Letter to the Editor: Celebrating Columbus Day is Kinda Problematic

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That’s what we’ve been told for years, ever since we first learned the name Christopher Columbus. That’s also one of the few good things we’ve been told about him that are actually true. And yet, we celebrate him – sometimes idolize him, even. But should we? The answer is complicated. We should observe the holiday, not necessarily as a celebration of Columbus, but not erasing him from our history either. True, he may have kickstarted the Columbian Exchange, but he also kickstarted the African slave trade. Not to mention that a lot of the stories we’ve been told about him and his crew are blatantly false.

Columbus began a massive exchange between completely different parts of the world, allowing both parts of the world to acquire different goods that they didn’t have previously. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in the year 2000, a large majority of New World food consumption came from countries in Africa, Europe and Asia – the “Old World”. If Columbus hadn’t come along, this might not have been the case. On the same token, however, this same exchange brought diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of people, including smallpox from the Old World, and syphilis from the New World.

Not only were deadly diseases transmitted both ways in the Columbian Exchange, Columbus encouraged the Atlantic Slave Trade. When the natives that Columbus’s crew enslaved kept running away, Columbus turned to Africa, where slaves had been bought and sold for centuries. Bartolomé de las Casas, at first, advocated for using African and white slaves instead of Natives, but later retracted his position, regarding both as equally wrong. Unfortunately, he never lived to see the people he advocated for freed from slavery.

But how much of this had we actually been told when we were younger? We were taught that he was a genius. One could say he was, yes. We were taught that he discovered America. He had never seen what is now the United States, and there were already millions of indigenous people there. His crew wiped out most of the population in San Salvador, by the way. We were taught that he was a hero. But other than sailing across uncharted waters, and narrowly preventing a mutiny, what did he do that could be considered “heroic”?

Culturally, celebrating Columbus Day is problematic. Sure, he helped Europe, Africa and Asia figure out that there was more land on Earth than just Europe, Africa and Asia, and allowed the New World and Old World to acquire crops and livestock that they didn’t have before. But he also allowed his crew to commit mass genocide, and encouraged the use of the Atlantic Slave Trade for more physical labor. I do still believe that the day could be observed, not necessarily for the sake of celebrating a man who did so many terrible things, but also not erasing him from history.