What The Oatmeal Missed

NB: This post was originally published in 2013.

Oatmeal imageWhen did you realize Christopher Columbus was a jerk?[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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[6]: “Yeah! Screw Columbus!”[7] or “Columbus Day is really Italian-American Day and we should celebrate Italian contributions to American heritage.”[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]  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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.

[1] This sentence went through many revisions during the editorial process. This is the most family friendly version.


[2] I did get a very traditional view so that that I was extremely shocked when I first read about the Columbian Exchange.

[3] 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.


[4] 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.


[5] 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.


[6] There is a third response, not listed above, which boils down to “Don’t Kick a Day Off in the Mouth.”


[7] I cleaned up this typical response to keep this blog family friendly.


[8] 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.


[9] Which is kind of great but, also, kind of awful, depending on how often one checks one’s Facebook feed.


[10] 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.


[11] 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.


[12] Among many works, see Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 143-168.


[13] 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.


[14] 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.

32 responses

  1. Nice post, Roy. As you note, the myth of Columbus remains strong in elementary school and videos little kids watch, but a revisionist interpretation has been mainstream at the high school and college level for decades now.

    Another irony of the Las Casas Day proposal is that antebellum slaveholders would have loved such a day. As the Oatmeal thing acknowledges at the end, Las Casas initially supported African slavery but later recanted and opposed all forms of slavery. It was this later regret that made slaveholders identify Las Casas as such an important historical example. They drew profoundly conservative lessons from him, identifying Las Casas up as the epitome of the misguided do-gooder who only made things worse through his meddling. Slaveholders would have viewed a Las Casas Day as reminding Americans of the danger and unintended consequences of reform.

    • At first glance, I construed the cartoon as facetious vis-à-vis Indigenous People’s Day. Inman’s response and concomitant citations, in addition to the above critical post, undermined my initial interpretations. Your shrewd comment, however, clarified any possible dialectics at play.

    • Thanks for the comment & kind words, Nic.

      I completely agree about the link between Las Casas and the development of pro-slavery ideology in the antebellum American South. Uncritically celebrating Las Casas (then & now) perpetuates the Black Legend – that Spanish imperialism was some how “worse” than other European imperial projects. Which is powerfully untrue.

      I’m really glad your comment highlights this!

  2. This has to be one of the most PC posts I’ve seen. He did discover America as far as the rest of the world was concerned, although you’d have a hard time convincing the Native Americans he found of that; reminds me of the old Morris the Cat commercial.

    I believe that in Spanish speaking countries it’s still celebrated as Dia de la Raza, not necessarily Dia de Colon. Yes, he was no saint; no explorer or builder of what is now North and South America was. Those are just the facts.

    • Thanks for the comment and kind words.

      Our positions aren’t too far apart. I agree that it would be difficult (likely impossible) to convince Native Americans that Columbus “discovered” America. I also agree that Columbus “he was no saint; no explorer or builder of what is now North and South America was. Those are just the facts.” I try to make that point clear in my post.

      I think the United States developing its own version of Dia de la Raza or “Americas Day” would be great. Certainly an improvement over Columbus Day!

      Thanks again for commenting!

      • Why are we not asking why the holiday is celebrated at all? The holiday in its origins have little to do with Columbus himself. The Elephant that’s always in the room during this conversation is that the holiday being connected to Italian Americans is due in large part to create a secular holiday so that Catholics, as the Irish would also adopt the holiday with fervor, could have a holiday where they could celebrate an American Identity– the midst of Anti-Catholic bigotry.

        Opposition to the holiday, without the proper recognition to Catholicism, is another form of bigotry, just accepted bigotry.

  3. You are definitely right in identifying the annual rite of momentarily fretting about Columbus. I think this is one of those issues that get stuck in a perpetual social media loop. Rising up to be forwarded around each year.

    For me the an interesting side note of this round was the news article that you linked above from Yahoo news by Jay Busbee. I’d seen the link to his article titled, “Slavery, disease, death: the dark side of the Christopher Columbus story” in one of my RSS feeds. When I clicked on it, I was surprised to find that although I was on a Yahoo News site, I was reading a summary of Inman’s cartoon. That’s really all it was, a summary. Of a cartoon! No check on Inman’s assertions, no context of the debates about Columbus Day, just a summary of the one cartoon.

    Now we’re all well aware of the sad state of Journalism today. But I was still quite amused that Busbee had written up a 500-word summary of a cartoon. And I was more even more amused by the idea that, I assume, it passed the screen or desk of some editor at Yahoo News who nodded approvingly and sent it along to be published online and show up in my news feed next to articles about national politics and world events.

    Just recently, in an attempt to teach historical analysis of primary source documents, I had been telling my students that high school does a good job of teaching them to summarize material. Unfortunately, I told them, there aren’t jobs out there where you can simply summarize material for a living. You will need to be able to think critically and apply your knowledge to what you read so that you can make the leap from summary to analysis.

    I guess in the future I will have to change that lesson so that it takes into consideration the option of being a journalist for Yahoo News. For now, however, I think I’ll try my hand at cartoon summary. If only I could sum up what Dilbert said to his Pointy-Haired Boss in the third panel without ruining the joke!

