The growing push to remove monuments to the Confederacy has metastasized to statues of Christopher Columbus. Protesters in Richmond and Minneapolis toppled statues of the Genoa explorer, and a monument to him in Boston was beheaded. The beheading, in my view, was the most appropriate treatment his likeness could have received. As viceroy of Hispaniola, he regularly beheaded living human beings as a means of instilling discipline in the Indigenous peoples he and his men had subjugated. This may sound provocative, but it comports with a sober view of the history of the western hemisphere, and it points toward the conclusion that monuments to Columbus should come down right alongside statues of Lee, Jackson, and Davis.
It is the result of contrived history that Columbus is even memorialized in the United States at all. After all, he was an Italian and served at the behest of Spain. His colonization of Hispaniola began the establishment of New Spain, not British America. In fact, when England (the progenitor of the United States) first ventured into the game of empire-building, Spain was a bitter enemy of the Tudor crown. Only six decades after the American Founding did Columbus become incorporated into our national memory. Historian George Bancroft jerry-rigged Columbus’ voyage onto the American story in an effort to forge a romantic mythos of inevitable expansion. To remove him from our public spaces is not to desecrate a national hero.
Columbus should not, in fact, be considered a hero at all. Some men really were great builders who did terrible things–think Thomas Jefferson. But Columbus’ “principal legacy,” to borrow a concept from Yale University, consisted of unconscionable brutality. The only genocide as complete as the one Columbus perpetrated against the Taino people was the Roman empire’s exterminatory campaign against Dacia. When Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the island had hundreds of thousands of residents. When he was done with it, only a couple hundred Indigenous people were still alive. Historians increasingly believe that this genocide was not primarily the result of disease, though that possibility would hardly vitiate the evils of what happened. Instead, the Taino fell victim to massacres and overwork as enslaved laborers in mines and plantations.
Columbus ran his colony with an iron, merciless fist. Torture and mutilation of both Indigenous people and Spanish colonists were commonplace. He enslaved as many Taino as he could and worked them to death. His lurid crimes against an invaded civilization would be at home in any of history’s grimmest chapters. What came in the ensuing centuries was even bloodier. In the course of European colonization, between 15 million and 50 million Natives of the western hemisphere lost their lives. The “annihilation of American Indians,” as neuroscienstist Steven Pinker describes the genocide, was one of the ten bloodiest events in human history.
The man who coined the word “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, hoped to introduce a term that would never lose its horror. Columbus committed it, an undeniable historical fact, and his crimes should not be viewed more charitably than anything that happened in the 20th century. He was not part of the story of our country, and he does not deserve veneration in the form of public monuments. By all means, take the statues down.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.