Some Brief Thoughts On Columbus Day

To me Columbus Day is always really Thanksgiving given where I grew up. The harvest there was quite a bit earlier than in the states. By making it Thanksgiving rather than Columbus Day, Canada largely avoids all the political debate that rages in the United States. As I’ve read the stories about vandalism of Columbus statues along with defenses and attacks on the holiday, I had a few brief thoughts.

1. In terms of the main places the Spanish went, the defenders against the Conquistadors weren’t exactly much more sympathetic. I recognize that doesn’t describe all those who fell victim to conquest or disease due to the Spanish. But by the same token not all Spanish immigrants were conquerers. Still people raise the understandable specter of Spanish invasion while downplaying the human sacrifice and conquests of the Aztecs. As bad as the Spanish were, imperial vizier Tlacaelel seemed much worse. That is not to justify Spanish excesses in the least. It ought suggest a bit more nuance and complexity to the discussion.

2. While I think many of the “white and delightsome” passages in the Book of Mormon can be explained away, 1 Nephi 13:15 sure is hard to read. Ignoring what appears racist at first glance in that verse, I do worry that people tend to read that chapter in terms of 19th century views of manifest destiny. Typically the “wrath of God” in the scriptures doesn’t mean that God justifies the people in question. We should remember Mormon’s words, “the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished;” (Mormon 4:5)

3. The question of Columbus is ultimately a question raging at the moment regarding most statues. To what degree can we honor someone for the good they do without engaging with the evil they did? Pretty much nearly any major figure of history will hold views we consider egregious today. Can we honor Plato or Socrates without acknowledging the distinctly unsavory aspects of their life and the dialog The Symposium? Can we honor Jefferson and Washington for what they created with our country while recognizing their treatment of slaves went completely against their stated values? Can we acknowledge Columbus discovering America and letting our ancestors come without celebrating the many evil things the Spanish did as conquerers? It seems that much of the debate today is that a little leaven leavens the whole loaf.

4. I’d definitely favor a broader more inclusive holiday than one that seemed oriented around past political expediency towards Italian voters. However no matter what we do will inject controversy, especially in these deeply divided times. I wish Americans just had today be Thanksgiving honestly.

5. Rather than making this such a divisive issue it’s worth asking people what (if anything) they are celebrating.

32 comments for “Some Brief Thoughts On Columbus Day

  1. Plus, Columbus never even set foot on what is now US soil. Hence it is puzzling why it is called Columbus Day in the US. I would be in favor of just scrapping the day altogether. Just keep Thanksgiving, which celebrates cultural and material exchange between Europeans and Native Americans.

    Also Columbus never interacted with the Aztecs, but instead the Taino on the Caribbean Islands. As far as I have read, there was not much social stratification among the Taino and consequently probably not much mass oppression and power abuse. I’m sure there were evil people among the Taino, but Columbus’ misdeeds against appear to far outweigh whatever misdeeds a local Taino leader may have committed against his/her own people.

  2. Americans celebrate Columbus because he brought the New World to the attention of European powers. All the subsequent explorations of America–Cabot, De Soto, Cortez, Pizarro, Veranzzo– stem from Columbus’ discovery.

    Columbus discovery has altered world history more than any single act of exploration. It brought together sugar and cocoa; tomatoes and pasta, potatoes and cabbage.

    FTR, the Taino and Caribs practiced slavery and cannibalism. Not quite the noble savages revisionist historians paint.

  3. The Other Clark, claims of cannibalism are most likely exaggerations based on rumors. The evidence that cannibalism was a routine ritual part of Taino and Carib culture is lacking. Spaniards most certainly benefited from the claim that the Taino and Caribs practiced cannibalism as this provided a justification for their dominance of them. As for slavery, where is the evidence? I am willing to accept that native Caribbean groups had some small mechanism of forced labor imposed on people around them (given that small chiefdoms existed among them), but the mass slavery of the Europeans was far more brutal and rapacious. Bear in mind that we are talking about people who inhabited relatively small islands in the Caribbean and practiced small agriculture, fishing, and hunting and gathering. There wasn’t really a need for slaves among them. It is only in more socially stratified empires that we see mass enslavement. It almost appears that you are informing yourself about Taino and Carib culture through the eyes of the colonizers themselves. This so-called ‘revisionist’ history you speak of is in a sense a revision of the European Christian supremicist histories of the past, but is based on much more evidence (including material culture, oral history, archaeological digs, etc.) than Spaniard observations.

  4. I’m not saying the conquistadores were saints, and neither was the OP. (After all, the Tainos and Caribs were entirely extirpated within a generation or two of discovery. By any definition, that’s genocide.) Still, both the annals of the explorers and the archeological remains recovered in the region (primarily sinkholes) indicates that the natives were, in fact, savages.

