The Defamation of Christopher Columbus

There has been a lot of hate centered around the explorer Christopher Columbus. No denying that, right?

Ever the since the 2020 riots following the death of George Floyd, many protesters and activists have been tearing down public statues of historical figures they deem to be evil white supremacists. Columbus, amongst many others, has become one of their targets. Unfortunately, they have gained some success. According to a CBS report, the BLM protests led to the removal of at least 33 Columbus statues.

An 8 foot tall Columbus memorial in Richmond, Virginia, was pulled down and dragged nearly 200 yards at the Foundation Lake by protesters who then allegedly set it on fire and tossed it into a lake. They covered the statue in graffiti, inserted a poster in the front of the sunken statue that read, “Racism. You will not be missed,” and held signs that read “This land is Powhatan land,” and “Columbus represents genocide.”

They blamed Columbus for white supremacy and institutionalized racism that the Native Americans and Black Americans had to face. A member of the Richmond Indigenous Society named Vanessa Bolin spoke to the attendees, claiming this continent was “built on the blood and bones of our ancestors,” but also “the backs and the sweat and the tears and the blood and the bones of Africans,” adding that she wants to stand in solidarity rather than hijack their movement.

Another speaker named Joseph Rogers said to the crowd, “We cannot fight white supremacy without recognizing and uplifting one of its earliest victims on this continent.”

Another Columbus statue in Boston was beheaded by protesters. It resided in Christopher Columbus Park at Atlantic Avenue. Mayor Marty Walsh said it will be put in storage and there will now be conversations about the “historic meaning” of the beheading and whether it will ever be put back up or not. Mahtowin Munro of the United American Indians of New England said the park was dedicated to “white supremacy” and “indigenous genocide.”

In the summer of 2020, a group of protesters led by a Native American activist named Mike Forcia in Saint Paul, Minnesota, tore down a 10 foot bronze Columbus statue. He claimed it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it, referring to the then-recent death of George Floyd.

In another protest in Grant Park near a Columbus statue led to the injury of 49 police officers, with 18 of those officers being sent to area hospitals for injuries such as a broken eye socket and a broken knee cap. Four protesters were hurt, including an 18-year-old activist named Miracle Boyd, who said her front tooth was knocked out by an officer as she recorded another protester getting arrested.

Deputy Chief Daniel O’Shea screened a video of the protests, which showed people marching south on Columbus Avenue. O’Shea said there was minimal police presence at that location and noted police cars remained behind the protests in order to protect them from traffic. The video then shows them heading to Grant Park north of the Columbus statue.

O’Shea said things took a turn for the worst here, when groups used large protest banners and open umbrellas as shields for people changing to all-black clothes and formed into a platoon. A sharpened PVC pipe was taken out of the banners and used to jab at officers when they got closer to the statue and a man was seen dumping out a variety of different weapons for selection, such as rocks, fireworks, frozen water bottle, and frozen cans. At another point, O’Shea said, an explosive or incendiary device blew up near a sergeant’s eye.

Following the Grant Park protest, the Chicago Monuments Committee was formed. This year in 2022, they released a report that recommended the permanent removal of three Columbus statues and 10 other monuments they deemed problematic, claiming the statues were flagged for many reasons such as “promoting narratives of white supremacy” and “presenting selective, over-simplified, one-sided views of history.”

This report could change how Chicago handles public pieces they believe to be problematic in the future. The committee stated, “We believe the report’s ideas and recommendations will strengthen our city as our public art collection becomes more honest about our history and far more inclusive regarding who is represented and what stories are told.”

Ron Onesti of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans criticized the recommendations, calling them “preposterous.” Fortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot favored returning the Columbus statue to Grant Park and has the final say on the committee’s recommendations.

Some other politicians haven’t been as thick skinned. After the Columbus statues were toppled and vandalized, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked by a reporter during a press conference meeting if it was appropriate for mobs to take down statues rather than the government through legal actions. She answered, “People will do what they do. I do think that from a safety standpoint, it would be a good idea to have it taken down if the community doesn’t want it.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy criticized her comments and said Pelosi’s “job is to write laws. Instead, she encourages mobs to break them. She is complicit with criminal activity.” City Council President Brandon Scott was also reluctant to condemn the mobs. He said, “I suggested that the last administration remove this statue when they removed the Confederate monuments. I support Baltimore’s Italian-American community and Baltimore’s indigenous community. I cannot, however, support Columbus.”

