in order to prevent arguments on Columbus Day
The 12th of October comes, and with it the arguments about the historical significance of this holiday, known as Columbus Day, or Día de la Hispanidad or Día de la Raza in Spanish-speaking countries.
Long story short, this holiday celebrates the following: on October 12th, 1492, Christopher Columbus’ expedition reaches the Americas for the first time, marking the beginning of the Spanish (and european) colonisation of the Americas. As part of the conquest, most of the native population was enslaved through the encomienda system, and they were forced to abandon their religion and other parts of their culture. It started the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population of the Americas.
Since this is not very nice, some people are not confortable with celebrating this holiday.
I’m going to make some remarks on some of the arguments that can be heard these days to justify the holiday:
- The conquest of the Americas was not, technically speaking, a genocide. The conquerors didn’t intend to make the native peoples disappear (this is the meaning of genocide), rather they wanted them to continue existing, because they wanted them as slaves. Yet, this doesn’t make the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population more palatable.
- Most of the native deaths were due to smallpox and other diseases that the european brought. This is true, since the natives weren’t immune to these new diseases. Still, this doesn’t make any more acceptable the deaths that did happen due to the crude conditions of the slave work the natives were forced to make, and still doesn’t justify the forced acculturation of most of the native population.
- Native cultures had horrifying traditions, like cannibalism and human sacrifice. But this doesn’t justify the Spanish conquerors in being equally brute, and it doesn’t justify the persecussion of other non-violent native traditions.
- Some natives fought together with the Spanish to bring down brutal empires such as the Aztecs. These proves that the conquerors didn’t simply took over the native states, but took advantage of their internal tensions. Still, that some natives seemingly welcomed the conquerors, doesn’t justify the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population.
- Some thinkers, such as Bartolomé de las Casas and others from the School of Salamanca denounced the brutality of the conquest. It is nice to hear that some people had the same moral standarts as us. But this means that we cannot just justify the events away by saying that it was “a different time in history”: even under some of the contemporary standarts, the conquest was terrible. And of course it doesn’t justify the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population.
- Even the Spanish monarchy made an effort to prevent mistreatment, and, influenced by the School of Salamanca, declared that the natives has equal rights. This is great, but wasn’t really put into practice and didn’t stop the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population.
- It is sometimes claimed that the English colonisation was even worse. The effects are easily seen: In some parts of Latin America, most of the population is native or mixed-race, while in English America, natives are a minority and there are less mixed-race people. Still, that the English were (supposedly) worse doesn’t justify the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population.
- The first european-american contact is sometimes celebrated because of the mestizo culture it brought. But we can’t really judge if the culture would had been better or worse if the colonisation had been different, with peaceful commerce, peaceful migration and peaceful cultural exchange. This is a broken window fallacy. And of course it doesn’t justify the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population.
In short, I don’t think we need excuses for the massive enslavement and forced acculturation of most of the native population of the Americas.
This is a date that changed History. I think it makes sense that it is celebrated in all the Spanish speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, as well as in other countries in the Americas. But always bearing in mind all the good things and bad things that it brought, accepting them all, instead of trying to justify them.