What Celebrating Columbus Says About Us

“Allegory of the Discovery of America” — Jan van der Straet, ca. 1587

{On Friday, Joe Biden became the first president to commemorate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It also remains Columbus Day. A year ago, Mr. Biden’s predecessor — a man whose depth of historical knowledge was reflected when he said in his 2019 Independence day that the American Continental Army had “manned the air” it “took the airports” — had ridiculed the idea of celebrating Indigenous People and called Columbus and the men who journeyed with him “intrepid heroes,” whose legacy “radical activists have sought to undermine.” The following essay is intended to provide some historical context for that view.}

“In the name of Jesus and of His Glorious Mother Mary, from whom all blessings proceed,” begins a remarkable 1495 letter written by Michele de Cuneo, a nobleman from Savona who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Western Hemisphere. Both the actions that Cuneo and other men carried out in the islands they visited and the way in which they were still casually accepted in the early 1960s make plain what continuing to have a holiday celebrating Columbus says.Cuneo’s letter has received a good deal of attention in recent years, but the introduction to it written by Samuel Eliot Morison, one of the leading historians in the twentieth century America, has not.

In the letter, Cuneo matter-of-factly recounted episodes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, and rape that men under the command of Columbus carried out. “Eleven of our men formed themselves into a company for purposes of robbery,” he wrote. That objective was facilitated by the terrified indigenous people fleeing from the invaders: “they emptied their houses, into which we went and took whatever pleased us.”

The “discoverers” seized Carib people: “In that island we took twelve very beautiful and very fat women from 15 to 16 years old, together with two boys of the same age … and we sent them to Spain to the King, as a sample.”

At several points in the letter, Cuneo wrote in explanation of some good fortune that befell the expedition, “it pleased God that …” It is clear that the “blessings” that he said were proceeding from Jesus and Mary were less evident to the people on whom they were bestowed.

The best known and most startling episode Cuneo related is his capture of “a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me.” He took her into his cabin and, “she is naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure.” He wanted to put his “desire into execution, but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun.” But Cuneo was no quitter. “I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears.” All’s well that ends well for a rapist. “Finally we came to an agreement in such manner,” he boasts, “that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”

The prideful relation of a brutal sexual assault — what Donald Trump would dismiss as “just locker room talk” — is highly revelatory of the actions endorsed by Columbus and of the prevalent views of men in the late fifteenth century, which one hopes would be rejected today.

Statutes of Columbus and Morison in Boston.

At least as horrifying as the boastful account of a rape, though, is that in a 1963 limited edition collector’s volume he edited, Journals and other documents on the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus, Professor Morison described the perpetrator without a hint of disapproval.

The letter is valuable, Morison wrote, “for personal touches, incidents that nobody else related, and a lively account of fauna, flora and native manners and customs.” Capturing, beating, and raping a “sample” of the New World “fauna” doesn’t seem to have troubled the historian. Michele de Cuneo was, Morison wrote, a “cultured … Italian gentleman of the Renaissance, savoring life and adventure, full of scientific curiosity.” He was “a jolly dog” who liked to have “a good time, which he obviously did.”

A year after those words were published, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Samuel Eliot Morison the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It was, though, in that year of 1964 that both this sort of casual acceptance of horrible truths about the American past and the willful ignorance of them began to be replaced by an awareness on the part of a much larger slice of the American population of some of those facts.

Today, as part of an effort to reverse the progress made in the 1960s and “Take America Back,” a movement is underway again to impose on school curricula the sort of “guilt-free” mythology that prevailed when Morison wrote and call it “history.”

In a time when laws forcing women to carry and give birth to a rapist’s offspring and tens of millions of Americans voted for a man who bragged of sexual assault, we need to stop celebrating Columbus and his accomplices. “On this day,” as President Biden said, “we recognize this painful past.” That is the least we can do.

{Historian Robert S. McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College and is the author of ten books. His latest, The Times They Were a-Changin’ — 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn, will be published by Arcade next year.}

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Robert S. McElvaine

Robert S. McElvaine

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