In New York, Democratic socialist Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes introduced a bill aiming to abolish Columbus Day as a national holiday. The holiday is viewed as a celebration of Italian heritage, with Italian-American actor Chazz Palminteri telling the New York Post that it isn’t going to happen. “[Columbus] Day is Italian-American Pride Day that we’ve been celebrating for 100 years,” he said. “Stop trying to take down the Columbus statue and take away our day. We are never, ever going to give that up! Never, ever!  It will never, ever happen!”

Criticism from Columbus Day defenders failed to dissuade the Albany Democrats, and they plan to pass the bill by 2023. A legislation memo read “Indigenous People’s Day reimagines Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous people in the Americas, to organize against current injustices and to celebrate indigenous resistance.”

Luckily, there has been some pushback. The president of The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations and national president of Italian Sons and Daughters of America wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on September 9, 2022, requesting to have a meeting in the White House to make sure the Columbus Day proclamation was only about Columbus, referring to Biden’s 2021 speech where he coupled it with Indigenous People’s Day and spoke about the wrongs Native Americans had faced. Russo wrote that Biden’s comments left the nation confused since he linked it with Columbus Day, and Biden’s comments implied that Indigenous People’s Day should be celebrated on Columbus Day, when the entire month of November is recognized as “Indigenous People’s Month” and August 9th is an international celebration of Indigenous People’s Day. He wrote that Columbus Day recognized “the 400th Anniversary of the landing of Columbus, was adopted as a way of easing tensions among America and Italy after a brutal lynching of eleven innocent Sicilian men in New Orleans, the largest mass lynching in our history.”

Russo and the Italian American community support the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in November and on August 9th, but states that Columbus Day deserves the same level of respect since it shows the value of all immigrants in this nation. He added, “This action, to remove a day celebrated by Italian Americans for generations, although unintentional, was clear and most disrespectful to the upwards of 20 million Americans who identify as having roots in Italy.”

Unfortunately, an Alleghany County judge named John T. McVay Jr. threw out the complaint by the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, where they had tried to sue in order to keep a Columbus statue in Pittsburgh Schenley Park. He claimed the group couldn’t point to any case law that supported the position that the mayor’s art advisory committee on what to do with city-owned monuments in city-owned land. The judge found that the position was not supported by fact or law, and the lawsuit “is an improper interference with the (City of Pittsburgh’s) right to speech.” The attorney representing the plaintiffs, George Bochetto, said he hadn’t seen the opinion, and said they’ll take the appeal.

A petition was filed to remove the statue and former Mayor Bill Peduto recommended removing it at the Frew Street Extension and Schenley Drive. The Pittsburgh Art Commission voted on September 23, 2020 to remove the statue from the public view and the Italians Sons and Daughters filed a suit in order to prevent the removal on October 9, 2020. Pittsburgh officials had the statue wrapped in plastic in order to protect it from vandalism.

There are still some politicians who see value in the Columbus statues. In Staten Island, NY, two candidates who were set to replace Assembly Member Mike Cusick, a Republican named Sam Pirozzolo and a Democrat Vincent Argenziano, sided against a piece of state legislation that would officially change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in a variety of state laws. Pirozzolo said, “As a first-generation Italian-American, I am disgusted by this latest attempt to smear Italian-Americans and cancel a holiday that, for more than 100 years, has celebrated the contributions made by Italians immigrants like my parents, who came to this country as children.”

