In the autumn of 2004, my schoolteacher said: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” She made this man seem so likeable. If we played a little word association game with him, words like genocide, thief and coloniser come to mind. Murderer. Evil. Within a little rhyme, she had dressed him in innocence. By no fault of her own. I’m sure there are numerous schoolteachers up and down this island nation who really don’t have a clue about colonial history, and in sermonising this “explorer,” she was dismissing the individual who opened the doors to European colonisation of the Americas (what became the New World) and the Caribbean.
Whilst the rest of the United States of America breaks bread on their annual day of thanks, Natives see this day as a day of mourning. Like an armistice, in remembrance of their ancestors, and a people that were erased through genocide committed by White Europeans in the prologue of colonialism. It is often noted that the first Thanksgiving was in 1621, but really it could be argued that day belongs in 1637 when puritan Governor Winthrop decided he would give thanks for the safe return of those who went to Mystic, Connecticut and participated in the Massacre of the Peqout.
Like a lot of the history I thought I knew, it seems more of a taking than anything else. Thanksgiving is for giving thanks, but the story behind it feels more like a thanks-taking. Do they teach this in American schools? Something tells me, no.
The late great Malcolm X said “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” And in Britain, the voyage that led the British into slavery was by an ambitious man from Plymouth (UK) called (Sir) John Hawkins, as in 1562/1563 he hijacked a Portuguese vessel, sailed to the new world and sold his cargo into slavery, making a small fortune. Not to be confused with Plymouth in the US, often labelled as America’s hometown.
However, growing up in Britain, as I did, the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering America” is one that’s been told so many times that it’s now begun to feel like folklore. Not once, as a child, did I hear anything about the native peoples living in America and the West Indies before he came.
What they mean when Columbus discovered America, is he was the first White man to discover it. Because achievements (historically) like this are only valid in western society when a White person does it. From Cook to Columbus, White explorers who went to “new places” to “find” peoples and cultures different from their own only to react with savagery and violence.
Not once in my school classes did I get stories from the perspectives of the oppressed. Whether we’re talking about slaves during the 200+ years of British colonial ambition, or the world wars, as at war the ones that suffered most were the working classes. What happened after? If I was to go by what I was taught at school, I’d live life believing everything was rosy.
At school, the sermons my teachers had for Columbus now make my skin crawl. Lorded as one of the great European heroes, turning up in Hispaniola in 1492, native to Amerindians prior to colonisation. The majority of the people there did die of European diseases but nothing could prepare them for the monumental onslaught that came from Columbus’ soldiers. And when any country invades another, rape is always a feature.
“His soldiers snatched babies from the breasts of their mothers and dashed their heads against the rocks. Children were fed alive to his dogs. Women’s breasts were cut off. He decided to hang thirteen of the Native Americans in Hispaniola to recreate the crucifixion of Jesus, plus the apostles.”
George Monbiot (writer, journalist, activist)
What Columbus’ soldiers did in Hispaniola set the precedent for what happened next, the eventual genocide that erased almost all of the Native peoples of America from existence. However, when I think about Native people, as much as screen representation is concerned, I think to Old Hollywood. John Wayne in The Searchers being one of the most horrific films I’ve ever watched and this is what Said means by orientalism. Though, I believe his theory can be applied to any non-White oppressed group.
And when we think about colonial statues, we really need to think about the character of the people we are building monuments to. From Barcelona to New York, Columbus is known all over the world. And I think due to how we teach history in schools, we blindly celebrate people we really know nothing about. From Churchill in India to Columbus and Captain Cook.
And both George Washington (first US President) and Thomas Jefferson (third US President) endorsed Columbus’ actions, and what’s more, both these men owned slaves. Who really are we celebrating? Who are we honouring with statues, plaques and awards? Who are we putting on our money? Great leaders aren’t always great people, and how did they treat others? What about their morality, equity, and values as public figures?
In Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, the US establishment does not recognise its history of genocide. The fact that we have Natives with us today is nothing short of a miracle. That their ancestors managed to survive: disease, Catholicism, and settler colonialism; telling their stories to preserve their culture and identity is activism. Their existence is resistance.
Columbus is a symbol of conquest and privilege. How can we condemn Hitler and Stalin but not Columbus? Simple. When non-White history is told from the perspective of the oppressor, the lack of White empathy is obvious. In colonialists Cecil Rhodes and former-PM Winston Churchill the British establishment honours White supremacists and mass murderers, united in their pursuits for either one, two or all of the three: gold, glory or God.
And in Christopher Columbus, the American establishment honours a White supremacist, a mass murderer and a slave trader; and under the administration of President Trump, I believe it’s safe to say it ain’t changing any time soon.