Slavery, disease, death: the dark side of the Christopher Columbus story

On Monday, the United States will observe Columbus Day, schools and banks closing and parades marching in honor of the man who, as we all learned in school, discovered America in 1492.

And according to The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman, Columbus Day is a dangerous farce.

Inman contends in his current strip on The Oatmeal, a humor/political commentary website, that the legends we believe about Columbus are not only misleading but grossly unfair. He cites primary sources and journals recounted in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and James Lowewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” to dispel the traditional narrative of Columbus as brave traveler who connected the Old World and the New.

Here are a few of The Oatmeal’s conclusions about Christopher Columbus:

• In 1492, no one actually thought the earth was flat. “Pretty much anyone with an education knew the earth was round. The Greeks had proved it 2,000 years before Columbus was born.”

Columbus didn’t actually “discover” the New World. Not only were there natives living in the Americas for 14,000 years, Leif Ericson found the same territory 500 years before Columbus.

Columbus wanted gold, and lots of it. His initial ideas for a new trade route to Asia fell by the wayside as he realized how much gold was available in the New World.

The natives would provide little resistance. According to his own journal, Columbus believed the indigenous Lucayans would not be a significant challenge. “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men,” he wrote, “and govern them as I pleased.”

For his second visit, Columbus armed for war. When Columbus returned to the New World, he brought 17 ships and 1,500 men.

Columbus treated the natives brutally. Columbus demanded treasure, food and sex for his men, and when the Lucayans refused, he ordered their noses and ears cut off to serve as a warning.

• Columbus treated his conquered people harshly. When the Lucayans rebelled, Columbus crushed the rebellion and carted off 500 Lucayans to be sold into slavery in Europe.

• Columbus disrupted the entire economy of three continents. Post-Columbian disease and starvation killed three to five million people over the next fifty years. And the influx of gold disrupted the global economy to the point that African slaves became a dominant commodity.

In short, The Oatmeal contends, Columbus “discovered the New World much like a meteorite discovered the dinosaurs,” and yet is still honored with a federal holiday. Making the point impossible to miss: “The father of the transatlantic slave trade is honored on the same level as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.”

As a replacement, The Oatmeal suggests Bartolome de los Casas, a wealthy plantation owner who sold off his holdings, freed his slaves, turned to the priesthood, and fought for the dignity of native Americans.

In other words, The Oatmeal suggests, Columbus Day might be worth celebrating if it were named for someone else.

For the complete Oatmeal strip, click here.

Contact Jay Busbee at or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.