    Other cultures on the mainland–especially the Aztec and Mayans–were even more “brutal and rapacious” (to use your phrase) than the Spaniards were, and the Spaniards were TERRIBLE. With the Aztecs, we’re talking tens of thousands of human sacrifices annually. Genital mutilation as a form of worship, Mayans also practiced these (although sacrifice was in the hundreds annually rather than thousands) Innocent women and children were tossed into cenotes to drown.

    Even north into present day Utah, the Utes had a robust slave trade (including children) and entombed servants alive as part of a chief’s burials.

    The Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 13-15) is a third witness of the wickedness and depravity at the time of discovery.

    Yes, the white’s dealing with the natives was treacherous. Yes, the whites also practiced slavery. I’m not a Christian supremacist whitewashing history. I’m willing to look at both sides with an even-handed view of the facts. Are you?

  5. The reality of the history of Columbus day is a combination of anti-British sentiment in the 19th century combined with some pretty blatant appealing to the Italian voting bloc in the 1930’s when the holiday was started. There’s lots of other explorers who could have been celebrated like John Cabot (who is more of a big deal in Canada). Arguably Thanksgiving focuses more on actual colonization of the United States although the history there is also complex. The weird thing is that outside of banks and the post office, no one really seems to actually celebrate Columbus day. My kids still have school. FedEx is still delivering. I had to go to work. It’s a very weird “holiday.”

    Ted B, I don’t think anyone seriously disputes slavery among various indigenous American peoples. The “innovation” in European slavery was to tie it along racial lines whereas before you’d have slaves of the same ethnic group as the slavers. That was a horrible development compared to what came before. Of course the Romans would enslave groups they conquered, but they’d also enslave other southern Europeans. Ditto with Islamic slavery. It’s the aftermath of that racial conception that is the problem we’re still struggling with today.

    The problem of course is that people want to skip nuance and the fact there were thousands of different communities and groups each with very different practices. The Aztec tell us little about the MicMac for instance. Further at best the American groups, like the Aztec, were only a few centuries behind the Europeans. Take a typical German, Scot or English from after the withdrawal of Rome and they’re not that different from the typical indigenous American. Nearly everyone is at subsistent living. You have a small group who tends to live at the expense of everyone else. There’s lots of wars for power and wealth. etc. Europe just managed to get sufficient technological advancement before the Aztecs but again it’s just a few centuries.

  6. “The Other Clark” : Perhaps some of these native groups “practiced” slavery. But the Europeans who followed perfected it.

  7. Stephen. I agree. No one did slavery better than the Americans. The Spanish, British, and French all outlawed the practice long before the Americans did. And the treatment of blacks and Indians by the US leaves a long stain on our nation’s history that hasn’t even begun to fade.

    Yet the fact remains that Columbus changed the world, and he changed it for the better. There shouldn’t be a problem acknowledging that.

  8. “I don’t think anyone seriously disputes slavery among various indigenous American peoples”

    Actually, Clark, I just read Nicholas J. Saunders, ed., The Peoples of the Caribbean: An Encyclopedia of Archeology, page 256, in which one of the authors writes, “no slavery existed in the pre-Columbian Caribbean before the Europeans arrived.” So the question of slavery is in debate. The issue that The Other Clark raised was specifically the Taino and Caribs practicing slavery. As I said, I am open to a system of forced labor existing among them but agree that European slavery in the Caribbean was far worse than what may have existed before.

  9. The Other Clark – genital mutilation as a form of worship? Well, I never. Good thing nothing like that happens today, and especially not in the Old Testament. Not that this minimizes Aztec atrocities, but if we’re looking to excuse genocidal colonialism, we’ll have to be more consistent.

  10. The Other Clark, you raised the issue of the Taino and Caribs, specifically, practicing slavery and cannibalism. I was addressing that. I conceded that they likely practiced some form of forced labor, too. Yes, the Aztecs were oppressive tyrants who mandated human sacrifice. However, you can’t conflate all Native American groups as if they are one in the same. The Taino were just as culturally and linguistically different from the Aztecs and Utes as the English were from the Arabs.

    “The Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 13-15) is a third witness of the wickedness and depravity at the time of discovery.”

    And herein lies the issue. The Book of Mormon seemingly presents Columbus and conquistadores as led by God to the Americas and the Native Americans (which it lumps together as one group of people, which you are sort of doing with your mention of Aztecs, Utes, Taino, and Caribs as if they are one in the same) as wicked savages in need of the truth and light that the Europeans would come to bring. And while you are willing to acknowledge the brutality of the Europeans even to the point of calling the extirpation of the Caribbean natives genocide, you are trying to sort of save face for Columbus and the conquistadores by maintaining that the native cultures were also equally brutal and oppressive people who deserved god’s punishment. If we are to weigh out who had the moral high ground based on the standards of today’s Western morality, the Taino were morally superior to Columbus and his henchmen (Columbus did not make contact with the Aztecs so that is beyond the point), an idea which you seem to dismiss as “revisionist history.” The predominant LDS interpretation of Book of Mormon that Columbus was led by God and that the Native Americans were these horrible wicked people upon first contact is holding your mind hostage. You seem to be trying to maintain the integrity of that interpretation above all else, even at the expense of making false moral equivalences between the Taino and Columbus.

