In most countries in the Americas, today used to be some version of “Columbus Day” because it was the date in 1492 that Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on the Pinta in Columbus’ flotilla, sighted land in the New World. Now, in almost of all of Latin America, and a few cities in the U.S. the name of the day has been changed to reflect the cultural realities of the arrival of Columbus in the New World. The negative view of Columbus has several strands. First, it is now obvious that his arrival was not good news for the indigenous populations which were enslaved and/or killed wholesale. Second, it is abundantly clear nowadays that Columbus was not some dreamy eyed-adventurer, but a cold, calculating profiteer.
Though Christopher Columbus came to be considered the “discoverer of America” in U.S. and European popular culture, his true historical legacy is more nuanced. America was first discovered by its indigenous population, and Columbus was not even the first European to reach its shores as he was preceded by the Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows. But the lasting significance of Columbus’ voyages outshone that of his Viking predecessors, because he managed to bring word of the continent back to Europe. By bringing the continent to the forefront of Western attention, Columbus initiated the enduring relationship between the Earth’s two major landmasses and their inhabitants. It was not that Columbus was the first, but he was the first to stay.
Historians have traditionally argued that Columbus remained convinced to the very end that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia, but recently they have started to question this view. His journals from the third voyage call the “land of Paria” a “hitherto unknown continent.” On the other hand, his other writings continued to claim that he had reached Asia, such as a 1502 letter to Pope Alexander VI where he asserted that Cuba was the east coast of Asia. He also rationalized that the new continent of South America was the “Earthly Paradise” that was located “at the end of the Orient”.
Columbus is often attributed with refuting a prevalent belief in a flat Earth. However, this legacy is a popular misconception. To the contrary, the spherical shape of the earth had been known to scholars since antiquity, and was common knowledge among sailors. Coincidentally, the oldest surviving globe of the earth, the Erdapfel, was made in 1492 just before Columbus’ return to Europe. As such it contains no sign of the Americas and yet demonstrates the common belief in a spherical Earth.
The scholar Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed to America in the years following Columbus’ first voyage, was the first to actively speculate that the land was not part of Asia but in fact constituted some wholly new continent previously unknown to Eurasians. His travel journals, published 1502–04, convinced German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to reach the same conclusion, and in 1507—a year after Columbus’ death—Waldseemüller published a world map calling the new continent America from Vespucci’s Latinized name “Americus”. According to Paul Lunde, “The preoccupation of European courts with the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the East partly explains their relative lack of interest in Columbus’ discoveries in the West.”
Historically, the British had downplayed Columbus and emphasized the role of the Venetian John Cabot as a pioneer explorer, but for the emerging United States, Cabot made for a poor national hero. Veneration of Columbus in America dates back to colonial times. The name Columbia for “America” first appeared in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament. The use of Columbus as a founding figure of New World nations and the use of the word “Columbia”, or simply the name “Columbus”, spread rapidly after the American Revolution. Columbus’ name was given to the federal capital of the United States (District of Columbia), the capital cities of two U.S. states (Ohio and South Carolina), and the Columbia River. Outside the United States the name was used in 1819 for the Gran Colombia, a precursor of the modern Republic of Colombia. Numerous cities, towns, counties, streets, and plazas (called Plaza Colón or Plaza de Colón throughout Latin America and Spain) have been named after him. A candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church in 1866, celebration of Columbus’ legacy perhaps reached a zenith in 1892 with the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus like the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and Columbus Circle in New York City were erected throughout the United States and Latin America extolling him.
More recent views of Columbus have tended to be much more critical. The combined effects of Columbus’ forced labor regime, war, and slaughter resulted in the near-total eradication (98%) of the native Taino of Hispaniola. De las Casas records that when he first came to Hispaniola in 1508, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….” The native Taino people of the island were systematically enslaved via the encomienda system implemented by Columbus, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe.
Disease played a significant role in the destruction of the natives; however there is no record of any massive smallpox epidemic in the Antilles until 25 years after the arrival of Columbus; rather, the natives’ numbers declined due to extreme overwork, other diseases, and a loss of will to live after the destruction of their culture by the invaders. When the first pandemic finally struck in 1519 it wiped out much of the remaining native population. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than five hundred Taino were left on the island.
Columbus’ treatment of the Hispaniola natives was even worse; his soldiers raped, killed, and enslaved with impunity at every landing. When Columbus fell ill in 1495, soldiers were reported to have gone on a rampage, slaughtering 50,000 natives. Upon his recovery, Columbus organized his troops’ efforts, forming a squadron of several hundred heavily armed men and more than twenty attack dogs. The men tore across the land, killing thousands of sick and unarmed natives. Soldiers would use their captives for sword practice, attempting to decapitate them or cut them in half with a single blow.
The historian Howard Zinn writes that Columbus spearheaded a massive slave trade; in 1495 his men captured in a single raid 1500 Arawak men, women, and children. When he shipped five hundred of the slaves to Spain, 40% died en route. Historian James W. Loewen asserts that “Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual… other nations rushed to emulate Columbus.” When slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus switched to a different system of forced labor: he ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to collect a specified amount (one hawk’s bell full) of gold powder every three months. Natives who brought the amount were given a copper token to hang around their necks, and those found without tokens had their hands amputated and were left to bleed to death.
The Arawaks attempted to fight back against Columbus’s men but lacked their armor, guns, swords, and horses. When taken prisoner, they were hanged or burned to death. Desperation led to mass suicides and infanticide among the natives. In just two years under Columbus’ governorship more than half of the 250,000 Arawaks in Haiti were dead. The main cause for the depopulation was disease followed by other causes such as warfare and harsh enslavement.
