Christopher Columbus’ Legacy of Violence


As reported by Dennis Bakay earlier in the week, the Columbus Day parade was canceled in Philly this year. He called it a “victim of the economy.”  What’s so interesting about this revelation, and Monday’s lack of Philly’s Italian Americans marching to the beat of an American tradition is that it took a recession – not common sense – to put off the celebrations.

As reported by Dennis Bakay earlier in the week, the Columbus Day parade was canceled in Philly this year. He called it a “victim of the economy.”  What’s so interesting about this revelation, and Monday’s lack of Philly’s Italian Americans marching to the beat of an American tradition is that it took a recession – not common sense – to put off the celebrations.

Bad economy or not, putting aside the Columbus Day parade in the birthplace of the country happens to have taken place at a crucial crossroads for the direction of the country – in the shadow of President Obama’s decision to extend the Afghanistan War – and the coincidence, though it is a coincidence, is important.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Columbus’ Journey

According to his own diary, and detailed in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, when Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he told of how the Arawak Indians waded out to sea to greet him and his men. They brought him gifts. He wrote in what came to be known as The Diaro of Christopher Columbus, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them for I showed them a sword – they took it by the edge and cut themselves.”

Columbus later wrote of the Arawaks: “They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest – without knowledge of what is evil – nor do they murder or steal.”

In a letter to a patron in Spain, Columbus writes more admirably of the natives, highlighting their exhibition of “love toward all others in preference to themselves.” However, within the same letter, Columbus goes on to describe why this aspect of their combined personalities would make them “fine servants.”

By the year 1500, Columbus and his men had erected crosses all over the island of Hispaniola, as his diary consistently references the Bible. He also boasts about erecting 340 gallows and began ordering the natives to find a certain amount of gold hidden on the island. Those who did not meet their quota were de-limbed.

Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes of this practice: “Whoever thought up this ghastly system, Columbus was responsible for it, as the only means of producing gold for export.” Those who tried to escape, Morison writes, were hunted with dogs.

When gold became too inaccessible, Columbus began rounding up natives for slave trade back to Spain. “From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity,” Columbus writes, “as many slaves as could be sold.” In one account of a trip to Spain, the seamen rounded up 500 natives, 200 of which died on their way across the Atlantic.

Some of Columbus’ men kept diaries as well, including an Italian nobleman named Cuneo. He seems to speak with glee of the brutal rape of a native woman, saying, after she refuses his advances: “I took a rope and thrashed her well…Finally we came to an agreement.”

A Dominican priest named Bartolome de las Casas came to the New World just a few years after Columbus. He’d later write a book called The Devastation of the Indies. He witnessed soldiers stabbing Arawaks for sport, beheadings, natives burned at the stake. A group of Dominican friars corroborated Las Casas’ account, speaking to the Spanish monarchy in 1519 of children tossed to hounds and newborn babies thrown into the jungle.

The Legacy

For centuries, Americans have celebrated Columbus’ discovery of tropical islands off our eastern coast. In 1892, at the quadricentennial celebration, Senator Chauncey DePew said the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery marked “the wealth and the civilization of a great people…it marks the things that belong to their comfort and their ease, their pleasure and their luxuries…and their power.”

It was less than 10 years after DePew’s proclamation that the Spanish-American War was started through yellow journalism and the occupation of Cuba by the Spanish was taken over by an American occupation. The war against the Philippines also occurred during this time (after the United States promised the country its independence), resulting in more than 400,000 Filipino dead, according to estimates, and up to 1,500,000 casualties.

When the time came to invade Mexico, Texas Governor Sam Houston said, “The Anglo-Saxon race must pervade the whole southern extremity of this vast continent. The Mexicans are no better than the Indians and I see no reason why we should not take their land.”

In the 1974 documentary about the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland says of the Asians with whom we were at war: “’The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

During the first Gulf War, General Colin Powell was asked about Iraqi civilian casualties. He said it was “not a matter I am terribly interested in.”

The Impact

We Americans have continually, bizarrely, celebrated and feasted at the boat ride of this barbarous man and his seamen. The celebration of Columbus has led to hundreds of wars waged by the United States government against the Native Americans – and later foreign, often-third world nations – all under the guise of, as Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan called the Black Hawk War in 1832, “the progress of civilization.” The then-Michigan territory governor also said of the Native Americans, “A barbarous people cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, we invaded countries under false pretenses, against the founders’ architectural ideas for their young country, under the guise of saving a foreign population from themselves and defending ourselves and allies, which have often resulted in, or, as the Pentagon papers explained of the Vietnam War, been routed in, the capitalization of foreign natural resources.

