Earlier this week, my boss mentioned during a Zoom office meeting that Columbus Day needed to be re-examined. He had learned of many dark aspects of Christopher Columbus’ (1451-1506) arrival in the Caribbean. The movement to end the celebration of Columbus’ life has gained considerable traction over the past several years. Some states in America have renamed the Columbus Day to “Indigenous People’s Day”, in honor of the Native Americans who sufferend immensly at the hands of Spanish and other European explorers. It is a sound recommendation and one that may even happen here in New York City as it becomes harder for people to ignore the disturbing actions by Columbus and his group of marauders. Many of us learned in school that he was the man who “discovered America”. But is that what really happened? An uncontested fact is that Columbus never set foot on North American soil, making the claim of discovering America misleading. And we know today after many years of neglect by mainstream media, is that indigenous populations were decimated when exposed to the new visitors from abroad. The true story however, goes far beyond Columbus, who was just one of many bloodthirsty religious fanatics who favored violence over peaceful assimilation. David E. Stannard revisits the Columbus story in this eye-opening and chilling account that resulted in a stiff drink and a long moment of silence after I had finished reading.
I need to point out from the start that this book is not for the faint at heart. If you are easily upset by graphic descriptions of barbaric actions, then this book may not be for you. It is dark, chilling and beyond tragic. And that is exactly why the way history is taught in the United States is in need of change. Although the cover of the book gives the impression that the story is solely about Columbus, there is actually far more included in the book regarding the arrival of Spanish and English explorers whose wave of destruction spread across North America, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
One question that has always typically been asked about the Americas is how long did the native population live there? It is a good question and Stannard does provide a discussion about the original inhabitants of the Americas. And what he says might suprise some readers. I found the topic of Berengia to be highly interesting. The Berengia theory for human migration into the Americas is plausbible and the Bering Land Bridge which no longer exist, gives credence to the author’s point. However, what is clear is that what we call the Americas had been populated by anicent civilizations thousands of years ago. Creationists may believe differently but to completely diregard the science at hand would be highly unfortunate as the author provides a thorough discussion of humanity’s existence.
The story picks up pace as the Spanish arrive in the New World. in August of 1492, Columbus and his crew wasted no time in implementing their program of terror upon the natives. The violence is nothing short of gratuitous and disease proved to be just a deadly. The combination of the two as detailed in the book, had long reaching and long-term effects from which the Americas have never fully recovered. And in case defenders of Columbus and other explorers point to disease as the major killer, Stannard has this to say:
However, by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent—a sad, but both inevitable and “unintended consequence” of human migration and progress.
The names of the tribes that suffered so much destruction are voluminous and I learned the name of several that I had no prior knowledge of. Their names are almost endless and I am sure that only a fraction of the true number of indigenous tribes that called the Americas home are covered here. In North America alone there were hundreds of tribes, some of which are now extinct including the Canarsie, who have a neighborhood and high school dedicated in their honor right here in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. Sadly, most do not know the true story of the Canarise but this book certainly does provide an idea.
Aside from the grim account at hand, Stannard takes yet another approach and explores the reasons behind the Spanish exploration across the ocean. The true reason for Columbus’ voyage should cause readers to take notice about how much he knew about navigation and the position of the Spain in the European hierarchy. Putting that aside, there is a much darker aspect to the Spanish missions and this is where religion enters the story. Many of us know of the Crusades and the horrors of Christianity but in regards to Columbus, there is far more than meets the eye. The mind-boggling details are included in Stannard’s account revealing yet another side of Columbus that will make many stare in disbelief at the words they are reading. And if that is not enough, there were yet other reasons for the Spanish conquest and the end result left me shaking my head.
Halfway through the book I felt as if I needed a break but pressed on as I knew there was much more to learn about extermination of Native Americans in what is today called the United States. Stannard keeps the discussion streamlines but does mention the Trial of Tears and Wounded Knee. Each of those topics would require a separate book to fully go into the stories behind the tragedies. The purpose here is to show the different ideologies behind Spanish and British actions in the Americas which both led to the same result for native populations. The atrocities committed against Native Americans by the United States Government aare beyond upsetting and amount of gore found in recollections of the events might cause some readers to revolt in disgust. Quite frankly, the European arrival in North America was just as deadly as the Spanish pillaging of Central and South America. Each empire had its own reasons but for both, religious ideology, finanical motives and beliefs in racial superiority resulted in what Stannard believes to be the worst genocide in world history. In fact, he states pointedly: “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.¨
After I finished the book, I had to sit in silence for a while to digest what I had just taken in. Columbus’ actions were not a surprise to me as I had already known of his dark legacy. What I did not know were the names of the numerous forgotten tribes of the Americas who no longer exist today. The systematic destruction and eradication of their lives and culture is indefensible and nothing short of genocide, sexual exploitation and the plundering of territory inhabited by others whose way of life was completely changed by new faces upon their shores. If this book does only thing, I hope that is to shatter the myth of the new settlers in the Americas arriving with open arms and becoming fast friends with the native peoples. Revisiting the past is often painful and reveals many disturbing facts that we would rather not know. But if we are to have a frank and honest discussion about the people we have long called “heroic” and trailblazing” then all of their deeds should be open to examination. This book is masterfully written, haunting but yet eerily relevant even today.