At Large  October 10, 2022  Rebecca Schiffman

What’s the Deal with Christopher Columbus Monuments?

Tony Webster | Wikimedia Commons

"The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol after a group led by American Indian Movement members tore it down in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 10, 2020." 

On October 12, 1492, Spanish ships waded into the Caribbean after a three-month-long journey. Led by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), these Europeans “discovered” the new world, kicking off centuries of exploration, exploitation, and colonization of the Americas. Today, there are hundreds of cities, statues, and monuments dedicated to Columbus, heralding him as an American hero, as well as a federal US holiday on the second Monday of every October to celebrate his achievements. 

However, as historians dig into the life of Christopher Columbus, the romanticized version of his heroism has fallen away, revealing a more bloodied past. This has resulted in a renewed conversation on the role that monuments play in American history. In Columbus’s case, it has meant the removal - sometimes by force - of monuments, as well as a rethinking of a national holiday to honor those he committed crimes against.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus, 1519, oil on canvas

A Brief History of Columbus and his Voyages

Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World in 1492. He subsequently made three more voyages back to the Americas, during which time he encountered, enslaved, and tortured Indigenous peoples. Calling the native inhabitants “Indians,” Columbus imposed extreme brutality in the form of violence and slavery. On his first day in the Bahamas, Columbus wrote in his journal that the native people would be “good servants” and would “become Christians very easily.” After that, things only got worse for the Indigenous people, whose lives were upended forever.

From the Bahamas, Columbus subsequently visited other nearby islands now known as Cuba, Haiti, and Hispaniola. Columbus declared himself governor and viceroy of the Indies, allowing his crew to force the Indigenous people into slavery and to convert to Christianity. The Europeans also brought over many diseases that have had long-term effects on the native people in the Americas.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Christopher Colombus map. Lisbon, workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Colombus, c.1490. This map cannot be definitely linked to Columbus

Not long after Columbus arrived did the native people began to revolt, which led to a crackdown with the use of force. On the island of Hispaniola, Columbus forced thousands of Taino people to be sold, and the rest were taken as prisoners, forced to search for gold in mines and work on plantations.

This behavior did not go unnoticed in Columbus’s time. In fact, the Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who joined the third voyage documented the atrocities committed by Columbus. Due to these crimes, Columbus was chained and shipped back to Spain, stripped of his titles, and imprisoned for several weeks.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Frances Benjamin Johnson, Discovery of America statue on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building

So why did Americans come to revere Columbus as a national symbol while blurring over his disgraces?

Initially, Columbus seemed like a positive figure to American revolutionaries who hoped to establish a distinctly American identity and mythology. Here was a man who defied all odds and discovered America, and isn’t that the American dream itself?

The opposition to honoring Columbus began as early as 1550 with the Vallodolid debate, where Europeans discussed the morality of colonization. Nevertheless, by 1892, the US had dedicated 28 monuments to Columbus, as an American hero, and that number has only grown since.

In 1893, during the US’s first worlds fair, African Americans began to raise questions about memorializing a man who remind many of the genocide, rape, and displacement of Native Americans. By the 1970s, activists called to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, to mark the persecution and contributions of those who inhabited the Americas long before Columbus’s arrival. The first Indigenous People’s Day was celebrated in Berkeley, CA in 1992.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Columbus Monument, Columbus Circle, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA.

There are more than 6,000 towns and cities in the US named after Columbus, and as of 2021, there were 149 public monuments to him in the US according to the non-profit organization, Monument Lab. But in more recent years, the public has become increasingly outspoken about their distaste for Columbus’s veneration as a hero. Since the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, and following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more African Americans, there has been a renewal of discussions about the roles of monuments and commemoration.

Many Columbus monuments have been removed by force, and others have been removed by the government in cities they were erected in. In Baltimore, a statue was torn down and dumped into the harbor. In Boston, a statue was beheaded, while in Houston a statue had its hands cut off, referring to Columbus’s treatment of the Taíno people. 

What, then, should be done with these statues? While the answer is complicated and complex, it is clear that a re-contextualization in historical education is needed to tell the real story of Christopher Columbus, flaws and all.

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