Some Columbus Day context

TRIGGER WARNING for images toward the end of the post that show hangings, violence to children, and people being burned alive.

Today in the US it is Columbus Day, a federal holiday celebrating the explorer from Genoa who “discovered” the Americas for Spain in the late 15th century.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus. He is wearing a black hat and big black robes. He is sitting with one hand across his body.

Christopher Columbus

Here is the extent of what most people in the US learn about Columbus: he discovered the New World for Spain in 1492.

But why 1492? Some context.

In 1469, Isabella of Castille married Ferdinand of Aragon.

A portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella. He is on the left. They are facing each other but not looking at each other. Most of the canvas is actually not painted.

Ferdinand and Isabella

In marriage, they combined the two powerful Christian kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, which equalled most of modern-day Spain:

A map of the the kingdom of Castille and the kingdom of Aragon, as well as the kingdom of Granada during the 15th century.

The Reconquista

This nearly completed the Reconquista: “a centuries-long period in the Middle Ages in which several Christian kingdoms succeeded in conquering the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic kingdoms.” The Reconquista, then, was a Christian (which, at that time, meant Catholic) effort.

To go along with the capturing of land, Ferdinand and Isabella declared that everyone living in their kingdom had to be Christian. And so, they launched the Inquisition against heretics, and expelled Jews and Muslims.

There was a final Muslim hold out, the kingdom of Granada:

A google map of Granada, the lower eastern section of Spain.


Muslims have a long history in the Iberian peninsula, as far back as the 8th century CE. By the 15th century, Granada was famous for its silk production and the region was brimming with highly-skilled tradesmen.

Ferdinand and Isabella waged a long, expensive war against Granada, eventually capturing it on January 2, 1492. The final breaking point came when the Muslims were forced to hand over Alhambra, the great fortress palace, built in the 10th century:

The palace of Alhambra in Granada


The palace of Alhambra in Granada. This image shows a beautiful pool inside the walls.


It was IN the palace of Alhambra on March 31, 1492, that Ferdinand and Isabella issued the decree that expelled Jews from Spain, one of the many major Jewish diasporas in history.

(Side note: Sephardic Jews  are Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century).

It was also just outside of Granada in the Spanish stronghold of Santa Fe that Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Capitulations of Santa Fe on April 17, 1492. This was their agreement to fund Christopher Columbus’ trip across the ocean.

He had asked Ferdinand and Isabella multiple times to back his voyage but as they were in the middle of a long war, they continually said no. With the capture of Granada and a major portion of Jews and Muslims cast out of their lands, the king and queen finally had a stable government over which to rule. And it was a government in need of money.

Believing foreign commerce, trade, and empire were keys to their future prosperity and deciding that the possible benefits in backing Columbus’ outweighed the overall monetary risk, they finally capitulated to his request. Columbus, as much as Ferdinand and Isabella, believed he was going to find them a quicker route to Asia, the richest part of the world at that time.

Instead, of course, he landed in the Americas, bringing ships and crosses and European diseases with him:

Image from early modern period - black and white engraving. Columbus meeting native people in the Americas for first time. He has flag and a cross. They have garments.

Columbus meeting native peoples in the Americas

Columbus returned to the Americas three more times over the next 12 years. He transported men and domesticated animals. He brought slaves to and from the Caribbean (native Caribbean people went to Europe, Africans were shipped to the Americas).

Bartoleme de las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, published a scathing picture of the “new world” under the leadership of Columbus and the Spaniards who followed him. The “Black Legend”, as de las Casas’ work was called, was published in the 16th century and it showed cruelty, greed, and un-Christian-like behavior in its worst forms. It was an incredibly popular work (and one which, instead of serving as a warning to other European empires, served as an excuse. “At least we aren’t as bad as Spain”).

In order to bring home the LEVEL of violence that de las Casas said he witnessed at the hands of other Spaniards, here are two images from the “Black Legend”:

A terrible image from the Black Legend. On the left, a man is swinging a baby around in order to hit its head against the wall of a house. On the right, a bunch of people are hung and being burned alive. In the background, Spaniards are beating people with sticks

Another terrible image from the Black Legend. On the right a woman is dead, hanging from a tree. On the left, Spaniards are feeding the fire of a building in which people are burning to death.

Along with these horrific acts of violence, the Europeans brought disease, which MORE THAN ANYTHING, wiped out probably 90% (NINETY PERCENT) of the native population in the Americas:

images of native people suffering from smallpox


For the United States of America to have a federal holiday in honor of that particular moment of “discovery” in 1492 is unconscionable on many levels.

To celebrate that moment is to celebrate the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

To cheer about Columbus is to cheer the coming of the first European slave trader to the Americas.

To praise what happened in 1492 is to implicitly praise the very real and very terrible results of that contact between peoples.

Columbus Day cannot be only about that man or that singular moment of discovery because nothing happens inside of a historical vacuum. Context matters. And the context of Columbus Day is horrific.


2 thoughts on “Some Columbus Day context

  1. Pingback: Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day Links | Flyover Feminism

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