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Rev. J. Mark Worth was a history teacher before becoming a pastor. He is Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth.
Christopher Columbus didn’t know where he was going when he left Spain in 1492. He thought he was going to the East Indies, which is modern Indonesia, or to other islands in that part of the world. Because he was lost, he incorrectly called the people he encountered “Indians.”
Columbus didn’t know where he was when he found land. He didn’t know where he had been when he got back to Spain. Although he made three more trips to the Caribbean islands, he died without ever knowing where he had been. On one of his journeys he landed on Cuba, and confidently declared that he had found Japan.
When I was a child, I was taught that Columbus, although he never saw North America, discovered the lands of the Western Hemisphere. Of course, the people who were already living here had discovered the Americas thousands of years before Columbus. Columbus’s “discovery” was important, however, because many more Europeans followed him in the years and centuries to come.
On his first voyage in 1492, Columbus and his men sailed on three small boats, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Recently a replica of the type of ship Columbus sailed, the Nao Santa Maria, visited Bucksport and was scheduled to visit Bangor as well, as part of the Maine Bicentennial celebration.
The ship never went to Bangor, and its visit in Bucksport was met with protests. Why? The answer lies in our growing understanding of Columbus and the impact of his four visits to this hemisphere.
Columbus was the first to establish a European colony in the Americas. In his search for gold, he and his men enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed the Arawak people of the islands. It was an uneven contest: the Arawaks had spears made of cane. The Spaniards had armor, swords, horses, and muskets. When the Arawaks were unable to defend themselves, they ran off to hide in the hills, where the Spaniards hunted them and killed them.
The King of Spain appointed Columbus governor of the ”Indies,” but later removed him because, even by Spanish standards, Columbus had been excessively cruel. In his popular biography “Christopher Columbus, Mariner,” historian Samuel Eliot Morrison said, “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
More and more Europeans followed after Columbus. The Europeans brought diseases with them, mostly by accident. These diseases — measles, smallpox, cholera and others — were previously unknown in the Americas. The Indigenous peoples had no natural immunity, and were wiped out in great numbers.
What Columbus did to the Arawaks on the Caribbean Islands, Hernan Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico. Francisco Pizarro did the same to the Incas in Peru. The English did it to the Native Americans of Virginia, and then the rest of North America. Indigenous nations, cultures and languages were destroyed, and their homelands were confiscated.
Maine no longer celebrates Columbus Day. In its place we have Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I welcome the change.
We should not be celebrating the arrival of Columbus because, although he was a courageous and skillful mariner, his arrival in this hemisphere was a disaster for the people living here. His ship, the Santa Maria, was not to blame. It was merely a tool. But frankly, Columbus and his men were essentially criminals.