  11. Ted B I was speaking more broadly than the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know the history of the islands well enough to have an opinion on that. Certainly not all pre-columbian peoples in the Americas practiced slavery.

  12. “the fact remains that Columbus changed the world, and he changed it for the better. There shouldn’t be a problem acknowledging that”

    I know many a Native American who would vehemently disagree with you. Most Native Americans in the Americas actually continue to suffer the consequences of European conquest. The 5.2 Native Americans in the US today are among the poorest in the country. The world would be better had first contact with Europe been made at a later more morally conscious (and disease-conscious) time and had Europe developed a relationship with Native American cultures and polities as they had with China (where there was an economic relationship without foreign political dominance). A key reason that the Americas are what they are today is because they Europeans were able to kill off the native populations with their advantage in guns, germs, and steel. They did have much competition in acquiring millions and millions of square miles of land over the centuries, thus enabling them huge wealth, much of which Native American populations throughout the Americas have not enjoyed. In order for a Native American to have a chance in today’s Americas, they must abandon their language, culture, and even their racial identity (those whose forebears have not intermixed much with Europeans have it much harder than those who have).

  13. Clark Goble, I think the technological superiority of the Europeans played a smaller role than is generally supposed. 1491, by Charles Mann, makes the case that it was European disease that killed the vast majority of native American peoples. It spread much faster than the Europeans themselves, such that European explorers often never even saw the societies that formerly occupied the territory they were conquering: by the time the Europeans arrived, many native societies were a tiny bedraggled vestige of what they had been.

    The same book also makes the case that European technology was in many ways inferior to native technology. Guns, for instance, were less effective than the bows and arrows used by tribes along the present-day U.S. eastern seaboard in every way except their psychological impact. They were less accurate, took much longer to reload, and had no more penetrating power. Native canoes were lighter and faster than English rowboats. Native shelters were much better adapted to the climate than the half-timber houses in which the English settlers huddled and froze all winter long.

  14. Travis, I think the biggest role was the effect of European disease Americans had no evolutionary adaption for as well. However I also think we can’t neglect the effect of steel. I don’t dispute your other points including not dismissing the power of bows. However there was a reason why in Europe guns quickly replaced bows. Further other advantages such as in cross-atlantic shipping ensured that Europeans over time won whereas there was little worry of Aztec conquest of Spain.

  15. I find any argument of “Well the natives were just as bad or worse” to be a distraction and not the point. The point is that Columbus did bad. Very bad. And the argument of “We can’t judge him by todays standards” is flat out wrong. By the standards of his day Columbus was doing bad. Once some Spanish government authorities made it to Hispaniola and saw what Columbus was doing, Columbus was brought back to Spain in chains. Columbus himself doesn’t even acknowledge that he hadn’t found a route to Eastern Asia. He died refusing to believe that he had discovered a new continent.
    I find it very likely that without Columbus some Europeans would have still have started exploring North America based off of the experiences of the Vikings from centuries earlier.

  16. Jader, I don’t think “the natives were just as bad” justifies much. After all we don’t have a holiday for Aztec human sacrifice. I do think things are a bit more complicated than they seem but then I’m not one to really elevate people for holidays beyond Christmas and Easter. I prefer holidays that target ideas. So no Victoria Day. No Columbus Day. No Martin Luther King Day. No President Day. I wish we had instead maybe a Democracy Day, Civil Rights Day, Immigrant Day, and I’m not sure what to do with Queen Victoria. But then Americans don’t have to worry about that one.

  17. The issue for Mormons here is whether Columbus was inspired of God to take on his explorations. I personally don’t see any need to make this claim. Columbus has too much baggage.

    I believe that Prez. Hinkley’s brother wrote a book about Columbus and tried to canonize him. This I strongly disagree with.

    As for the holiday, I vote for a Native American day instead.

  18. Some Mormons may see no need to make the claim that Columbus was inspired. However, the prophets are unanimous in saying that he was. Starting with Nephi, and on to Orson Hyde and Brigham Young, even Wilford Woodruff doing his work in the St. George Temple; they all affirmed that Columbus was inspired. While most of the founders were ordained Elders, Columbus was one of a handful ordained a high priest. Heck, Columbus himself said he was inspired of God. All of these statements were made way before the Italian American voting bloc became significant.

