In 1492, What Did Columbus
As plans get under way for 1992 to
mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas,
Native pleoples and others say there is nothing to celebrate.
This is the first article in a two-part series. The second part,
to appear in January 1991 issue, will explore the question of Christian
mission and how our understanding of its role has changed, particularly
in relation to Canada's native peoples.
The morning of October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus sets
foot on a small Caribbean isle called Guanahani, now one of the
"He falls on his knees, weeps, kisses the ground. He goes forward
staggering , for he has spent more than a month sleeping little
or not at all; he chops off some branches wih his sword.
"He then raises the flag. Kneeling down, eyes to the heavens,
he pronounces three times the names of Isabel and Ferdinand (the
queen and king of Spain). At his side, the scribe, Rodrigo de Escobedo,
a slow man with a pen, draws up the document.
"'From now on everything belongs to these distant monarchs
- the coral sea, the sands, the moss green rocks, the forests, the
parrots, and these bronze-skinned people who still don't know about
clothes, guns nor money and (who) watch the scene in a state of
(From Memories of Fire by Eduardo Galeano)
With these words and gestures, the native peoples of the Caribbean
region and the lands they had inhabited for thousands of years suddenly
became the exclusive property of the King and Queen of Spain. Thus
began the "discovery" of the Americas.
In Columbus' time, the papacy exercised tremendous authority over
the various European monarchs. With papal permission, King Ferdinand
and Queen Isabella authorized Columbus to sail to India and bring
back spices that would bolster Spain's imperial economy. By an accident
of history, he stumbled upon the Americas, where he "discovered"
native peoples and gold.
Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean was a pivotal, historic event
marking the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas.
At that time, other European monarchs were also interested in expanding
their influence and acquiring natural resources from distant lands.
The Portuguese explorer, Cabral, landed on the coast of Brazil in
1494. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, the British and the
French colonized the United States; and in Canada, the British and
the French began a long struggle for colonial control.
In 1992, more than 20 countries throughout the world will be celebrating
the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing. There are plans to spend
billions of dollars. Countries in Europe and Central and South America
will be the major participants in the anniversary celebrations.
But other nations, such as Israel, Japan, and the United States,
will also play a role. In each of these countries, government commissions
have been established to develop campaigns and activities for the
The Vatican is also involved. For some years now, it has been planning
a campaign marking "500 Years of Evangelization in the Western
The initiative for the anniversary year began with the Spanish
government, which is hosting the Olympic games and the World's Fair
The Canadian government will be sponsoring a Canadian pavilion
at the World's Fair. The price tag for Canada's participation at
the fair will be $33 million.
But for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, for black people
and for many others, there's nothing to celebrate in 1992. From
the perspective of these people, Columbus' Caribbean landing was
not a discovery, but an armed invasion.
Columbus' arrival in the Americas, they argue, sparked a brutal
conquest that spread rapidly across two continents. In their drive
to extract gold and other natural resources, the Europeans reduced
the aboriginal peoples to slavery, stole their lands and crushed
their religions and cultures.
It's estimated that when Columbus arrived, there were 80 million
native people living in the Americas. But within 150 years, the
native population was reduced to less than 8 million. For every
10 Indians, one remained. This rapid and dramatic decline in population
was largely the result of slavery, massacres, torture and disease.
A brief survey of developments in various countries helps to illustrate
the fate suffered by the indigenous peoples:
- Peru - In 1532, Francisco Pizzarro landed on the coast of Peru,
the hub of the Incan empire. Within 300 years, the indigenous
population was reduced from 10 million to 1 million.
- Mexico - When Cortes arrived in the early sixteenth century,
Mexico had a population of 20 million. One hundred years later,
there were 750,000 natives left.
- Haiti - Shortly after landing in Guanahani, Columbus reached
Haiti, which had a population of 200,000. Twenty years later,
there were only 29,000 inhabitants.
- Cuba - Within 80 years of Columbus' arrival, the population
was reduced from 500,000 to 3,000.
- United States - As a result of the passage of the Indian Reorganization
Act in 1887, the native peoples lost 100 million acres of land
within a period of 50 years.
- Canada - In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Beothuk
nation, which inhabited parts of Newfoundland, became extinct.
The brutal mistreatment of the Beothuks by the English and Irish
settlers is considered a key factor contributing to the extinction
of this once-proud nation.
Throughout the Americas, tens of thousands of people are organizing
campaigns to oppose the 1992 celebrations. As they see it, the well-financed
programs and activities are really an attempt on the part of wealthy
elites to continue the conquest. The triumphant nature of the celebrations
is designed, they argue, to flaunt past imperial glory with a view
to future political and economic advantages.
Spain's pivotal role in the anniversary celebrations is suspect.
Many see it as an effort on the part of the Spanish government to
enhance its political and economic interests on the European and
Indigenous peoples are in the forefront of the efforts to resist
the celebration. Already, they have formulated a number of clearly
defined goals and strategies for 1992. Foremost among these is a
commitment to telling the real story of what happened in 1492 and
Most people in the Americas have grown up believing in a Columbus
who "in fourteen hundred and ninety-two...sailed the ocean
blue". The history books don't mention the fact that he was
a brutal conqueror whose actions were imitated by other colonizers
throughout the Americas.
History is always written by the conquerors. And in 1992, a false
version of history will be perpetuated by the official government
commissions. This is why the native peoples are intent on telling
the real story.
The opponents of the official celebrations are anxious to explode
the myth of discovery. Native peoples are particularly sensitive
about the misuse of the term. "The concept of discovery is
very disturbing," according to Canada's Assembly of First Nations.
"Nothing was discovered. This phrase implies the justification
for the colonization of the Americas without regard to the form
of state which existed. Nations of aboriginal people inhabited these
lands long before the Europeans arrived. This fact must be acknowledged."
