It’s That Day Again

 

Columbus Day has had detractors since its inception. The original protests against were based a bigoted fear of Italian-Americans and the power of the Catholic Church. Later, Native American activists declared their opposition to a celebration that they viewed as glorifying genocide and colonial oppression.  Others, taking a closer look at the historical record, began to realize that Christopher Columbus was not a particularly heroic character.  From contemporary accounts, he was a brutal and sometimes incompetent tyrant whose policies destroyed countless lives in the New World.

 

Retrato de Bartolomé de las Casas.

Retrato de Bartolomé de las Casas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My son says that we should celebrate Bartolomé de las Casas instead. Casas started out as a supporter of colonial expansion, but the atrocities of genocide and slavery weighed so heavily upon his conscience that he eventually spoke out against the systematic abuses of the Colonial Spanish government. He became a Dominican priest, and eventually wrote extensively about the history of the Spanish Colonial era. Casas himself is not without controversy, and it’s hard to sort out at this half a century remove whether he was more of a help or a hindrance to Native American rights and the abolition of slavery. It’s certain that he believed that colonization itself was a good thing, could it only be done benevolently, and that religious conversion was a just and necessary part of that benevolence.

 

I find that I’m always uneasy when I try to acclaim any person as a hero. Persons who accomplish heroic acts are often larger than life characters whose flaws are as large as their virtues.  Columbus was brave and tenacious as an explorer, but a tyrant and a mass murderer as a ruler. Casas had a very strong sense of moral duty concerning the treatment of native peoples, but paradoxically thought nothing of taking their land and replacing their culture.

 

With all the debate over Columbus, colonialism, and native rights, it’s hard to tell whether we should be celebrating at all. Americans of European descent are here in this “New World”, though, and there’s never been the option of turning back. Whatever the future holds, I can hope that it is built with more forethought to the agency of the people who came previously– Indians, Native Americans, 1st Nations. So happy Columbus Day. We don’t have to like that guy, but we live with his legacy regardless.

 

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