There are two reasons I am voting Yes on Question 1 on March 2.
First, I think it’s time to face the truth about our history, a history whose cornerstones are built on white supremacy, exploitation, and 500 years of mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples. Second, I do not believe that as a community we should be honoring Christopher Columbus.
My grandfather, Louis Fatherson, sparked my interest in history. He read books about his favorite topic, American history, until he died one week shy of his 103rd birthday. He shared many of those books with me. Every Thursday night for more than ten years we had dinner and discussed- sometimes argued about- those he really loved. His excitement, his interest, his curiosity about the origins of this country were his legacy to me. Right now I am reading Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s 2018 These Truths: A History of the United States, and I am sorry I cannot talk to him about it. I think it’s a book he would have loved. Ironically, my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island as a six-year-old on October 12, 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America. Of course, Lepore points out, this land was neither discovered nor uninhabited, “in 1492, seventy-five million people lived in the Americas, north and south. The people of Cahokia, the biggest city in North America, on the Mississippi floodplains, had built giant plazas and earthen mounds, some bigger than the Egyptian pyramids. In about 1000 AD, before Cahokia was abandoned, more than ten thousand people lived there.” Lepore states that while historians typically focus on 1492 as the chronological starting point in our nation’s history, “the origins of the United States date to 1492 for another, more troubling reason: the nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest, and slaughter.” Indeed.
Lepore goes on to say of Hispaniola, “there were about three million people on that island when Columbus landed; fifty years later there were only 500.” Lepore is one of the many scholars and academicians who agree with the view long held by Indigenous Peoples that Columbus was the progenitor of slavery, expropriation, forced assimilation, erasure and dispossession. The Reverend John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, is another. In 2019 he explained why he was covering up Notre Dame’s famous murals depicting the relationship between Columbus and the Indigenous Peoples he encountered: “whatever else Columbus’ arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions. The murals’ depiction of Columbus as beneficent explorer and friend of the native peoples hides from view the darker side of this story, a side we must acknowledge.” While some scholars, such as Stanford professor Carol Delaney, have promoted the idea that Columbus was a benevolent explorer motivated by religious fervor, primary sources reveal a complicated man who was a skilled navigator, a poor administrator, an entrepreneur driven by ambition and greed, and a harsh driver of men who exacted tribute, forced Indigenous people into bondage and sent hundreds to the slave markets in Seville. Dr. Delaney herself references incidents that speak to some of the horrors for which Columbus was one such incident- a kidnapping and rape too graphic to include here- can be found in a letter written in 1495 by Michele De Cuneo, a lieutenant and friend of Columbus. The letter begins with direct responsibility, “while I was in the boat I laid my hands on a gorgeous Cannibal woman whom the lord admiral granted me.” In the same letter, De Cuneo describes the February 1495 capture of 1600 natives, 550 of whom were loaded onto a ship and sent to Spain to be sold as slaves; “regarding the rest, it was declared that whoever wanted some of them could take them as he wished, and so it was.” It is no surprise that Indigenous people in Massachusetts and across the country find the celebration of this man’s life and legacy to be grievously offensive, as should we all.
These truths- about our racist past, about European colonization and domination of Indigenous Peoples throughout the Americas, about Christopher Columbus- are truths we must confront in order to begin the process of healing. While my grandfather and I frequently disagreed during those Thursday night dinners, I am quite certain he would have agreed on the need to truthfully confront our past. Here are half a dozen books that give an honest picture of Christopher Columbus, his legacy, and the historical imperatives he represents.
Investigate on your own via the following books:
Christopher Columbus and the Enterprise of the Indies. Symcox and Sullivan. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2005.
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies 1st Edition by Bartolome de Las Casas (Au, Nigel Griffin (Translator), Anthony Pagden (Introduction) Digireads. 2019.
The Life of Admiral Christopher Columbus: by his Son Ferdinand. Ferdinand Columbus. Rutgers University Press. 1992.
Columbus: The Four Voyages 1492-1504. Bergreen, Laurence. Penguin. 2011.
The Conquest of America. Todorov. Harper & Row. 1984.
All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans by Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker. Beacon. 2016.
- G. Hurray