Editor’s note: This article was updated at 12:05 p.m. Tuesday.
Vermont is on the verge of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but the reasons for doing so are at odds with history, says a top anthropologist and author of a book about the voyages of Christopher Columbus.
To those who support abolishing one of America’s foundational holidays, Christopher Columbus, the 15th century Italian explorer largely credited with discovering the Americas, was a bad character who allegedly committed atrocities, including pillaging Native Americans and participating in slavery.
But to Carol Lowery Delaney, an anthropologist who served as assistant director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, and who is a professor emerita at Stanford University and a research scholar at Brown University, that view of the explorer is pure fiction.
“First of all, people know nothing about Columbus, and they are blaming him for things that he did not do,” she told True North.
Earlier this month, the Vermont Legislature passed S.68, an act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has said he will mostly likely sign it, and he dismissed the holiday as “just a day,” saying “we’ll get through it.”
But Delaney says Vermont is yet another example of state leaders and the public getting it wrong about Columbus. As a lifetime academic who received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and wrote the book “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” she’s in a position to know.
“His whole project was to sail east to meet the Grand Khan in China, set up a trading post, and trade for gold. And that gold was supposed to be used to finance a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world,” she said.
Delaney’s in-depth research into the life of Columbus included traveling to Spain, where she read original copies of his writings from more than 500 years ago.
“I was amazed when I actually held one of his letters in my hand. I thought the whole thing was gonna fall apart,” she said.
Putting the late 1400s in perspective, the Black Death plague had killed millions of people, sparking widespread belief in a world-ending apocalypse. To the east, Constantinople had fallen to the Muslims, who cut off Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem and blocked the trade route to the Far East. Columbus wanted to find gold to fund a crusade and discover a trading route going west across the ocean.
Delaney said while Columbus was religious, he was not a greedy individual seeking to pillage or enslave indigenous people in the Americas. He never owned slaves.
“He was friends with the natives he met [and] he remained friends with them throughout his four voyages,” Delaney said. “ … He took six of them back and they were baptized, and baptized people could not be enslaved. One of them became the godson of Columbus and remained his loyal interpreter for all of his voyages.”
Battles with local indigenous people did occur, however. After Columbus arrived and made a voyage back to Spain, he left a crew of 39 men behind with instructions not to mistreat the native Americans.
“So he gets back from Spain and all of his men are dead,” Delaney said.
When the explorer returned to Hispaniola, he found his fort and men destroyed by the native Taino people. In some cases his own men were to blame for mistreating the people living around the various settlements.
“They had went against his orders ‘Do not go marauding, do not go raping, do not go pillaging.’ Columbus was friends with the chief there and his whole group of people. Columbus was furious about what his men had done,” Delaney said.
If Scott signs the bill, the second Monday in October will become Indigenous Peoples’ Day, no longer the famous American holiday celebrated for centuries as Columbus Day. Similar bills have become law in New Mexico, South Dakota and Maine.
“This is a great travesty,” Delaney said. “From his writings and all the research that I’ve done about him, I’ve actually come to like [Columbus] very much.”
She added that she has no problem with creating a separate day to recognize indigenous people, so long as it doesn’t replace Columbus Day.
“I think people are feeling politically correct that we should be paying more attention to the indigenous people,” she said. “That’s a good point, I have no problem with that.”