In the US we celebrated Columbus Day yesterday, but today is the traditional date. Whenever we celebrate this holiday, I believe we ought to think back to what we were taught in school about the history of our country. I was taught that Columbus “discovered” America, despite the fact that in 1994 James Loewen was able to document fourteen earlier explorations, including several responsible for the presence of humans in the “New World” at the time Columbus arrived (See Chapter Two of his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me).
Textbooks today no longer claim “discovery”—yet they still do not talk much about the human toll of the European expansion into the New World. It has been variously estimated that between 40 and 80% of the indigenous population died as a result of the ever-growing number of Europeans who brought their diseases, weapons, cultural concepts of property, and policies of forced assimilation. But how much emphasis do we give in our schools to a New World Holocaust that cost tens of millions of lives?
Do we tell first graders that Columbus was welcomed, and even rescued from shipwreck, by the Taíno people—and that he then went home to get more ships and soldiers, so he could enslave them to work in gold mines? Not usually! But it’s what he did.
For the Americans who already lived here, the arrival of the Europeans was nothing short of a catastrophe. Yet I’ve seen it defended as a source of salvation (via Christianity), as “Manifest Destiny,” or as an “inevitable” outcome that it’s really a waste of time to fret over, now.
I think we owe it to our students (descendants from both sides of that struggle) to fret a bit. We should tell more truth, less myth. Happy Columbus Day.