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Why We Oppose Columbus Day FAQ
What's Wrong with Christopher Columbus?
2. Aren't these accounts of Columbus an exaggerated revision of history?
3. Wasn't Columbus just a product of his times? Is it not unfair to judge a 15th
Century man by 21st Century standards?
4. But those events happened a long time ago. How could they possibly matter
5. What does this history of Columbus have to do with protesting the
Columbus Day parade?
6. Doesn't the First Amendment protect the right of the Italian organizers to
have their parade?
7. Scholarship: Columbus Should be Rejected as a National Hero
1. Question: What's
Wrong with Christopher Columbus?
Answer: We've all been lied to about Columbus. Before Columbus sailed
the Atlantic, he was a slave trader for the Portuguese, transporting West
African people to Portugal to be sold as slaves. Columbus initiated the first
Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Columbus, his brother, and his son all continued
slave trading of indigenous peoples from the Americas to Europe and from Africa
to the Caribbean. Under his administration as viceroy and governor of the
Caribbean Islands, 8 million people were killed, making his
"contribution" to history the first mass genocide of indigenous
peoples. The Columbus legacy is steeped in blood, violence, and death. Public
holidays celebrating Columbus not only teach children to honor a cruel and
brutal man, they encourage people in this society to ignore, look away, and even
support racist practices embedded in today's economic, political and judicial
Question: Aren't these accounts of Columbus an exaggerated revision of history?
Answer: No. By conservative accounts based on Spanish surveys, the
Taino numbered as many as 8 million in 1493. [Source: Cook and Woodrow, Essays
in Population History, Vol. 1, Chapter VI, (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1971, cited in Churchill].
During Columbus' tenure as
"viceroy and governor" of the Caribbean Islands and the American
mainland from 1493 until 1500, he instituted policies of slavery (encomienda)
and the systematic murder and rape of the Taino population. Dominican priest,
Bartolome de Las Casas was the first European historian in the Americas. He was
an eyewitness and wrote in painful detail of the tortures he witnessed. In a
survey conducted in 1496, he estimated that over 5 million people had been
exterminated within the first three years of the Columbus rule. [Actual survey
conducted in 1496 by
Bartolome de Las Casas, cited in J.B. Thatcher, Christopher
Columbus, Vol. 2 [Source: New York: Putnam Sons Publishers, 1903-1904), p.
348ff. cited in Churchill.] Later accounts that gloss over the
horrors of the Columbus regime are the revisions of history.
By the time of Columbus' departure, only 100,000 Taino were left, and by
1542, only 200 were left. Within the entire Caribbean Islands, about 15 million
indigenous people are estimated to have been exterminated within one generation
of Columbus' arrival. This is genocide, the wholesale killing of an entire race
of people. These policies, established here, laid the foundation for
extermination policies that Europeans used to justify the elimination of over
100 million native people throughout the Western Hemisphere. By any standards
those numbers describe a Holocaust. (go
Question: Wasn't Columbus just a product of his times? Is it not unfair to judge
a 15th Century man by 21st Century standards?
Answer: To view Columbus as violent and racist is not an imposition of
21st century morality. His own diaries reveal his brutality -- a brutality that
offered no fair judgment to his victims.
Bartolome de Las Casas
began his days
in the Americas as a beneficiary of the encomienda (slave-holding) system.
However, as he watched the horror of human destruction caused as a result of
Columbus' actions and decisions, as well as the actions of the soldiers under
Columbus' command, De Las Casas repudiated the system. He described in vivid
detail the massacre of the Indians, denounced Columbus, and published his
findings in Europe in his History of the Indies.
The violence of Columbus' extermination actions was widely debated in
theological and academic circles within Europe. European legal and moral
principles tended to favor the rights of indigenous peoples to be free from
unjustified invasion, murder and pillage by Europeans.
Francisco de Vitoria,
professor at the University of Salamanca in the early 1500s and often considered
the father of modern international law, wrote extensively on the rights of
indigenous peoples. Vitoria and others in Columbus' own lifetime rejected the
view that popes and monarchs had the automatic right to enslave indigenous
peoples and take their land. The rights of human beings were as much 15th
Century issues then, as they are 21st Century issues today.