    • Italian-Americans are entitled to have their national heritage as they have made many exceptional contributions to the United States and to the world. However, Columbus Day is not the right vehicle for what seems to be an almost exclusively Italian-American celebratory event. Columbus of course was born in Genoa, a city/state on the Italian Peninsula, but all of his findings in the new world occurred as Spanish enterprise. Following the reconquest Spain from the Moors in 1492 the Spanish Crown was essentially broke and it delivered about 2/3rds of the Columbus’s financing with the rest coming from loans to Spain from private investors, based in Venice, Genoa, Pisa and elsewhere. In any event, earlier on, Columbus did travel to the Genoese and Venetian Republics and to Portugal seeking aide for his proposed expedition but he got no money or other encouragement from the governments of these independent city-states and the Kingdom of Portugal. Initially, the Spanish authorities were skeptical of Columbus but they gave him an annual allowance of 12,000 maravedis and in 1489, furnished him with a letter ordering all cities and towns under their domain to provide him food and lodging at no cost and it was 4 years later to the Spanish royal treasurer, Luis de Santangel, shifted funds among various royal accounts on behalf of the enterprise.
      Again, there is little doubt that he was born on the Italian Peninsula and that his nationality or citizenship was Genoese. However, there was no Italian State as such in the 15th century and he was not beholden to any of its various independent city-states, including Genoa. If the fact that Columbus was born on the Italian peninsula somehow makes him Italian in the eyes of some, then so be it. Regardless, Columbus’s ships belonged to Spain and her flag flew over them and was planted on the various places in the Caribbean places he landed on and took, in the name of Spain. Columbus was much more than an Italian or Genoese-born employee of Spain and his loyalty was to her and no other nation. Accordingly he was for all intents and purposes a Spaniard. And, in modern parlance, he was an Italo-Spaniard at best.
      In summary, I propose that henceforth the current Columbus holiday be dubbed, “Explorers Day.”It will honor all the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese , English , French, Viking and other intrepid captains whose risky cross-Atlantic voyages ultimately led to the establishment of the United States and other nations of the American Continents.

      • Thank you so much for the comment & your exploration of the “Italo-Spaniard” of Columbus.

        I think replacing Columbus Day with “Explorers Day” doesn’t entirely work. It still keeps the focus on Europeans, while (as I argue above) I think we need to shift the public memory of the Columbian Exchange more towards Native Americans. I think a broader “Americas Day” which can explore the complex history of cultural, political, and economic exchange in the Americas would be best.

        But, again, thanks for the comment!

        • Ok I can deal with a federal holiday called “America’s Day” but it does have a jingoistic quality and should sail by the Tea Party in Congress . Ok I am veering off topic a bit here but the whole idea of federal holidays to honor anyone seems kind of a quaint vestige of the 19th and 20th century. These holidays seem to have degenerated quite quickly into opportunities to have picnics, football games and increased opportunities for merchants to sell their wares. Since that is the case, why not simply declare the first Monday of every month a holiday including Thanksgiving Christmas and New Year to the mix–12 holidays in all and be done with it and let people celebrate whoever and whatever they please. By the way, Jesus was not born on December 25th, the Pilgrims did not have a dinner party on the last Thursday of the November and we have not celebrated Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, MLK Day Colunbus day etc. on the original date for about 20 years, so why are these dates sacrosanct? Oh I am sure the religious, ethnic/racial, veterans and groups will protest and the Chambers of Commerce and other business groups will whine about lost productivity it. Economists of various sorts will no doubt tally up figures that total losses to the economy, productivity etc. But these groups have been doing this for years. Has the economy really gotten better because people now have to work more.

    • You are definitely right in identifying the annual rite of momentarily fretting about Columbus. I think this is one of those issues that get stuck in a perpetual social media loop. Rising up to be forwarded around each year

      You will need to be able to think critically and apply your knowledge to what you read so that you can make the leap from summary to analysis

      I’m not following you.

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Adam.

      I think you might be a little too harsh on online journalism. There is a role for summarizing and aggregating the massive amount of content that flows through the tubes of the internets. As academics well know, summarizing can be its own form of criticism (i.e. many reviews in the AHR & on H-Net). Summarizing a cartoon that takes at most two minutes to read is a bit much but, I believe outlets like Raw Story have a role in online discourse.

      Again, thanks for the comment!

  4. Roy Rogers posted: 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

    On October 14, the Oatmeal posted the following caption to accompany the Las Casas cartoon: Call it Bartolome Day. Call it Indigenous People’s Day. Call it Discovery Day. Call it Monday, if you like. Just don’t call today Columbus Day.

    Currently, I’m not a fan of the Oatmeal, but I am a fan of transparency.

    • Thank you so much for the comment and thanks for reading!

      I too am a fan of transparency. I deal with Inman’s postscript in the above post.

      For reference I’ll quote n11 below:

      [11] 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.

