CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. BRAVE EXPLORER OR MODERN DAY CRIMINAL?
“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain. He sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain.” Fast forward 527 years and we continue to observe Columbus Day celebrating Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of the Americas when he landed in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492. Although, it did not become a federal holiday until 1937, Columbus Day was unofficially celebrated by many cities in the 18th century honoring the achievements of Christopher Columbus and Italian-American heritage. Throughout its history, Columbus Day and the man who inspired it have generated controversy and many alternatives to the holiday have been proposed since the 1970’s. Today many states have renamed Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day.
WHO WAS CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS?
Christopher Columbus was an Italian born explorer who sailed under the Spanish flag for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in August of 1492 intending to chart a western sea route to China, India, and the gold and spice islands of Asia. Instead, Columbus landed in the Caribbean on October 12, 1942, becoming the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings during the 10th century. Columbus named the people he encountered in this land “Indians” because he believed he had landed in the Indies. Columbus made three additional trips to the Americas which paved the way for European settlement and colonization of the New World through the establishment of trans-Atlantic trade routes.
WHAT CRIMES DID COLUMBUS COMMIT?
While many praise Columbus for being a daring adventurer, in a modern day setting, his conduct could give rise to a number of criminal charges, including murder, aggravated assault, simple assault, terroristic threats, false imprisonment, kidnapping, rape and other sex crimes, and theft, along with civil litigation such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.
WHAT EXACTLY DID COLUMBUS DO TO INDIGENOUS PEOPLE?
In an age in which the international slave trade was starting to grow, Columbus and his men enslaved many native inhabitants of the Indies and subjected them to extreme violence, rape, and brutality. Throughout the years Columbus was governor of these islands, he enacted policies of forced labor in which the natives were put to work in order for him to make a profit.
In a letter to King Ferdinand, Columbus writes, “[t]here I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” Columbus and his men went from island to island capturing the island’s natives and sending thousands of them back to Spain to be sold as slaves. Many of these natives died during the voyage back to Spain while others died as a result of disease.
Columbus and his men spread terror among the natives that remained on the islands in an attempt to prevent a rebellion. Females were raped and sexually assaulted by Columbus’ men. All the natives who were fourteen years of age and older were ordered to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. Natives who did not collect enough gold had their hands cut off. These threats caused many natives to flee and were then hunted down and killed by Columbus’ men.
WHAT DID COLUMBUS GAIN FROM HIS BEHAVIOR?
Columbus seized the property belonging to the natives. In a letter Columbus wrote to the Finance Minister of Spain explaining all the items he had taken stating, “all and every kind of merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objections and merchandise whatsoever, of whatever kind, name and sort, which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired and obtained within the limits of the said Admiralty…”
WHAT ABOUT HIS MEN AND THE KING AND QUEEN OF SPAIN?
Columbus is not the only one who would stand trial. His men followed the commands of Columbus and could be found guilty of the same crimes. Similarly, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella could be liable as they bankrolled the entire voyage and increased their wealth as a result of the kidnapping, false imprisonment, and theft committed by Columbus and his men.
COLUMBUS’ PUNISHMENT THEN v. PUNISHMENT NOW
When news of the mistreatment of the natives reached the Spanish government in 1499, Christopher Columbus was arrested and forced to return to Spain. The then Governor’s only punishment was to be stripped of his title.
His crimes today would involve a lengthy period of incarceration, fines, restitution to be paid to his victims, and possible Megan’s Law/SORNA registration.
A holiday that once celebrated the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria while painting a picture of Christopher Columbus and the “Indians” at peace together in a “New World” now involves an entirely different conversation centered on the personal injury and property crimes of an explorer who many view as a villain.
We celebrate the culture of the Indigenous Americans on this day and use it as a tool to teach about our Nation’s history.