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Why Columbus Shouldn't Be Celebrated

Columbus the DevilToday is marked on the calendars as Columbus Day, but Christopher Columbus was a horrible excuse of a human being who doesn't deserve to be honored with a national holiday.

For starters, Columbus was a crank. Unlike the popular misconception, practically all educated people of Columbus's time, and probably even most non-educated people, knew that the earth was a globe. Nobody really thought that if you sailed west from Europe that you'd fall over the edge. What's more, they even had a good idea of the size. Eratosthenes had calculated it all the way back in ancient Greece some time around 200 BC to within 15%, and the educated people in Columbus's time made similar estimates that came close to the actual circumference. They all knew that in principle you could sail west from Europe to reach Asia, but that the distance was so long that none of the ships of the time could carry enough supplies to make the journey. Columbus, on the other hand, grossly underestimated the size of the Earth, coming up with a circumference around 1/2 of the actual circumference. That's a huge miscalculation, and why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his attempt. Going on the knowledge of the time, when nobody knew about North or South America, Columbus's proposal verged on a suicide mission.

And even after Columbus 'discovered*' the New World, he never realized it himself. He persisted in his crankery on the size of the Earth, and went to his death bed thinking he'd landed in Asia. It took other explorers and map makers to make it clear that this was a 'new' continent from the European perspective, previously unknown to them. That's why they're named the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci, and not a name honoring Columbus.

And if his incompetence were enough to take away any of his imagined glory, his tyrannical rule as governor of the Indies should bring outright shame. Here's an article from the Guardian from a few years ago, Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean. He was cruel to both the native inhabitants and the European settlers. Here are a few excerpts from the article describing the cruelty of his government.

"Columbus' government was characterised by a form of tyranny," Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists.

One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.

"Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out," said Ms Varela. "Christopher congratulated him for defending the family."

When Francisco de Bobadilla arrived in the Indies to succeed Christopher Columbus as governor of the Indies, he had all three Columbus brothers shackled and sent back to Spain in chains for the crimes they'd committed. However, being good friends with the king, Columbus was pardoned once he arrived back in Spain.

Finally, there's the mixed legacy of European colonization of the Americas that was kicked off by Columbus's voyages. While it certainly worked out great in the long run for the Europeans, it was catastrophic for the peoples already living here. I don't necessarily mean to demonize the Europeans here, because their treatment of the American Indians, as horrible as it seems by modern day standards, wasn't out of the ordinary for the time. Plus, it's not like all the cultures in the Americas were altruistic paradises. They fought wars with each other. They made slaves of their enemies. Some, notably the Aztecs and the Mayans, practiced human sacrifice. In fact, the Aztecs were so disliked by their neighbors, that Cortes was able to make an alliance with Tlaxcala to help him conquer the Aztecs. Moreover, the biggest catastrophe that befell the American Indians was due to disease. And granted, these diseases came from Europeans, but it wasn't anything deliberate on the European's part. Still, the final outcome was that up to 95% of the original population died, marking perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of human history. That is not an event to be celebrated.

So, Christopher Columbus was a crank, who was extremely lucky that there were two unknown continents, or he may have starved at sea. He never even realized that he'd discovered new lands. Worse, once he had a taste of power, he became a cruel dictator, even by the standards of his time, and was hauled back to Spain in disgrace. And his discovery kicked off the European colonization of the Americas, which led to the deaths of countless American Indians and perhaps the greatest tragedy the world has known. There is nothing worth celelbrating in that legacy.

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Image Source: Wikipedia, with a bit of crude Photoshopping by me

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* From a the perspective of European culture, this was a discovery. Perhaps the Vikings did reach North America earlier, but that didn't become common knowledge throughout the rest of Europe. It really was Columbus landing in the Americas that set of the wave of European exploration and colonization - for better or worse.

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