The meaning of Columbus Day.

AuthorChapin, Mac

A year ago I was walking through a shopping mall in northern Virginia when I passed by a tobacco shop. A life-sized wooden Indian, clutching a handful of cigars, was guarding the door. Someone had taped a sign to its chest that read: "Happy Columbus Day."


Shortly after, I came upon a statement made by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, on the eve of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. He called the Admiral's landfall "one of the greatest achievements of human endeavor," and added, "I strongly encourage every American to support the Quincentennary, and to discover the significance that this milestone in history has in his or her own life."

But just what "significance" does Columbus Day have, or should it have, in our lives? It celebrates the day, 516 years ago, when three small boats carrying Spanish sailors "discovered" the Western Hemisphere. This Encounter of Two Worlds, as it is often called, was the first step in a process that led, in short order, to the conquest and European subjugation of the native peoples of this newly found continent. It determined the direction the Americas were to take from that point on, and when we contemplate the significance of Columbus Day in our lives we need to take into consideration the whole package, from discovery through conquest to domination.

All of us were taught the history of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest of the Americas early on in school. Many bits and pieces of this history remain firmly lodged in our heads these many years later, yet strangely, for most of us they are scattered images that, if we inspect them carefully, don't fit together to form a very a coherent picture. They are, quite simply, inadequate as explanations. This is in large part because our school lessons were based on historical accounts that were often incomplete and confused, and they were one-sided, often flagrantly so, with a strong pro-European bias.

This was the state of historical interpretation of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest of the Americas up through the 1960s, and it was this way across the hemisphere, from north to south. Since then, some of the drum-beating for European superiority has subsided--we are less likely to be told, for example, that the appearance of the Spaniards in Mexico was "the vanguard of the great European Advance toward the broader knowledge of man and of this planet," or that the Aztecs were "mentally deranged" and in the same league with the Nazis *--but many of the old biases and stereotypes have held on tenaciously and still inhabit the pages of popular as well as scholarly histories for adults and children.


My subject here is the way historians have characterized this pivotal period in our history, and the consequences these characterizations have had on our thinking about the events themselves, the peoples who took part in them, and their successors, including all of us who currently live in this part of the world. I will draw primarily on the historical record from Central Mexico, where the Spaniards took on the powerful Mexica (Aztec) Empire, but the same characterizations, in roughly similar form, hold for the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire to the south.

Discovery and Conquest

On the evening of October 11, 1492, a fleet of three Spanish ships--the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria--was nearing the end of a five-week voyage across the Atlantic. Their captain, a Genoese navigator named Christopher Columbus, was standing on the deck of the Santa Maria when what appeared to be a light was spotted in the distance. Land was sighted several hours later, illuminated by the moon, and the following morning Columbus and a handful of his men took a small boat ashore on an island (no one is certain today which one it was) somewhere on the rim of the Caribbean Sea. The natives who came to meet them were peaceful, generous, and accommodating. Columbus wrote in his diary that "... they invite you to share anything that they possess, and show as much love as if their hearts went with it... " He went on to observe "... how easy it would be to convert these people--and to make them work for us."

Columbus made three more journeys to the New World, and in his wake came an ever-increasing procession of Spanish ships. The Spaniards made their way past the Caribbean islands to the mainland, traveled along the coast of Mexico and Central America, and eventually trekked across the Panamanian isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. Their primary quest was after riches, especially gold. During these journeys they learned of vast stores of wealth inland in the highlands of central Mexico.


Here the narrative is transformed into a story that is, as the historian William H. Prescott noted, "too startling for the probabilities demanded by fiction, and without a parallel in the pages of history." In 1519, Hernan Cortes led "a handful of resolute men," as one historian puts it, into the heart of the formidable and highly militaristic Mexica Empire. Two years later they laid siege to the imperial city of Tenochtitlan and after just under three months of fighting emerged victorious, leaving it in ruins and the majority of its inhabitants dead. Ten years later, Francisco Pizarro marched straight into the jaws of the equally fierce Inca Kingdom in the Andean highlands. He had no more than 168 men under his command, yet in short order he brought the Incas to their knees and gained control of the region.

And these two civilizations were not only defeated. They disintegrated and disappeared and were never able to reconstitute themselves. They left behind little more than a scattering of temples, pyramids, stone sculptures, and fragmentary histories of their former glory and achievements. And this happened everywhere the Europeans went. Their victories over the New World kingdoms were swift and decisive, and within the space of a few decades they had taken the core areas of the hemisphere from top to bottom. Those native people who managed to survive had become either slaves or fugitives in their own land, and the history of the New World had been altered drastically and irrevocably.

How did this happen?

The traditional narrative of the Conquest weaves together several causal threads. First, the story goes, in Mesoamerica the Mexica thought the Spaniards were gods and were paralyzed with fear and unable to think or act rationally. Montezuma, the Mexica emperor, believed Cortes to be the god Quetzal-coatl, the Plumed Serpent, who was returning from the east to reclaim his throne, as had been foretold, and he was seized with panic. "He felt his empire melting away like a morning mist," in the words of Prescott.

Another ingredient revolves around the nature of the New World empires: while they appeared to be mighty and substantial, they were in fact very fragile, for they depended on relentless exploitation of their subjects. The Mexica, we are told, enslaved their neighbors, exacted onerous tribute from them, and took them captive for ritual sacrifice. In short, they were brutal tyrants who were hated throughout the region. Cortes quickly picked up on these divisions and skillfully exploited them. He enlisted the Mexica's disaffected neighbors as allies, and the combined Spanish-Indian force overwhelmed the already panic-stricken Mexica. His advisor and interpreter (and mistress) in much of this venture was the Indian maiden Malinali (generally referred to as La Malinche in Mexico, where the word malinchista has come to mean "traitor").

A third element of the traditional story paints the Spaniards as hardened, pragmatic soldiers experienced in the art of warfare, while the Indians viewed warfare as a ritual to be fought according to strict, and greatly limiting, rules of engagement. The Spaniards, in the Indians' eyes, broke all the rules and dove in relentlessly for the kill. Beyond this, the Spaniards greatly outclassed the Indians with their superior military technology: "steel swords versus obsidian-edged...

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