      It is matter of interpretation if you find Inman’s mildly recantation in his “note” fully acceptable or not. Perhaps, you do. I don’t. He finds “Bartolomé Day” acceptable enough to keep it one of the centerpieces of the comic. I find that problematic (as the above post makes clear) and believe all of arguments stand.

      Again, thanks for reading & commenting.

      • I read your note before posting the comment. I reproduced the caption posted with the Las Casas cartoon on October 14 (as I indicated), a caption that awkwardly addressed Indigenous People’s Day, prior to the criticism and subsequent recantation.

        Your response to my comment, not your note, perhaps conflated the caption and later Oatmeal recantation. Of course, I do not find such a recantation fully acceptable in any shape or form (which you indicated). To repeat: I am not a fan of the Oatmeal, but I am a fan of transparency. I apologize for your confusion.

  5. With all due respect, I think you missed the point of the Oatmeal comic.

    – educated, literate Americans are aware that Columbus was an asshole. The fact that Columbus Day still exists, and that the Knights of Columbus have kept their name and remain an influential nonprofit, shows that such people are a minority, or do not care enough to cause a change.

    – being jaded about the Columbus as asshole narrative (another year, another diatribe type thinking) leads to complacency, not to change

    – Inman’s comic was designed to shock and amuse, and to appeal to a wider audience. The fact that it made such a splash shows that it reached this wider audience, and got a larger number of people to think about the issue — which should be the goal of anyone who wants to set the popular record about Columbus straight

    – Suggesting Bartolome day as a replacement was partly humorous, but also wise. Discussing Bartolome allowed the article to end on a positive note and it showed that not all Europeans of the era were assholes. More importantly, it has several advantages over the suggested alternatives as a replacement holiday. Holidays celebrating abstract concepts are less likely to get noticed than those celebrating a famous individual (even storewide savings is a form of notice), and a holiday based around guilt is less likely to be declared and less likely to be observed — and that is how European-Americans (still a powerful majority) would perceive an Indigenous Americans day.

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  11. I’m sure you realize changing it to “Indigenous People’s Day,” or something similar, and the way it will inevitably be “celebrated” (and already has been in places like Seattle), will only result in a different kind of morality play – the evil white man corrupting the peaceful Native American who never practiced slavery among other tribes, never engaged in ritualistic torture and sacrifice, and never fought brutal wars over resources.

    It’s a fine line between history and advocacy.

    • I didn’t see any of the commenters recommend an “Indigenous People’s Day,” nor did I see the author assert that Native American society was peaceful. The author is arguing to get beyond thinking about this as “a morality play.” There has never been a wholly non-violent society. And the fact that Native American society included violence would not absolve the Europeans for their actions. Just like no other country would be justified in coming here now and violently devastating our society because we have our own forms of violence within it.

      Beyond the Spanish settlement of the Western Hemisphere, colonists in the northern half of the hemisphere created the roots of their own self-determination by denying it to Native Americans. And, yes, Native American tribes did the same to one another (though not on the grand scale of the Europeans). Americans went on to fortify their self-determination partly through the denial of the same to African-American slaves. And, yes, African countries practiced their own internal forms of slavery. All societies contain forms of violence and injustice.

      The point is to acknowledge these historical facts and to try to understand their implications for what has come after rather than use them selectively to moralize.

  12. Don’t forget, not all of us are from the United States.

    Outside of the Highest and Further education establishments (British equivalent to your High School and College I believe) all I remember learning is he sailed to America and had Turkey I think.

    So we really ARE discovering it for the first time.

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  17. Very interesting article, and I like the idea of turning into a holiday celebrating the Americas. If only that could happen!

    I don’t think you have an accurate idea of how recently the narrative regarding Columbus has changed, though. It definitely hasn’t been “three generations” for the average person.

    I fall into the “well-educated, well-read individual” category. I graduated high school in 1991 as a National Merit scholar, from a pretty good public school. I then attended a rather liberal university. Even in 2000, when I took my last history course (I attended college part time due to family circumstances), the most we got was that we hadn’t treated the Native Americans well, that we had stolen their land and forced them on reservations. And then there was all the war with them… (I had already gotten that much from my mom, who is big on empathy but not college educated. And I had seen parts of the Trail of Tears.) But I heard nothing—not one word—that the great Christopher Columbus wasn’t a heroic figure who had advanced the world. We were taught that he didn’t discover America, since there were already people here, but that’s it.

    By the time I encountered The Oatmeal’s comic, I had learned more about the treatment of indigenous people. But still nothing about Columbus (or Bartolomé), even though I read dozens of books a year, fiction and nonfiction, across genres, and listen to dozens more on audio. And I do tons of personal online research wherever my curiosity and interests take me. That comic was a real eye opener, and prompted directed research on my part. I appreciate your references, because I still have a lot to learn on the subject.

    So don’t be too hard on those who are ignorant (or mostly ignorant) on the subject of Columbus. Except for recent graduates or those who attended very liberal schools, it almost always takes serious effort to get to the truth. And most people just don’t have the time or know-how to give themselves a complete reeducation on every topic that was misrepresented when they were in school. They get a slapdash mix of whatever the media throws their way.

    Thanks again for the references.

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