In rejecting the word discovery, native organizations are opting
for terms such as self-discovery, recovery and uncovering.
The aboriginal peoples of the Americas will use 1992 as an occasion
to recover their historical selves. For five centuries, their indigenous
culture, identity, spirituality and self-esteem have been battered
and submerged. History does not record, for example, the many heroic
instances of native resistance to the conquistadores and the brutal
colonial regimes which followed.
"Our message for 1992 is simple," says the Assembly of
First Nations. "For First Nations to celebrate the near destruction
of our culture and identity would be insane ...(We) look forward
to positive discussions on the presentation of our viewpoint. We
want to give you the true picture. And we want to say, First Nations
have survived and will continue to be here for the next 500 years."
Native peoples are committed to recovering their historical memory
to affirm their identity. They want to uncover those traditions,
cultural values and forms of community that sustained them from
thousands of years and enabled them to live in harmony with one
another and with nature.
Through the experience of self-discovery, native peoples feel they
will grow in autonomy and self-reliance and become masters of their
destiny. The year 1992 will provide indigenous peoples with an important
opportunity to address such specific issues as land claims, self-determination,
justice, racism and education.
"Today, the indigenous struggle is centred around the issue
of land, a focal point in developing our own appropriate forms of
self-determination and resistance," according to the Confederation
of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. "The land is where
our people live, where our food grows. It is where the Sacred Vision
of the Cosmos is found."
Cultural and artistic events protesting the official celebrations
have already taken place on both continents and more are being planned
as 1992 approaches.
By networking, native peoples are trying to speak with a unified
voice. In the past year, for example, several indigenous representatives
from Central and South America have visited various Canadian cities
to raise consciousness about the anniversary theme.
In July of this year, the First Continental Conference of Indigenous
Nations - Five Hundred Years of Resistance, took place in Quito,
Ecuador. The purpose of this meeting was to develop a continent-wide
network of indigenous movements in preparation for 1992. Two representatives
of the United Church of Canada's All-Native Circle Conference attended
the Quito conference.
One of the sponsors of the conference was the Self-Discovery of
America Campaign. This Colombia-based organization has projects
in several countries and is networking with similar efforts in Canada
and the United States.
The Self Discovery Campaign is addressing the concerns of all social
and racial groups who have suffered oppression under colonial rule.
These include "the children of slavery and servitude, blacks,
Indians, mestizos, mulattos and poor whites".
The individuals and organizations opposing the official celebrations
say that the conquest which began with Columbus continues today
with an equal ferocity. Columbus' voyage, they say, was part of
a larger international project of European expansionism that effectively
divided the globe into First and Third Worlds. The process of exploitation
continues, they add, with European monarchs and conquerors being
replaced by wealthy elites, transnational corporations and death
Native peoples see parallels, for instance, between the destruction
of the native populations of Cuba and Haiti and the current genocide
of aboriginal peoples in Brazil and Guatemala. And they question
whether imperial Spain's lust for gold was any different from the
profit motive that drives today's multinational corporations to
export natural resources at the expense of the environment.
Native peoples are forging alliances with peace, human rights and
environmental organizations. They want to create alternatives that
will ensure a safe environment and the dignity of all persons.
The movement to oppose the anniversary celebrations is much better
organized and more broadly based in South and Central America than
it is in North America.
In Canada, the movement is just beginning to pick up speed. Canadian
native organizations -local and national- have been organizing for
some time now. At its steering committee meeting last June, the
Aboriginal Rights Coalition established a working group to gather
information from member churches about their plans for active involvement
in this issue.
There's much consciousness-raising still to be done. Various churches
are just beginning to address the issue. In August of this year,
the All Native Circle Conference (ANCC) made two petitions to the
United Church's General Council.
The first of these concerned the pavilion that the Canadian government
will be sponsoring at the 1992 World's Fair in Spain. General Council
supported the ANCC petition that the United Church urge the Canadian
government not to participate in Expo 92, and that it redirect the
money from the pavilion project to educational programs that would
reflect the historical contribution of aboriginal people to Canada.
The ANCC had also petitioned General Council proposing that the
Moderator request an audience with Pope John Paul II to urge him
not to support any celebrations of 1492. General Council responded
to the petition by asking the United Church to work with the Canadian
Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches to make overtures
to the Vatican, asking that it not participate in the anniversary
and not celebrate masses in honour of it.
The Caribbean and Latin America desk of the United Church's Division
of World Outreach is developing a policy on 1992 that will be presented
for endorsement to the General Council Executive in November. Tom
Edmonds, area secretary for the Caribbean and Latin America, maintains
that Canadian Christians lack any sense of what happened to aboriginal
"The veins of the Americas, and our native peoples, have been
open and bleeding for 500 years," Edmonds says. "What
has the church done to stop the bleeding? The church must address
this issue in 1992."
In February of 1991, representatives of the All Native Circle Conference
will visit Aborigine communities in Australia. In 1988, Australia
celebrated its bicentennial of colonization and the Aborigines opposed
the celebrations for the same reasons that native peoples are resisting
1992. The ANCC representatives want to consult with the Aborigines
to learn from their experience.
"If one is going to remember the events of 1492, the meeting
of two cultures, that was the opportunity for the gifts of two peoples
to come together," says Alf Dumont, speaker of the ANCC. "All
of us were given the opportunity, but because one people wanted
to dominate the other, the opportunity was missed; it was not used
"The native traditional teachings that maintain that opportunity
will come again. The Creator always provides new possibilities.
1992 will be another opportunity to discern what the true spiritual
gifts and teachings are, and to respond to those teachings. Let
us use it well."
Paul McKenna is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
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