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On Columbus Day, Correcting Columbus’ Legacy

by Mark Anthony Rolo

On Monday, Oct. 13, schoolteachers across the nation should find the courage to speak the truth about the man who sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

Trying to explain to youngsters how this country came to be is surely no easy task.

How can you sugarcoat telling a fourth-grader that Columbus did not "discover" the "new" world - that he more accurately opened the door to conquering it?

How do you explain to a fifth-grader that the only measurable blood spilled in Columbus' encounter was that of indigenous Caribbean islanders?

Can you even use the word "genocide" in a sixth-grade classroom?

There was a time in this country once when celebrating the feats of Columbus and his successors was less complicated. Only a generation ago, students did not learn the full extent of Columbus' impact on the peoples who inhabited this continent.

But let's set the historical record straight.

Hundreds of thousands of indigenous Taino Indians were raped, murdered, and forced into brutal slavery as a result of Columbus' conquest. Much of the Taino population fell to new diseases such as smallpox. Extinction is all that remains of the Taino today.

Those who like to honor Columbus would have us believe that bringing up the darker side of the explorer is an attempt to blow the man's memory off course.

But these facts of genocide and land theft are not part of a revisionist, false history. In his own words spelled, out in his personal diary, Columbus acknowledged his scheme to subjugate the Taino Indians: "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased."

Columbus' men rounded up 1,500 people and selected 500 as slaves to be shipped off to Spain. Two hundred died en route. This did not deter Columbus, who, according to historian Howard Zinn, later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

Some defenders of Columbus fall back on the rationale that he was just a man of his time, with the prejudices that prevailed. But one of Columbus' own contemporaries, Bartoleme de las Casas, a Spanish colonist turned priest, spent his last years trying to wash the indigenous blood from his hands by calling for an end to the slave trade.

This year many teachers may stress tolerance of opposing views as they try to bring a broader and more balanced view of Columbus' legacy into the classroom. But a lesson plan on tolerance won't do.

Putting an end to the hero worship of Columbus begins with telling the truth: Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 not to explore, but to conquer with domination, brutality and - yes - genocide.

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