He continued, “This is not just my story, and it is not just a Staten Island story; Italian immigrants settled all across New York and helped build it — physically, economically, and culturally. I find it ironic how, more often than not, those looking to do the canceling belong to the side that claims to be the most inclusive. Italian-Americans deserve nothing less than an opportunity to celebrate their culture, the same privilege that is afforded to dozens of other cultural groups who belong to the great big melting pot that is our city, state, and nation. “

Argenziano also said he’d oppose the bill. “I would not vote for any bill that would change Columbus Day. I am immensely proud of my Italian Heritage and the contributions that many Italian-Americans made to building this great city. Like many other Staten Islanders, I thoroughly enjoy celebrating my culture throughout Italian American Heritage Month, including on Columbus Day. I see no reason to eliminate Columbus Day as a holiday in New York State, especially given our city and state’s unique connection to many great Italians and Italian-Americans.”

The summary of the bill gives the following reason for changing the holiday’s designation: “Christopher Columbus did not discover America. Indigenous People’s Day reimagines Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous people in the Americas, to organize against current injustices and to celebrate indigenous resistance.”

“Historical truth” is an ironic way of putting it, considering a large number of the accusations about Columbus seem to not only be baseless, but a complete one-eighty on his character and his deeds. In this article written by Armando Simón, he references the books in the original Spanish by Bartolomé de las Casas, “Los Cuatro Viajes del Almirante y su Testamento,” and, “Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias.” De las Casas a famous defender of the Indians against the Spanish. In his books, he outlined the crimes committed against the Indians and even named the criminals.

However, Columbus was not one of them. In fact, de las Casas did the opposite; he claimed Columbus defended the Indians against the Spanish. A reference he uses is the biography of Columbus’s son, Fernando, who portrayed the natives in a positive way. One of the myths addressed by Simón is the claim that Columbus sold Indian women into sex slavery, including a 9-year-old girl. But the fact is that Columbus complained to the Crown about the way the Spaniards mistreated the natives, including sex slavery, especially of the 9-year-old girl.

Columbus ordered his men not to steal from the Indians and to treat them well and wanted to just trade for their gold nuggets. Gold was abundant in Hispaniola and the natives would willingly use it for trade.

Another accusation Simón targets is the claim Columbus was greedy and sought a reward for discovering the land that he stole the credit, but in actuality, he first saw light during the night, and a sailor saw land the next day. The King of Spain decided the reward should go to the Admiral.

A third accusation is Columbus brought back thousands of enslaved Indians in his first voyage. However, two of the three caravels had already left, and one caravel is one of the smallest ships, about the size of a tugboat.

The last he addresses is the claim that when Columbus found out Hispaniola had no gold, this discovery so angered him that he cut off the Indians’ hands and took them in his ship to be eaten by his dogs, which was chronicled by Bartolomé de las Casas, and Columbus was responsible for crimes committed in North America.

In reality, Columbus didn’t cut off any body parts. Hispaniola was rich in gold, de las Casas never wrote anything bad about him, and Columbus never set foot, nor sail, in North America. Simón partly blames this on the Marxist writer Howard Zinn, whose book “A People’s History of the United States,” makes Columbus one of his targets. Zinn wrote “At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two Arawaks were run through with swords and bled to death.”

This happened when he returned from his second voyage. When the explorers encountered the Indians, the Indians would run away because they believed the explorers were cannibals, who terrorized the Arawaks/Tainos.

When Columbus made contact with the Taino people in the island San Salvador in the Bahamas, both parties remained peaceful, and Columbus specifically instructed his crew to not take advantage of the native tribes. The Tainos informed the explorers of more dangerous tribes who inhabited the Isla de Carib, who were known for their elegant cotton rugs and cannibalism and claimed that babies were considered a delicacy. Settlers who had entered their huts found cotton rugs and large cuts of human flesh. The word “cannibalism” was introduced by the Caribs. They reportedly killed and ate anyone who came ashore but one popular story was that they once ate a friar and became sick afterwards, so they left anyone who wore their garb alone.

So, the Spaniards dressed as friars when they stopped at Dominica for water and other supplies. Columbus’s first settlement was destroyed by Natives who killed the Spaniards that were present and burned down their buildings. Some Spaniards were even mugged and had their clothes stolen by another Native group. Alonso de Hojada cut off the ears of one of the Natives and captured three others, planning to have them executed, but Columbus decided to let them live. When Columbus returned from his second voyage, he dressed in the coarse brown habit of a friar because he believed he was being punished for his pride by struggling in colonial governance.