There is evidence that the men of the first voyage also brought syphilis from the New World to Europe. Many of the crew members who served on this voyage later joined the army of King Charles VIII in his invasion of Italy in 1495. After the victory, Charles’ largely mercenary army returned to their respective homes, thereby spreading “the Great Pox” across Europe and triggering the deaths of more than five million people.
Two years ago on this date I celebrated Día de la Raza in this blog. You can find the post here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/dia-de-la-raza/ Here is an excerpt:
The most common name for the date in Spanish is Día de la Raza. The day under this name was first celebrated in Argentina in 1917 (since changed to Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural), Venezuela and Colombia in 1921, Chile in 1922, and Mexico in 1928. The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Día de la Hispanidad, and in Venezuela until 2002, when it was changed to the Día de la Resistencia Indígena. In Uruguay it is called Día de las Américas. Originally conceived of as a celebration of Hispanic influence in the Americas, as evidenced by the complementary celebrations in Spain and Latin America, Día de la Raza has come to be seen by many nations and individuals in Latin America as a counter to Columbus Day; a celebration of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans to the Americas by indigenous peoples. In the U.S. Día de la Raza has served as a time of mobilization for pan-ethnic Hispano activists, particularly in the 1960s.
Argentina’s name, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural, attempts to be balanced, mirroring, in part the United Nations’ decision to name the day Spanish Language Day. This title still salutes the colonists over the indigenous peoples, but it downplays Columbus in favor of promoting a sense of multiculturalism. This passage is taken from a UNESCO site:
Las Naciones Unidas celebran el Día del idioma español. El objetivo es promocionar y apoyar aquellas iniciativas que promuevan el plurilingüismo y multiculturalismo así como crear conciencia entre los funcionarios, de la historia, la cultura, el desarrollo y el uso del español como idioma oficial. La decisión de celebrar los Días de los idiomas fue aprobada por el Departamento de Información Pública de las Naciones Unidas en la víspera del Día Internacional de la Lengua Materna, celebrado anualmente el 21 de febrero por iniciativa de la UNESCO. Esta es una oportunidad para poner de relieve la importancia del idioma español dentro de la organización para la consecución de sus objetivos y la difusión de su labor a un público más amplio.
So, although the U.N. specifically honors Spanish on this date, the underlying message is that every culture and every language should be celebrated.
There is no doubt that the cultigens of the New World – potatoes, tomatoes, squash, pole beans etc. – transformed world cuisine. None is more important to me than the chile pepper which now exists in hundreds of varieties. Chile peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BCE. The most recent research shows that chiles were domesticated more than 6000 years ago in Mexico, in the region that extends across southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca to southeastern Veracruz, and were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Mexico, Central and parts of South America.
Peru is still a center of diversification of chiles where varieties of all five domesticates were introduced, grown and consumed in pre-Colombian times. Bolivia is, however, where most diversity of wild Capsicum peppers are consumed. Bolivians distinguish two basic forms: ulupicas, species with small round fruits including C. eximium, C. cardenasii, C. eshbaughii, and C. caballeroi landraces; and arivivis with small elongated fruits including C. baccatum var. baccatum and C. chacoense varieties.
Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them (in the Caribbean), and called them “peppers” because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs. Upon their introduction into Europe, chiles were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. Christian monks experimented with the culinary potential of chile and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.
Chiles were cultivated around the globe after Columbus. Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chiles to Spain and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494. The spread of chiles to Asia was most likely a natural consequence of its introduction to Portuguese traders (Lisbon was a common port of call for Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas) who, aware of its trade value, would have likely promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes then dominated by Portuguese and Arab traders. It was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of 15th century. Today chiles are an integral part of many Asian cuisines.
The chile pepper features heavily in the cuisine of the Goan region of India, which was the site of a Portuguese colony (e.g., vindaloo, an Indian interpretation of a Portuguese dish). The name “vindaloo” is derived from the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’alhos, a dish of meat (usually pork) marinated in wine and garlic. The Portuguese dish was modified by the substitution of vinegar (usually palm vinegar) for the red wine and the addition of red Kashmiri chile peppers with additional spices to evolve into vindaloo. Nowadays, the Anglo-Indian version of a vindaloo is marinated in vinegar, sugar, fresh ginger, and spices overnight, then cooked with the addition of further spices.
I’m partial to vindaloo and used to make it all of the time. Since living in Argentina and China I have not been able to get all the necessary spices but here’s a decent recipe from memory. Spices can be varied according to taste. You do not have to overwhelm the dish with chiles, but it should be hot.
2 lbs fatty pork, cubed
16 dried Kashmiri chile peppers, stemmed and seeded
1 inch piece cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon white vinegar
salt to taste
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 onions, chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced, or more to taste
2 inch piece fresh ginger root, minced
2 green chile peppers, seeded and cut into strips
1/4 cup white vinegar
Put the paste ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend to a smooth paste. In a mixing bowl thoroughly mix the paste and pork, then place the mixture in a plastic bag, expel all the air, seal, and refrigerate overnight.
Next day heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté the onions until they are golden. Add the pork mixture and continue to sauté until the meat takes on color. Cover with water or light stock plus the vinegar and bring to a simmer. Add the garlic, ginger, and chiles and simmer partly covered for about an hour, or until the pork is tender. The sauce should reduce somewhat but still be plentiful.
Serve with plain boiled basmati rice, flat breads, and chutneys.