Just as when Columbus resorted to slave trade after gold was not available, the United States dragged its feet to outlaw slavery and then segregation. It is now normalcy to outsource cheap labor to foreign countries – many of whom are human rights abusers, others whom (though it’s prone to overlap) exploit child labor – for cheaper cola and sneakers.


Far be it from me to debate western civilization’s effect and the great life it’s provided many of us Americans and others throughout the world.

Today, we have the technology to live quite peacefully amongst each other. We have the money and resources to feed the entire world and the knowledge to put to rest the deep-seated hatreds still held for and by those of other religions, those born overseas. Of course, that won’t happen. It’s the celebration and rationalization of things like Columbus Day that stop us from realizing the fantasy of so many dreamers before us. It’s the thinking behind Columbus Day that’s promoted the idea that our foreign enemies are often less than human.

We’ve been told time and again that fabricated wars based on shoddy evidence are meant to keep us safe – the corporate benefits that wouldn’t exist without these wars are just an added bonus. We let time and the winners throughout history change the stories to the point where all our schoolchildren really know about Columbus is the year of his voyage, and that it happened over the “ocean blue.”

Which brings me back to the original point. This year, Philly’s Columbus Day parade was cancelled due to a recession brought on by corporate greed, lax borrowing laws, and the wealthy elite’s correct presumption that their mass-ownership of our government would result in a bailout for their irresponsible behavior. The tactics that led to the recession were the same ones that led to the wars – false promises, misleading facts, corporate and think-tank lobbying efforts.

Our president promised change this past election, but so far has come far from the mark, especially as it pertains to our colonization of Afghanistan, a country which, according to the president’s National Security Advisor, James Jones, now has fewer than 100 al Qaeda fighters in-country. It’s fairly obvious that the people still fighting in Afghanistan are citizens wary of yet another foreign attempt at takeover.

The president unfortunately has, time and again, called Afghanistan a “war of necessity, ” when it’s anything but. He’s been running an LBJ campaign as of late, quietly sending in troops for this supposed necessary war. Britain has approved of more troops, as well.


The McCainian idea of being able to “muddle through” the war can only result in failure. Our propped up president Hamid Karzai is knee deep in the drug trade and likely just stole an election, though activists, liberal and conservative, have somehow forgotten to ask of the Afghan citizens, “Where’s their vote?” as they did after the recent Iranian elections.

General Petraeus recently wrote that in order to conquer Afghanistan, the United States would require 20 to 25 troops for every thousand residents, which, as Frank Rich pointed out in his New York Times column on Sunday, “comes out, conservatively, to 640,000 troops for Afghanistan (population, 32 million).”

But never mind all that.

The war in Afghanistan, just like the war in Iraq, was the beginning of George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, and based on very little rationale. The United States gave the Afghan government a stipulation back in 2001 – give us bin Laden or we’re coming in. The Afghan government agreed, as long as the United States presented evidence bin Laden was behind the attacks (evidence that would not be hard to find). The United States refused, and we invaded.

Today, President Barack Obama has an easy, yet politically tough choice to make. Continue the foreign policy that celebrates Columbus and the quietly covered-up mass slaughter he began, or begin the demilitarization that was supposed to have started with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but stone-walled by President George H.W. Bush, who, instead, called for a “New World Order” and an “American Century.”

Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans against the war in Afghanistan, but it’s likely a pullout will be spun by the conservative media and the usual insults will come flying from the right. LBJ was scared of being called soft on communism back in the 60s – today, Obama should not be afraid to be called soft on terrorism.

And perhaps the unabashed effort to end the war will be a catalyst for real change, which would include an end to Columbus Day.


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  1. Agreed… we should not admire mass-murderers. Tell Obama.

    Which is why White House Communications Director Anita Dunn should apologize for praising Chairman Mao Zedong… one of her “two favorite philosophers.” The other being Mother Theresa. How any rational person can praise Mother Theresa and a ruthless dictator responsible for 60-70 million deaths in the same breath is beyond me. Why she is working in the White House – well, that’s another question altogether. But she doesn’t seem ready to apologize – instead, she’s spending her time (and our money) crusading against Fox News. One more change to believe in?


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