During his third voyage, he arrived in Santo Domingo in 1498 to a revolt led by the local mayor Francisco Roldan. He agreed to terms he was not fond of in order to settle down the revolt, such as creating the system called repartimientos and later on the encomienda, which extorted labor from natives. Columbus was accused of tyranny by his political rivals, and these accusations allowed the crown to avoid giving Columbus his payment that they owed, which he spent years trying to gain back.

Columbus’s main political rival Francisco de Bobadilla managed to gain power before the Spanish Crown found out that Columbus compromised with Roldan. He wrote, “They judge me there as a governor who had gone to Sicily or to a city or town under a regular government, where the laws can be observed in toto without fear of losing all, and I am suffering grave injury. I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people numerous and warlike, whose manners and religion are very different from ours, who live in sierras and mountains, without fixed settlements, and where by divine will I have placed under the sovereignty of the King and Queen our lords, an Other World, whereby Spain, which was reckoned poor, is become the richest of countries.”

In the book, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” a biography of Christopher Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison writes of the Caribs, “the searching party found plentiful evidence of [the] unpleasant Carib habits which were responsible for a new word — cannibal — in European languages. In the huts deserted by the warriors, who ungallantly fled, they found large cuts and joints of human flesh, shin bones set aside to make arrows of, caponized Arawak boy captives who were being fattened for the griddle, and girl captives who were mainly used to produce babies, which the Caribs regarded as a particularly toothsome morsel.” Columbus was also close to Aztec territory. Although he hadn’t met them, the Aztec empire had captured and killed humans as sacrifices every year for their religious ceremonies. Offerings were laid on stone slabs at the top of their temples, hearts were ripped out, and arms and legs were cut off and eaten. Columbus never governed with the Aztec king nor did he with the Carib chieftain.

Columbus did initially kidnap a handful of Indians to learn their language, which he succeeded in days, but later on as they arrived in numerous places, they refused to go back home and even another native went aboard the ship in hopes of traveling with the explorers despite his family wanting him to come back home. All the natives were completely, and Columbus had repeatedly ordered his men to not steal anything and respect the Indians. He specifically wanted to trade, not steal. The situation Zinn mentioned was with the Caribs, not the Tainos. The Caribs were told to leave their bows, arrows, and ropes to the side, and Columbus had traded for two bows. But they had refused to trade anymore. When the Spaniards were about to leave, the 50 cannibals ran over to their bows, arrows, and ropes, and rushed to the 7 Spaniards trying to overpower them. The Spaniards fought back and some of the cannibals were stabbed when they all fled. Years later, when Columbus suggested making slaves out of natives, he only specifically referred to the cannibals, not the peaceful ones. The atrocities committed against Natives didn’t occur until decades after Columbus’s death.

I’m not a historian, nor a Columbus scholar. But all I want from people who constantly slander historical figures like him, and others like Thomas Jefferson, is to ask yourselves, “Why do I hate this person so much? What do I believe about them? How did I come to these conclusions?”

Every time I’ve heard from people who passionately hate a historical figure, they only seem to repeat talking point of other people. It seems like these aren’t even their opinions, just opinions their used to hearing, so they just accept them as truth.

This reminds me of a Friedrich Nietzsche quote: “Fanatics are picturesque. Mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reason.” Accepting popular narratives doesn’t make you a progressive, it just means you’re letting other people do you’re thinking for you. As you can see, many Italian Americans have a lot of value in the holiday. Instead of ignoring them and putting your views above theirs, we should find out why they think this way. Diversity and inclusion should mean diverse opinions and the inclusion of those who think differently.

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  • […] Read More Atheists for Liberty There has been a lot of hate centered around the explorer Christopher Columbus. No denying that, right? Ever the since the 2020 riots following the death of George Floyd, many protesters and activists have been tearing down public statues of historical figures they deem to be evil white supremacists. Columbus, amongst many others, has become The post The Defamation of Christopher Columbus appeared first on Atheists for Liberty. […]

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