Remembering the Real Legacy of Columbus

October 10, 2011 was Columbus Day in the United States. It marks another anniversary of the day that Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World in his erroneous attempts to forge an alternate route to India in the year 1492. Since the 1900s, this day has been celebrated as a federal holiday in the US and other countries in North and South America. However, with a new generation of activists and scholars raising uncomfortable questions about the history of colonisation of the Americas, many South American countries have reversed their celebratory events and attempted to include the stories of the indigenous peoples as well.
Surprisingly, it is in the US that Columbus’ legacy is being contested today and there are reasons behind this. One of the recurrent themes of the commemoration of the holiday is that of the so-called encounter between the first nations of the two continents and Europeans like Columbus and those who followed after him. Among other commemoratory motifs at the official events, he is credited with the expansion of Christianity in the new world. It is true that Christopher Columbus was outwardly devoted to God and his men built many of the first churches in the New World. They also built gallows for those who stood in their way. Columbus’ love for gold superseded his love for God and as he searched high and low for the precious metal, he laid to waste entire villages of the gentle, peaceful people who had welcomed him into their lands. As he and his men gang pressed the indigenous people to look for gold, they also began to kill and maim many in an effort to instil fear into the natives.
The socialist historian Howard Zinn, who authored the seminal book “A Peoples’ History of the United States”, had gone on record to list the atrocities committed upon the indigenous peoples. However, he cautioned against holding Columbus guilty of crimes in absentia, since it was too late for that anyway. Instead, he called for more introspection on the reasons why the administration of countries like the US needed to celebrate the life and ideals of a mercenary pirate. Zinn, forever the canny commentator asked his readers and listeners to always be careful of people like Columbus and their descendants, who did things in the name of God and righteousness.
In doing so, Zinn points to an uncanny parallel happening in global politics today. Columbus, a product of his violent and turbulent times, was not above using God as a subterfuge to get to what he actually needed to pacify those who funded European expansionist colonialism in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the bargain, he was both directly and indirectly responsible for the annihilation of ancient civilisations and of brutal massacres. His modern counterparts today are in search of liberal markets and oil. They claim they are driven by principles of democracy, freedom and good governance. In the weekly press conferences that are conducted in Washington DC, Baghdad, New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul, military personnel talk about the need for winning hearts and minds of people, even as they use smart bombs and counter-insurgency to “soften” the resistance. Their political bosses in urban centres mouth the usual platitudes about the need for development and change of mindset in the areas where conflicts are being waged in the name of freedom. All this is done at the behest of a select few corporations that manufacture arms and trade in oil. Indeed, we might have come a long way since the seafaring days of Christopher Columbus but we do seem to have learned very much.
For, if we had learned from colonialism brutal past, we would have learned to listen to the voices of the first nation indigenous peoples. We would have learned that those who celebrate the age and spirit of Empire and corporate development, do so over the history and civilisation of the many millions, who still wait for justice. Fortunately, this spirit of inquiry and compassion is alive, as many working people and indigenous associations in North and South America have begun their journey into critically examining the memories associated with Christopher Columbus. Hopefully their voices will be amplified by other, oppressed nations in different parts of the globe.

Sanjay (Xonzoi) Barbora