Question: But those events happened a long time ago. How could they possibly
Answer: Columbus' actions set the foundation for legal and social
policies -- still used today in United States, Mexico, Canada, South America and in many countries around the world. These policies justify the theft and
destruction of indigenous peoples' lands and knowledge by corporate and
government interests. Media, films, judicial systems, educational systems, and
other political and social institutions support this continued assault on the
natural resources of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples today remain at the
margins of technological society -- struggling to overcome the destruction of
land, culture and language. In many ways all peoples on this planet are
impacted. These attacks on indigenous peoples and their land and their knowledge
contribute to the destruction of ecosystems and the erosion of human rights for
Question: What does this history of Columbus have to do with protesting the
Columbus Day parade?
Answer: From the actions and words of the parade organizers over the
years, it is clear that the parade represents more than a celebration of
Italian culture, or even of Columbus, the man. It is a glorification of the
colonial tradition described above and the privileging of an Italian past that
benefited and grew out of that process of subjugation. Moreover, in its
celebration it is intended to serve as a reminder of that past, to convey that
the genocide for which Columbus was personally responsible is an acceptable cost
for the extension of western civilization. If the parade was truly intended to
"celebrate" Italian heritage, why begin with Columbus? Why not simply
call it the "Italian Heritage Parade?"
Surely, the organizers would
draw a wider audience and reflect a broader and more accurate view of Italian
culture. However, neither the title nor the actions of the organizers are
accidental. Both are intended to convey what the parade organizers find valuable
in their interpretation of the Italian American experience; namely, the legacy
of racial superiority, conquest, and domination epitomized by Columbus. The
Columbus parade is the ultimate opportunity for the parade organizers to
champion the invasion of the America's, thereby avoiding any personal or
collective responsibility for the genocide that began under Columbus, and that
continues today. We can find nothing of value in cultural celebration that
elevate the pride of one group by demeaning and disrespecting another. When we
allow a parade in honor of Columbus to take place without objection, we are
tacitly supporting those values that celebrate subjugation, and we are
suggesting that such a parade represents all of our interests. In opposing the
Columbus Day parade, we refuse to accept or enable those values and we maintain
that our resources, time, and energy, are better invested in expressions of good
will, mutual respect, and building collective dignity. (go
Question: Doesn't the first amendment protect the right of the Italian
organizers to have their parade?
Answer: To be clear, we support and defend the rights granted to all
of us by virtue of the first amendment. We strongly affirm the right of all
people to create a marketplace of ideas that stimulates and strengthens
However, we do not accept hate speech, and more specifically, the
state-sponsored celebration of Columbus as a valid expression of this right. In
particular, the first amendment cannot, and should not, be applied in a
capricious or uncritical manner in all circumstances. Doing so overlooks the
very real inequalities of power which surround us. These unequal positions of
power affect our abilities to access, express, defend and assert our rights
(such as the first amendment). What's more they affect the degree to which our
expressions are heard, the authority they carry, and the manner in which they
impact our society. For example, we would never accept the argument that a
slave's actual right to object to slavery was ever equal to the slaveholder's
verbal defense of slavery. Similarly, we would not accept that a woman in a
hostile work environment possesses an equal ability to exercise free speech with
the corporate CEO who is sexually harassing her. As such, it is erroneous to
suggest that we all have equal access to the First Amendment.
