By Larissa Hosein
On October 14th, we celebrated the First People’s Heritage Day and trust me when I
say that one day is not enough to honour the resilience of our indigenous community. The very fact that they even had to ask for this day highlights a level of apathy towards their historical experience that is very concerning.
It shows that maybe we still do not fully comprehend the magnitude of the horrors
that they went through during the Columbus regime- that we need to redefine our past and thus our perception of Christopher Columbus as he is somehow still being honoured to this day. I know you may be asking why is this important but bear with me, we’ll get to it. So, let us dust off all the sugary coating that they like to feed us about Columbus and the Indigenous experience and take a better look at this defining part of our past.
Dr. Kwame Nantambu stated that “the legacy of Christopher Columbus is one of the
staunch pillars of European supremacy and the deliberate misinterpretation, hypocrisy and falsification of world history.” As 2020 marks the 528th anniversary of
the demise of the Indigenous civilization Columbus’ legacy in the Caribbean, it’s important to discuss those discrepancies that Dr. Nantambu highlighted and stop romanticizing Columbus’ voyages as anything other than the chaotic and debilitating pillages that forever changed the course of history.
The misinterpretation and falsification of events throughout Columbus’ voyages are
two very lethal combinations that would forever haunt the indigenous community. Columbus observed the Indigenous population through an imperialist lens that led to the othering of an entire race.
He could not understand that they had their own beliefs, customs and general way of
life that was inherently different to European standards. Thus, in his journals and letters he crafted the narrative that they were cannibalistic savages in need of divine intervention and because the first people could not prove otherwise due to language and cultural barriers, they were rendered mute to the mutilation of their humanity.
According to Paul Heike et. al, “in Columbus’ description of the new world, there is
a clear dichotomy of us (Europeans) vs them (indigenous population) where both groups are portrayed as fundamentally and irreconcilably different from each other which created an extreme polarization.” This polarization gave Columbus the justification he needed to enslave and torture the Indigenous population. Thus began his genocidal legacy.
Furthermore, one cannot ignore the hypocrisy that eclipses Columbus’ legacy. It’s
ironic that in the pursuit of saving the souls of the Indigenous from eternal damnation- hence
the ‘God’ in his motto, Columbus damned them to a life of hell on earth.
In fact, Columbus and his men were responsible for torturing, raping, killing and
enslaving the indigenous communities they came across. According to William Bigelow, “if he needed guides or translators, he kidnapped them. If his men wanted women, he captured sex slaves. If the indigenous people resisted, he countered with vicious dogs, hangings and mutilations.”
According to rough estimations, in the first two years of Columbus’ regime, perhaps a
quarter of a million people died, and we may never know the true figure because of the limited authentic documentation on the First People. It was a dire situation for the indigenous people as they either contracted smallpox which was introduced by the Europeans, died of exertion due to forced labour, killed either by torture or hanging and for the ‘fortunate’ ones, by suicide. We are left with nought but Columbus’ journals and letters which were already established as a colonialist interpretation that left the Indigenous as subjects of hegemonic discourse. Tell me, what part of any of that was Godly?
One thing for certain is that the famous slogan that accompanies the voyages of
Christopher Columbus- Gold, God and Glory could easily be transformed into Genocide, Greed and Grief. A slogan that would create a new narrative. A narrative that is accurate. The one that should be taught in schools and understood by all who in some shape or form is depending on an accurate account to root their identity.
Now that we have lightly scraped the surface of Columbus’ reign of terror on the
Indigenous community let us discuss the importance of revisiting and redefining these key moments in history. You may be wondering, why not just go along with the excuse that everything happens as it’s supposed to, that we would not have been here today if those events in history did not take place?
Well, these one-sided narratives have been detrimental to us as a society. It has
allowed those who have benefited from these colonial legacies to leave their privilege unchecked.
It has allowed for the continued persecution of historically wronged groups. When history does not acknowledge the extent to which these groups have been wronged and instead choose to praise and justify the perpetrator’s role, it will inevitably repeat itself. There is no accountability for the gross human rights that occurred right after Columbus first lost his way and stumbled into our hemisphere.
Moreover, the continued domination of historical narratives have numbed us as a
society to not only the plight of our ancestors, but it allows us to turn a blind eye when the same problems occur albeit in different forms in the modern world. You only have to look at the news- which is another instrument whose narrative is being tightly controlled- to see that after 528 years, the fundamental wrongs of the past continue to persist into the 21st century.
Thus, we have to redefine our perception of these so called historical figures – not
cancel, not forget- but redefine so that the next generation is not fed some sugar coated story but instead we can learn to acknowledge their role in history without praising them or making them out to be the hero so that we do not disrespect the victims of their abominable legacies. Acknowledgement is the first step in redefining our past and breaking the chains of the imperialist stronghold that chokes our historical narrative and by reading this article, you have already taken that first step. Moving forward, I hope that we can all properly honour our Indigenous ancestors and the legacies they left behind so that we can exist in a society that praises truth and rejects the notions of hypocrisy and injustice.