10/10/2011 08:00 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2011

I Don't Have To Celebrate Columbus

"In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." So starts the grade school rhyme that condensed Christopher Columbus' first voyage from Europe to the "New World." Columbus was not the first person to discover the Americas. Native Americans had been in the New World for millennia before Columbus was born. He was not even the first European to arrive on our shores. That distinction belongs to the Norsemen.

Why Columbus' shadow endures and exceeds that of others including, the Tainos and Arawaks who were decimated within half a century of his arrival in the Caribbean is because his voyages accomplished two things. First, it publicized to European powers that there was a vast world within their grasp and that it was defended by people still using bows and arrows. Second, Columbus' arrival and presence in the New World established the pattern of exploitation and genocide of Native peoples that became the norm. The implications of these actions in present day.

When Columbus reached the Bahamas and later the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola, he genuinely believed that he had reached India. He therefore called the Taino, indios. The Taino were peaceful and certainly vulnerable to the European's advanced weaponry. To Columbus, the Taino and truly, all Natives he encountered, were fodder for servitude and conquest. In his journal he wrote, "They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them." More ominously, he noted that "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and govern them as I pleased." Columbus kidnapped 6 Tainos to take back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

During Columbus' second voyage, he exacted tribute in gold and spun cotton from adults over the age of fourteen. Punishment for failure to come up with the gold and/or cotton was severe. Columbus' men would cut off the hands of the "offender" and leave him or her to bleed to death. During his third voyage, Columbus abandoned all pretense of converting the Native population to Christianity. He enslaved them. Why? The answer is not so trite as to say "because they were there", but close. Rather, he refused to convert the Natives because Spanish and Canonical law forbade the enslavement of Christians. Columbus essentially created a loophole, perhaps the first loophole in a long line of broken promises, treaties, and pacts with regard to Native American rights. He would not convert the Natives so that he could have his "good and skilled servants", i.e., slaves to do his bidding and that of the Spanish overlords.

The rest is, as they say, history. Entire cultures wiped out. Millions killed by violence or disease or enslavement. Grafting onto the cultural DNA of Native folks that the European is the more advanced. Perhaps it is simplistic to place over five centuries of enduring imperialism at Columbus' feet. It is. He certainly was not responsible for the atrocities committed by Cortes, Pizarro, Padre Junipero Serra, Andrew Jackson, and Custer and to this date, the economic and ecological rapaciousness of Halliburton. But, Columbus cast the mold in the furnace of imperialistic greed. That mold has yet to be shattered.

Of course, I understand, as I type this piece on my laptop, that Columbus' exposure of the New World made exploration inevitable and that we are who we are today, in large part because he triggered that European curiosity. But, I don't have to celebrate the man, his misdeeds, or his arrogant, short-sighted waste of hum