    The pattern of LDS prophets affirming Columbus being led of God continued the full length of the 20th Century, Mark E Peterson and Ezra Taft Benson being the most obvious, but the list includes everyone from Joseph F. Smith and Heber J Grant to L. Tom Perry and Spencer W. Kimball. When the 500th anniversary of the discovery rolled around, all the Church magazines included lengthy articles arguing against the demonization of Columbus.

    FTR, one of those articles was written by Pres. Hinckley’s son (not brother). It includes the question, “So why did Nephi single out Columbus? Perhaps it was because no other single individual would have such an impact on preparing the world for the Restoration.”

    As Mormons we ought to celebrate Columbus MORE than the world at large, not less. Just one more way to be a peculiar people!

  19. It does not follow that after inspiration towards one act, that all actions afterwards are also inspired.

  20. I’m fine with Columbus Day. There is nothing wrong with exploration. Columbus was an explorer, seeking a shortcut to the spice trade. God moves in mysterious ways.

    I’m glad he came. I regret all instances of suffering and sin, but I’m glad he came. No doubt, another European would have eventually come, and with the same general outcome. There is no reason for self-loathing among Americans of European ancestry.

  21. It’s not self-loathing, it’s the realization that Columbus’s “discovery” brought with it a lot of unintended consequences. We need to acknowledge those dreadful consequences when we venerate Columbus. Ignoring history is counterproductive and shortsighted.

    When it comes to Native Americans, Mormons has a lot to repent for.

  22. Every discovery brings a lot of unintended consequences — but still, thank goodness for discoveries! By the way, we can have a Columbus Day holiday without venerating Columbus.

    I’m glad he came. He deserves credit for being very bold, even though he miscalculated in thinking of reaching the East Indies. Taking a day off on Columbus Day need not be seen as being unkind to the aboriginal population.

  23. There were people who weren’t terrible to natives. Some people follow the light of Christ, despite the cultural mores of the time. Like Bartolomé de las Casas, for instance. Columbus didn’t have to do terrible things. He could have explored and then done good things. Some people just can’t imagine other possibilities. That’s why it’s important to study history and see examples that weren’t like Columbus and also see the damage Columbus did. Debates are important. White-washing “but he was inspired” comments do little in the real world, that I see. Good for him. Bad for him. He was a person. Lots of people are inspired. The thing here is to learn, gave empathy, feel God’s love and extend it. Americans, by nature, tend to be nationalistic–which is easy to see in their insistance on how great Columbus was without being troubled over his foibles, because, you know, America!

  24. Well, I was right about The Other Clark. His celebration of Columbus is informed by religious tradition and not reason. This continues to cloud his moral interpretation of the past as it did earlier LDS church leaders.

  25. Religious convictions are not second-class convictions, and I refuse to be forced to the back of the proverbial bus simply because the color of my views is different than others.. To disallow my opinion, simply because it is informed by my religious views is the worst form of intolerance. Be gone, Ted B.

  26. Other Clark, just to repeat my earlier point, one can be led of God without necessarily being a good person. Of course the classic scriptural example is Cyrus the Great, but he actually did provide a ton of innovations in human rights. Unlike Columbus who just seemed focused on exploitation with little concern for ethics.

  27. Wow, so you’re comparing your views to Rosa Parks? You have some nerve. While people aren’t inherently superior to each other because of their skin color, one view is more reasonable than the other because of evidence. Guess what, alt-right white supremacist blogger Wife With a Purpose also makes her claims that the white culture is inherently superior because of certain verses in the Book of Mormon and quotes from past LDS church leaders. You’re no better than her. Your views have been destroyed on this thread. Each comment you make you only embarrass yourself more. And you claim to be a victim like unto Rosa Parks because someone disagrees with you? You’re a weak, pathetic embarrassment whose moral compass is completely backwards. Columbus Day should be Taino memorial day.

  28. Yeah, putting on the moderating hat Ted, I’d ask you make things a bit less personal. We can disagree without being so disagreeable.

  29. I believe that Columbus’ voyage and arrival to North America, or close anyway, is necessarily a complex knot to untangle for anyone raised in North America. We all had a stake in what occurred and how the overall situation turned out. I watched my spouse cry bitter tears for at least an hour after watching the movie “Dances With Wolves” as generational guilt washed over her like an ocean tide.

    For probably obvious reasons, I loved her so much at that point of her vulnerability, and dismissing her feelings of mourning felt wrong, just wrong. I did not feel that same tide of guilt, but I knew it was real for her. I recognize that my non-LDS pioneer ancestors benefitted at least indirectly from the displacement of native peoples, and as much as I think I can expect reasonably of myself as a white man, I own that truth.

    Personally, I do think it’s time to let go of this particular holiday, as it seems consistent with my personal belief that at least the US can let go of the visual vestiges of its involvement in the slave trade of captured Africans. While I can appreciate the arguments in favor of keeping these vestiges, I cannot support keeping them. Peace y’all.

Comments are closed.