An absolutist view
of the First Amendment ignores the inequalities in political and social power
that translates to an imbalance in the application and access of the first
amendment. Over the years, we have accepted numerous restrictions on pure speech
as a means to correct for the imbalance of power that can take place when the
first amendment is arbitrarily applied. For example, we accept limitations on
pure speech when it is used to abuse young children, we accept limitations on
speech when it is used to threaten or incite danger, and we accept restrictions
on pure speech when it is used to sexually or racially harass co-workers.
addition, we no longer accept signs that read "Whites Only," because
we know that the sign is not only about speech, but about the power that
historically accompanied that message. In short, we've accepted these
restrictions with the knowledge that unlimited pure speech coupled with unequal
access to power ensures inevitable harm. One very important instance in which
the U.S. played an instrumental role in the justifiable limitation of speech was
the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal following World War II. Julius Streicher was
tried, convicted, and executed after being prosecuted by Robert Jackson,
associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Streicher's crimes were considered
so horrendous that they were termed "crimes against humanity." To
first amendment absolutists, Streicher should have gone free, but Justice
Jackson and the other members of the Tribunal decided that Streicher 's role as
a Nazi propagandist - promoting, inciting, and supporting the extermination of
Jews, gays, gypsies, and others- was not and should not be protected speech,
even though it was pure speech. Subsequently, international law as reflected in
the Genocide Convention, made the promotion, advocacy, or incitement to genocide
an international crime. We believe that Columbus Day justifies, promotes, and
extends genocidal sentiments and policies against indigenous peoples in the
Americas and around the world.
Just as apartheid was denounced by the
international community as an unacceptable ideology of racial superiority in
South Africa, so should Columbus Day and Columbus celebrations be condemned as
the advancement of racial supremacy because they celebrate the destruction of
indigenous peoples. In addition, the speech we are discussing in the case of the
Columbus Day parade constitutes a combination of pure speech, symbolic speech,
and behavior. Because of the potential for harm in this type of speech (because
it represents conduct combined with speech) this type of expression has always
been subject to greater scrutiny. As such, we see no contradiction or undue
burden in having the Columbus Day parade closely scrutinized. In fact, the
Columbus Day parade or celebrations of the holiday warrant even closer
inspection as they involve state sponsored actions. When the city and state
involve themselves in condoning and protecting the parade they purport to act on
behalf of all of us, and as such their actions take on greater authority.
Finally a blind application of the first amendment is ultimately problematic
because it creates a conflict with other rights granted to us through the
constitution. Specifically, the 14th amendment provides us with "equal
protection under the law," and protection of our life, liberty, and
property via due process, rights that ensure us freedom from hate speech and
other types of harassment. While we don't suggest that one amendment be
supplanted for another, we object to any conflict between these rights
automatically being decided in favor of those in the dominating position. As
such, we reject that claims to freedom of speech on behalf of the parade
organizers should supercede our freedom to protest, our right to live free from
harassment and intimidation, and the desire of people to create a mutually
respectful community. (go to top)
Scholarship: Columbus Should be Rejected as a National Hero
"The policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was
responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was
Hispaniola in 1492…one third were killed off between 1494 and 1496."
- Samuel Eliot Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of
Christopher Columbus (NY: Little, Brown and Co, 1942). pp 492-493
"The two leading researchers here, Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of
the University of California at Berkeley have calculated the population decline
[of the island of Hispaniola] after 1496,…with an estimate of the original
island population of just under 8 million. [The population declined] from 8
million to 28,000 in just over twenty years. That…is a carnage of more than 99
percent, something we must call closer to a genocide."
- Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and
the Columbian Legacy (NY: Plume Books, 1991). pp. 160-161.
"The Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry
out massacres and strange cruelties against [the Indians]. They attacked the
towns and spared neither the children nor the aged, nor pregnant women nor women
in childbed, not only stabbing and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces
as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. They laid bets as to who, with
one stroke of the sword could split a man in two or could cut off his head…They
took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and
pitching them headfirst against the crags***They made some low, wide gallows on
which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their
victims, in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles,
then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive."
- Bartolome' de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief
Account (originally published in 1547) reprinted by Johns Hopkins Press,
1992. pp. 42-45. Las Casas was a Dominican priest, the first European historian
in the Americas.
"Columbus proceeded to establish a slave trade with the inhabitants of
Hispaniola. And this after he had declared time and time again that the Tainos
were the kindest, most peaceful and generous people in the world…But now
[Columbus] resorted to the monstrous expedient of sending hundreds of the
wretched creatures overseas to the slave mart of Seville."
- Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (see above), pp. 486-487.
©2004 Transform Columbus Day Alliance