping for the Spanish government to intercede, told about unspeakable atrocities, children thrown to dogs to be devoured, new-born babies born to women prisoners flung into the jungle to die.
Forced labor in the mines and on the land led to much sickness and death. Many children died because their mothers, overworked and starved, had no milk for them. Las Casas, in Cuba, estimated that 7000 children died in three months. The greatest toll was taken by sickness, because the Europeans brought with them diseases against which the natives had no immunity: typhoid, typhus diphtheria, smallpox.
So yes, Columbus discovered America (although he actually didn’t, the Vikings did), but he was also a monstrous killer who should probably be remembered for the enormous crimes he committed rather than the land he stumbled upon.