Teaching Columbus to Kids

Every person who’s worked in a place with a copy room knows that it can, at times, turn into a wasteland of forgotten originals left behind on the glass.  Any curious person who’s worked in a place with a copy room knows that these originals can make for great reading material while you’re waiting for your own copies.  This was the case last October, when I noticed, in a pile of fall-themed reading activities, a Reader’s Theater script entitled “Columbus Day.”

John Vanderlyn - Landing of Columbus

John Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus (1846). Commissioned for the United States’ Capitol Rotunda.

Oh, Columbus Day.  I love a day off and a good mattress sale as much as the next girl, but this one still kind of shocks me.  Yes, Columbus was an explorer, and his arrival in the Americas was an event that ranks among the most important in human history.  He is also responsible for the genocide of the Arawak people in the Caribbean.  I do not mean this in the sense that, as a result of Columbus landing in the Americas, other Europeans also came and in time the Arawaks died off.  I mean it in the sense that he personally put into effect cruel and devastating practices that resulted in the decimation of the Arawaks.  Bartolomé de las Casas, a sixteenth-century friar who arrived in the Caribbean in 1508, wrote, “… our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy… The admiral [Columbus], it is true, was as blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians…” (79).

Columbus set nearly impossible quotas for gold collection that, if left unmet, were punished with amputations.  Hundreds were sent to Spain as slaves.  Those who attempted to flee were hunted down and killed by hanging or burning.  “The [Arawak] husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides… they ceased to procreate.  As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months.  Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation… In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk… and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile… was depopulated… My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write…” (110).

More detailed accounts by las Casas tell of mass suicides by the Indians, beheadings, and “cutting off slices of them to test the sharpness of their blades.”  In total, las Casas writes, “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” (154).

Of course, it’s never fair to hold someone from the fifteenth century to the standards of human rights that we have today.  However, it should be noted that his governance of the island was so bad that he was called back to Spain by Ferdinand and Isabel to stand trial and was eventually stripped of his position as governor.  Mind you, these were the monarchs who expelled tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims from Spain, forced the conversion of those who remained, and introduced the Inquisition to the kingdom.  You have to enslave, maim and kill an awful lot of people to shock these guys.

The reputation of Columbus’s actions in the Caribbean was notorious enough that when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, it was with the understanding that the same disaster must not be repeated in the new colony.  Cortés was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Mexica Indians, and to this day he is considered more villain than heroic explorer.  Only a few statues of him have ever been erected in Mexico, and in the face of public outcry, all were removed or relocated to more remote locations.  Columbus, on the other hand, has a holiday.

Some places, however, have done away with or altered the tradition.  Alaska, for example, does not observe Columbus Day.  South Dakota has replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day, and a bill was proposed in California last January to do the same.  Hawaii celebrates Discoverer’s Day, which honors the discovery of Hawaii by the Polynesians.  In Spain, El Día de la hispanidad (Hispanic Day) is celebrated on October 12th.  This year, Seattle re-named the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  In various Latin American countries, El día de la raza (The Day of the Race) commemorates the blending of cultures in the region: European, Native American, African and Asian.  And on a more local level, Latino and Native American communities throughout the U.S. celebrate indigenous cultures with holidays of these or similar names.  These alternatives are not without controversy, as many Italian-Americans consider Columbus Day to be a time to celebrate the contributions of Italians in history (especially in the face of persecution in the 19th century).

I realize that the debate on Columbus Day is not a new one.  However, when even the name of the holiday is so contentious among adults, the issue of how to teach about Columbus to children is even more complicated.

Back to the Reader’s Theater script.  It has rhymes.  It has parrots.  It has a cameo by Marco Polo.  It’s upbeat and encouraging, telling kids not to give up and to believe in themselves when they think they are right.  And to its credit, it touches on the problematic bits by vaguely mentioning that upon a return trip to the Indies, “all he found was trouble.” The chorus sings, “Angry natives, stormy seas, greedy sailors and disease.”  Finally, he returns to Spain for the last time, “no longer a hero.”  The play concludes by saying that today he’s famous, and we can learn about courage from his example.  Content-wise, it’s probably appropriate for the elementary class where I’m assuming it would be presented.  Lessons about punitive amputations, infanticide and suicide are probably frowned upon at that age.  And I’ve seen other Columbus Day readings that do nothing but praise the man and, in most cases, conveniently end with the sighting of land on the horizon.  This reading, while a little sugary-sweet, could be worse.

However, I’m not sure I understand the moral of the story here.  If I, as a third-grader, am to believe that Columbus did everything right, then what are these “troubles,” and why did he have them?  The recurring theme throughout the play is “He didn’t give up, when others might.  He believed in himself when he thought he was right.”  Well, even the most notorious and undebatably evil people in history were only able to attain their accomplishments through some fortitude, creativity and rejection of the naysayers.  Take Stalin, for example.  He did dramatically reduce the unemployment rate in the USSR (of course, if there are fewer people surviving, there are fewer people out of work).  And no one probably “believed in himself” more than Jim Jones, leader of the cult in Jonestown where over 900 people were killed or coerced into suicide.  I’m obviously exaggerating, but it’s worth considering: at what point does the harm you’ve done in life outweigh what I can’t even say is the good, but simply the historically significant?  As las Casas wrote, “Future generations ought to be able to distinguish between good and evil, between virtue and most abominable vices” (10).

I am not sure what the solution is, in terms of teaching Columbus Day to elementary age children.  While much of the material is not appropriate at that age or reading level, it seems strange to elevate a historical figure to hero status when in junior high these students will encounter a truth that is not only complex, but viewed by many to be quite to the contrary of what they have been told.  As someone who does not teach children that young, I do not envy that task.

The challenge might be easier if, from the outset, children were taught that the day was devoted to the blending of cultures, and not to revere the man Columbus himself.  I think those who celebrate El día de la raza are onto something by recognizing the importance of 1492 and celebrating the beauty of the blending of cultures in the centuries following.  While I might be taking things a little too seriously, such a holiday presents a unique and convenient opportunity to continue teaching a historical event resituated in the perspective of what it has brought about, both good and bad.


de las Casas, Bartolomé.  History of the Indies.  New York: Harper & Row, 1971.  Print.

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