NB: This post was originally published in 2013.
When did you realize Christopher Columbus was a jerk?
I’m not sure if I actually received the “traditional,” Samuel Eliot Morrison and Daniel Boorstin-inflected education on Columbus, during my child and young adulthood. I remember that my high school history course (c. the early 2000s) sped through Columbus and discussed a bit about his bad human rights record. My excellent college-level history courses, of course, provided the standard explaination, found in virtually every modern textbook of repute, of the Columbian Exchange unleashed by early European exploration and conquests in the Americas. I imbibed, during my childhood, the general story about Columbus in American culture—that “he sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and “discovered” America—but, if there were any lies my teachers told me, it certainly wasn’t about the earliest encounters between Native Americans and Europeans in the Caribbean.
This shouldn’t be surprising for the heroic narrative of Columbus has been in a watery grave for, at least, three scholarly generations, which is more than enough time for the revisionist story to spread into textbooks, primary and secondary schools along with popular histories. Despite this, however, there is clearly some gap between this revisionist take on Columbus, which is about as “out” of the ivory tower as any historical reconsideration, and what the public knows (or thinks it knows) about the infamous explorer.
Nothing makes this gap clearer than the annual Columbus Day discovery that Columbus was a jerk and involved in all sorts of atrocities. This annual part of how the United States celebrates this holiday goes a little something like this—an article freshly highlighting how Columbus was a jerk makes the rounds and the response falls into two camps: “Yeah! Screw Columbus!” or “Columbus Day is really Italian-American Day and we should celebrate Italian contributions to American heritage.” Everyone then promptly forgets about this whole hullabaloo until the following second Monday in October.
This tradition played out for 2013, as anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or MySpace(?) account well knows, around a cartoon published by The Oatmeal laying out the case against Columbus. Matthew Inman’s work made a particularly big splash, getting linked by not just every one of your well-meaning friends, but big nerd aggregators and news websites as well. Everyone from your college roommate to your frequent-Facebooking Uncle was in on the debate.
The cartoon, however well-meaning it may be, has a couple of big problems. By focusing on the “myopia” and greed of Columbus, Inman kind of misses the point. There is nothing surprising, in the least, that the infamous explorer “remained myopically focused on gold rather than the discovery of a new landmass.” Early modern European explorers, adventurers, and traders were not the crew of the starship Enterprise. They were about perpetuating a system of imperial domination and exploitation from Ireland to the Canaries and Africa to, eventually, the Americas. This was a European-wide culture which promoted greed, cleverness, ruthlessness and risk-taking in its ambitious men in order to expand the slice of the imperialist pie for a particular power and its vision of god, be that Portuguese, Spanish, or English. Certainly Columbus’s imperial sponsor wanted him to open a new trade route to Indian and Asia but they also expected Columbus to extract (by hook or crook) resources, wealth (such as gold), and labor from the peoples he encountered.
In suggesting that we should replace “Columbus Day” with a seemingly less problematic “Bartolome Day,” Inman misses the mark even more egregiously. As far as folks associated with the early Spanish Empire go, Bartolome de las Casas is as admirable a figure as they come. He was, after his conversion in 1514, a consistent opponent of European enslavement of Natives and their continued exploitation. The problem of shifting Columbus from the stage and subbing in Las Casas is that it continues to center the memory of the Columbian Exchange on European men. Trading one unsympathetic European for a more sympathetic one continues to obscure the history of the people most impacted by the Columbian Exchange and the “discovery” of America: aboriginal Americans. The post-1492 Americas were certainly a new world for Europeans but it was also a new world for Native Americans who saw their world reshaped by the largest ecological revolution in human history.
That is a story that deserves to be memorialized. If the United States is going to celebrate the day in which Europeans first arrived in the Americas, we need to get beyond the memory of one man or set of men and the morality play such a narrow view creates. What’s needed is a day that memorializes the story of how the Americas, North and South, were created and what that process means for the twenty-first century Americans. That would replace the scourge-and-forget process when it comes to Columbus’s memory with something more historical and culturally useful.
That idea that we could replace Columbus Day with a superior sort of holiday is likely a pipe dream. What is, perhaps, more possible is a fuller discourse around Columbus’s memory. Maybe the great 2014 critic of Columbus Day will read a little bit more deeply of the well of history and debate around the “discovery” of America and the first encounters between Native Americans and Europeans.
 This sentence went through many revisions during the editorial process. This is the most family friendly version.
 I did get a very traditional view so that that I was extremely shocked when I first read about the Columbian Exchange.
 While writing this post I took down the eight or nine different textbooks on my bookshelf and sought out their treatments of Columbus. All of them stress the Columbus’ jerkiness, awful treatment of aboriginal peoples, and greed. The most sympathetic treatment I found was by Mark Carnes and John Garrarty who highlight Columbus’s “triumph” in exploring the Caribbean. Yet, still, they also stress how “Columbus and his compatriots tricked and cheated the Indians at every turn.” See: Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty, American Destiny: Narrative of a Nation, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Prentice Hall, 2012), 15-17.
 Now, I certainly was lied to about the earliest encounters between the English and aboriginal Virginians–between Disney’s, perhaps, well-intentioned paean to Jamestown and a high-romantic grade school textbook on the history of the Old Dominion, my childhood misinformation about my home commonwealth ran deep. Columbus was such a non-entity in my youthful historical consciousness that I was extremely shocked when I first read about the Columbian Exchange.
 Alfred Crosby’s classic The Columbian Exchange was first published in 1973 (and received a 30th anniversary edition in 2003). Howard Zinn’s massively popular A People’s History contains the revisionist account of Columbus in its very first 1980 edition.
 There is a third response, not listed above, which boils down to “Don’t Kick a Day Off in the Mouth.”
 I cleaned up this typical response to keep this blog family friendly.
 Anyone who ever watched The Sopranos should be well-aware how important Columbus Day is to some Italian-Americans (NSFW). Columbus Day first became a national holiday under pressure from many Italian-American groups looking to improve their image by latching on to a popular American hero to highlight Italian contributions to the United States. This made sense in 1934 but makes much less sense today as Columbus’s position in American culture has shifted. There are many more Italians in American history worth celebrating than Christopher Columbus.
 Which is kind of great but, also, kind of awful, depending on how often one checks one’s Facebook feed.
 For an excellent recent overview of the culture which created men like Columbus see: Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 37-63.
 Much of the previous criticism of Inman’s celebration of Las Casas centers around the Spanish priest’s advocating the replacement of Indian slaves with those imported from Africa. He later recanted this position but, to make matters worse, Las Casas reserved his most trenchant criticisms of Spanish imperial practices from publication until after his death. Inman addresses this problem in “A very important note about Bartolomé de las Casas and the African slave trade” at the end of his cartoon. I will leave the question of how satisfactory his response is to the reader.
 Among many works, see Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 143-168.
 Both the pro- and anti-Columbus Day stories are morality plays. One stresses the heroic agency and brilliance of the great explorer Columbus. The opposite view stresses the particular vices of Columbus and the virtues of his critics. Both views ignore the broader processes which brought Columbus to the Americas and those which extended well-beyond Christopher’s time and influence.
 This could be an “Aboriginal People’s Day,” “Native American History Day,” or “First People’s Day.” Or, perhaps, something like an “Americas’ Day”. Such a move would have the added benefit of stressing the ties between the history of North and South America.