Columbus Day has been an official holiday in the United States since 1937, except in three states — Nevada, South Dakota, and Hawaii. The day was never much on my own radar screen since the second Monday of October was always Thanksgiving in my home country.
Christopher Columbus has been vilified as well as defended in recent times. To some, he was a courageous Catholic Genoese who “discovered” America and brought European ideals to a pagan-infested land. To others, he was an ego-driven, gold-hungry task-master who intended to subjugate the native peoples. The truth seems to be somewhere in between.
One of the most interesting people who shows up when looking into Columbus’ life is a man named Bartolome de las Casas — a Dominican priest who recorded his observations of the region where Columbus was governor. He also made both an abstract and a copy of Columbus’ travel diaries.
In his multi-volume, History of the Indies, de las Casas’ wrote of his shock at the cruelty of the Spaniards towards the natives. Although I haven’t read the history, his observations of Columbus are apparently not favorable. In fact, his experience drove him to oppose slavery and to fight for the dignity of the native peoples — and later that of the imported Africans. His proposed reforms were so unpopular in the New World that his life was threatened.
De las Casas was an important witness to a critical time in history. The priest is not without his critics, who claim he exaggerated some of his reports and was guilty of avarice. Still, in 2000, his cause was opened for beatification.
If anyone knows of a good account of Fr. de las Casas’s life — or of Columbus’ for that matter — please pass it on.