The U.S. will observe Columbus Day on Monday, but any recognition of the holiday must include a look at the full history of this individual and his actions.
As the Associated Press reported last year, Columbus believed that the world was round, and he sailed west from Europe in an effort to reach Asia for a new route for spices. He landed in the present-day Caribbean on Oct. 12, 1492, and found new foods and animals. His voyage was an example of courage and determination for Europeans who were interested in expanding both their horizons and their empires.
"Columbus never made it to Asia, nor did he truly discover America," writes the Mariners' Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. "His 'rediscovery,' however, inspired a new era of exploration of the American continents by Europeans. Perhaps his greatest contribution was that his voyages opened an exchange of goods between Europe and the Americas both during and long after his journeys."
But as the AP noted, Columbus also "discovered" Indigenous people who, he wrote, were childlike and could be easily turned into slaves. As the Indigenous populations revolted, Columbus ordered a ruthless crackdown that included having dismembered bodies being paraded in public. Around 60 years after his arrival, the Taino Indigenous population of the Caribbean had been reduced from an estimated 250,000 people to a few hundred because of slavery and death from new diseases.
"We now know a great deal about the history and the way that he and his people behaved when they came to this continent — which included pillaging, raping and generally setting in motion a genocide of the people who were already here," Shannon Speed, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, told NPR last year. "That's not something we want to celebrate. That's not something anyone wants to celebrate."
So how did a holiday in his honor evolve? Columbus' present-day image was largely shaped by a romanticized version of himself that was portrayed in Washington Irving's 1828 biography "A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus" as well as narratives put forth by Italian and Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that claimed him as a founding father of the country. Call it the ultimate public relations campaign.
Today, we recognize that we can't celebrate Columbus' complicated legacy without also considering the impact he had on Indigenous populations here. To do otherwise would be to whitewash a history that was undoubtedly violent for the people already living and established on this continent.