LA Progressive: Columbus Day Should Go

By Shannon Speed

It is time for Columbus to go. Today, Los Angeles City Council has the opportunity to take a historic step, joining a wave of more than 60 other cities, counties and states across the country in eliminating the official celebration of Columbus Day on the second Monday of October and establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in its place.

The historical record on Christopher Columbus is clear. He did not “discover” America: there were more than fifty million people, with advanced cultures and a wide diversity of languages, social structures, and economic networks, already living here for thousands of years before his accidental arrival (he meant to sail to India).  By his own account, Columbus immediately set about enslaving the Indigenous people he encountered in the Caribbean, and under his command his men engaged in brutal murder, rape, and the imposition of systematic forced servitude. Within a couple of decades, the Indigenous population had been reduced to near inexistence by violence and disease brought by the Europeans.

Defenders of Columbus argue that he was a man of his times, and must be understood in the context of his day. However, what rarely gets raised is the fact that even in his day Columbus and his actions were not considered acceptable.

While it is true that some forms of slavery were generally accepted in Spain, the enslavement of the Indigenous people of the “new world” was never considered categorically acceptable by the Spanish Crown. When Columbus returned from his first voyage with Indigenous slaves, the Spanish monarchs sent many of them back to their homelands. In 1512-13, the Crown promulgated laws explicitly restricting the mistreatment of Indigenous people in the new colonies of the Americas (though mistreatment continued). In the decades following Columbus’ arrival, debates raged in Europe about whether Indigenous people were humans with souls (and thus the potential to become Christians), on which hinged the question of whether they should or should not be enslaved. Columbus himself, just a decade after his landing in Hispanola, was fired as Governor by the Crown for his brutality, and even briefly jailed for it.

Of course, Europeans would go on to develop and expand the extensive Altlantic slave trade, so they were by no means morally reticent about enslavement itself, but the question of support for enslaving indigenous peoples in the Americas was more complicated than Columbus’ cheerleaders imply. One can hardly argue that his brutal exploits were generally acceptable in the context of his day.

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Posted August 30, 2017, 4:06 AM PST