In 1992, on the quincentennial of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, many entrepreneurs were set to produce a raft of commemorative memorabilia, including flags and T-shirts and totes and mugs, as they had done successfully a few years earlier for the Bicentennial celebrations of the nation in 1976.
One such figure, according to a news account that fall, who was planning on producing Columbus paper plates and cups and such, was surprised to hear one night from his high-school-aged son, “But Dad, Columbus was a bad man.”
The father, shocked, asked how his son knew that.
“We’re reading about him in school in this new biography, ‘The Conquest of Paradise.’ ” The father listened as the son laid out the details of Columbus’s misdeeds and bunglings in the New World and promptly scotched his plans for Quincentennial paraphernalia.
Indeed, Columbus was in many ways a bad man. He was entirely self-centered and egotistical, obsessively avaricious for gold and riches, an inveterate liar, a ruthless commander of unsteady and sometimes delusional mind. He planned from the beginning to capture the Taino Indians he encountered in the Caribbean and begin a slave trade to Europe, which he started by capturing 10 women and children on his first voyage and eventually shipping six Tainos back to Spain (where they all promptly died of unfamiliar diseases) and 30 more on his second voyage.
He was a complete failure in his six years as the governor of Espanola, the island where Spain established the outpost of empire in the Caribbean, allowing his colonists to enslave, torture, and murder Tainos in great numbers in their frantic search for gold, doing nothing to govern this wild lot or put down rebellions against him, until finally the Spanish government sent out a loyal knight to replace him and put him in irons to stand trial in Spain for his crimes of misgovernance. His final voyage to the New World in 1502 to more islands and the South American mainland alienated completely the Indians it came in contact with through kidnapping, treachery, bombardment and warfare, and he lost all four of the ships that originally set sail. Thanks to his actions and inactions, the Taino population, maybe 8 million in 1492, was reduced to less than 100,000 by 1508 and eventually became extinct. And imperialism was introduced to the Americas, to last four long centuries.
So, no question, a bad man, even though he did manage to stumble on a New World and begin the process of European colonization that forever altered three continents.
How can we honestly honor such a man today, knowing what we know? A racist and slave-trader, an inept ruler, a cruel and heartless man — isn’t it time to try to expunge his name and memory from our nation? Is it right to leave his name upon our memorials and towns for children to honor and respect, when that is the last thing this far-from-honorable figure deserves?
I don’t doubt that this may be a difficult task. There are in this country more entities with his name than any other figure except Washington. We have at least 28 statues or memorials to Columbus, including one in Columbus Circle, New York City. He is honored with statuary on the east portico of the Capitol in Washington and his life history carved on a bronze door inside, and the Statue of Freedom on the top of the dome is a Columbia replica. There are by my count at least 65 geopolitical entities in the U.S. using “Columbus” or “Columbia ” in 37 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, to name 50 cities (including our own capital of course), nine counties, five townships and an Air Force base, but not including the rivers, capes, mountains, falls, lakes, glacier, peak, and plateau, nor the infinitude of streets, avenues, highways, circles, bridges, parks, plazas, squares and buildings.
And that doesn’t even count the broadcast network, movie company, record company, university, symphony orchestra, space shuttle, jazz band, string quartet, encyclopedia, knights of, railroads, banks, museums or journals.
You understand, I would limit this project to the United States because I don’t think we could rightly insist on other countries following our lead. I mean one whole country, Colombia, has his name, every country in South America has towns or cities with it (or its original Spanish form, Colon) and one national capital (Colombo, Sri Lanka), one major province (British Columbia), a series of small islands in the Mediterranean, and an archipelago in the Galapagos.
Of course we might explain our cause to them and see if they might voluntarily expunge the memory of so tainted a historical figure. But I think we have enough on our plate as it is. It will be difficult in the first place to educate the public about the true nature of this man because so few today know the real story.
Then, too, to convince them that by erasing his name and effigy from our land we will be erasing his memory and paying proper homage to history. Difficult further to persuade them that by expunging him now we show to future generations that we have collectively apologized for all that he did and in some way made reparations for his sins, even though he could not have known all the consequences of his actions.
But of course, as we now know in the 21st century, such things must be done.
Kirkpatrick Sale, a resident of Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books, including “The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy.”