The activist class, not satisfied with removing Confederate memorials, is now coming for Christopher Columbus. The Italian explorer, who never set foot on American soil, became enmeshed in our historical legacy thanks to national outreach to the once reviled Italian American diaspora.
In contrast, many Confederate memorials were actually erected half a century or more after the Civil War, as part of an overtly racist movement specifically against recognizing or honoring the rights of black Americans. Columbus was elevated as a means of integrating and accepting into American society a large and discriminated-against immigrant group.
But let's not delude ourselves by pretending Columbus was a good or praiseworthy man. Yes, he might have been courageous to set out on such an uncertain journey, but even by his own contemporary standards, Columbus was uniquely cruel and probably criminal.
The enslavement of conquered peoples was nothing unusual in the Old World, regardless of who those people were or even the color of their skin. Even so, under most conventions of Columbus's time, religious conversion was seen as an alternative for conquered peoples. Notably, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who dispatched Columbus to the New World, specifically instructed him to "abstain from doing" harm to the natives he encountered.
Columbus did not heed this command. Instead, he established a proto-encomienda system rife with forced labor and rape. Whereas many other European explorers tried to work with natives or focused on converting them to Catholicism, Columbus immediately planned how he'd make the native Taino people "good servants" when he first encountered them in 1492. He made thousands of them servants, mutilating slaves and either gifting or selling women and girls into sexual slavery. The rumors of Columbus's offenses against the natives, including torture, were so obscene that Ferdinand and Isabella ordered Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate his behavior in Hispanola.
By the authority of the crown, Bobadilla imprisoned the Columbus brothers until they were sent back to Spain in chains. Even though Ferdinand and Isabella eventually permitted and funded his fourth and final voyage due to the political expediency of their expansion, they replaced him as governor.
The fact of Columbus's vices need not be taken as a commentary on the European settlement in or colonization of the New World. Some of the most zealous missionaries and enthusiastic explorers actively resisted slavery and violence against the natives. Contrary to our contemporary revisionism, not all explorers were violent colonists seeking to destroy pacific native lands and peoples. The primary goals of most explorers involved religious conversions, expansion to prevent other European nations from seizing strategically located territory, and the discovery of nonviolent ways of enriching themselves with new trade routes and resources.
But Columbus did what he did. It was recognized as evil — not by our standards, but by those of his own time. We can debate the merits of erasing statues and holidays instituted to ameliorate racism, but let's not whitewash Columbus's crimes.