13 October 2008

Christopher Columbus

Columbus Day. The day we celebrate Columbus - according to the popular imagination, a visionary explorer who proved the Earth was round and discovered the New World.

It's just that he didn't prove the Earth was round. And of course he wasn't the first to discover the Americas. Oh, and he oversaw genocide, pimped little girls out as prostitutes, and got the transatlantic slave trade underway. But sure, great guy.

Columbus did not prove the Earth was round. In fact, the ancients understood the shape and size of the Earth better than Columbus. Eratosthenes, a 3rd-Century BC Greek librarian at the Library of Alexandria, not only knew the Earth was round, but calculated its circumference to within 10% of its actual value. No one with half a brain in 1492 thought the Earth was flat.

Another misperception - or perhaps poor choice of words - is that Columbus "discovered" America. He was the first European to make extensive explorations and to bring his findings back to Europe, but let's not give him more credit than he's due. After all, we don't say that Neil Armstrong "discovered" the moon.

Fine, you say. He didn't prove the sphericality of the Earth, and he wasn't the absolute first to discover the Americas. But he was still an intrepid explorer, right? He still did great things for civilization, right?

There's no doubt that he changed the course of world history. But even with so much celebration surrounding Columbus's voyage to the New World, people rarely learn about the wretched things he did once he got there.

On Hispanola, Columbus implemented a program of genocidal slavery: he demanded that each native bring him a certain quantity of gold every week. Those who missed the quota had their hands cut off. Anyone who refused to participate in the program was killed. In two years, Columbus managed the systematic extermination of 250,000 Arawak Indians. Over the next few decades, countless millions would die under the genocidal policies instituted by Columbus and passed on to the other thugs in his family.

Columbus was the first to see the potential for slaves in the native peoples of the Americas; he sent back about 5000 slaves to Spain, setting in motion the transatlantic slave trade that would cause incalculable suffering over the next 350 years. He also encouraged sexual slavery; as James Loewen notes:

"As soon as the 1493 expedition got to the Caribbean, before it even reached Haiti, Columbus was rewarding his lieutenants with native women to rape. On Haiti, sex slaves were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed. Columbus wrote a friend in 1500, 'A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.'"

Columbus was a rapist, a slavedriver, and a genocidal fiend. And the USA has a holiday named after him, placing him alongside such genuine luminaries as Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King! Can't we give the day to someone who deserves it - like, for instance, the hundreds of thousands of people who were raped, mutilated, killed, or sold off under the supervision of this great historical figure?

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