What the Spanish national holiday tells us about colonialism

spanische Nationalfeiertag, Columbustag, Columbustag Kolonialismus, Christopher Columbus, Yasmin Orouji, Kopfzeile source: Yasmin Orouji

On October 12th 1492 Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean with his ship and initiated the beginning of a centuries-long tradition of enslavement and exploitation of the indigenous population. In 2022 Spain will celebrate the great 530th anniversary of this day. For Spaniards, it’s a harmless national holiday where they show their national pride, but for the majority of the indigenous population, the day means the enslavement of their people. There are still statues around the world praising the achievements of Columbus. Spain also still has a statue in Cadiz. Spain began colonising South America in the 15th and 16th centuries, spurred by Columbus “discovery”. The result is a history of indigenous people nearly wiped out by introduced disease and slavery. On October 12th they remember those who were killed and enslaved. In 2020, indigenous people from Latin America gathered in Madrid on Spain’s national holiday to reenact the arrival of Columbus from the perspective of their people.

Still, Spain tries to include Latin America on this day to emphasise the strength of the connection between the two countries – which is met with much opposition.

There was no discovery of America

Columbus never discovered America. Before Columbus’ arrival, many people already lived in what is now South America. Nevertheless, the image of Columbus with his comrades solemnly greeting the natives has stuck.

Therefore, many indigenous people associate Columbus with something much sadder than a heroic seafarer. The arrival of Christopher Columbus signifies oppression, which they had to undergo for centuries. Every year on this day, activists try to draw attention to Columbus’ oppression on Instagram.

In Spain, things are very different on October 12th. In 2022, the country celebrates the 530th anniversary. The city was festively decorated in flag colors for the occasion, there were military parades and the royal family showed up in the capital. In 2015, then-Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defended the national holiday from critics in El País, saying it was a day created for all Hispanics, both in Spain and in Latin America. In 2022, his opinion apparently prevailed: days before the anniversary, flags of Latin American countries decorated Madrid’s City Hall. The message was clear: the day connects Spain with Latin America.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that this connection was created by colonisation. The indigenous population was enslaved and oppressed by Spain. For them, this connection is a painful reminder of the colonial past. For many indigenous people, it is difficult to see this colonial legacy continue to be celebrated year after year. In Bolivia, therefore, on October 12th, the indigenous people are commemorated, and instead of Columbus Day, it is called Decolonisation Day. But there are still many citizens like Rajoy who ignore the colonial past for a day in order to celebrate a national holiday.

What to do with the Columbus – statues

In 2020, Mexican President Obrador demanded an apology from Spain for colonial crimes. In the same year, a statue of Columbus in Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma was removed. Statues have met an unfortunate fate in recent years, for example in the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020: The statue of slaveholder Edward Colston was torn down by protesters in Bristol. The statues, which had previously stood in public places for decades, were graffitied over. And critical questions were asked: Why is there a celebratory image of a slave trader in a public place?

In Venezuela’s capital Caracas, a statue of Columbus was removed in 2004 on the grounds that it was a symbol of genocide against the indigenous people of Latin America. Centuries after colonisation, indigenous people experience numerous discriminations in everyday life. A 2020 survey in Mexico found that 24% of the indigenous population experienced discrimination and 75.6% did not feel valued in society. Mexicans with lighter skin color, who often have European ancestors, complete an average of ten years of schooling, whereas darker-skinned Mexicans only complete an average of 6.5 years.

Indigenous languages were also banned in Mexico and Spanish was enforced. Today, few indigenous people speak their languages because of this. The legacy of Columbus is a bitter one for the indigenous people, who still have to live with the consequences of colonisation.

The future of the National holiday

All this leads to an increasing glorification of Columbus. In 1892, U.S. President Benjamin Harris called Columbus a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment”. This impression of Columbus has not changed much to this day. A painting by John Vanderlyn from 1847 shows Columbus and his crew having just disembarked from the ship. The focus is on him holding up his hand and claiming the land for himself. The indigenous people are pressed to the edge of the picture, although centuries of oppression are in store for them.

Today, people still talk about the discovery of the Americas, even though Native Americans lived there long before European sailors. In Matthew Restall’s book Seven Myths about the Spanish Conquest, he talks about how much our current understanding of Columbus is shaped by his glorification. Although many Columbus statues have already been vandalised, there are no concrete plans to move the Spanish national holiday to another day. For the indigenous people, there is nothing to celebrate. They commemorate the victims of colonial violence on October 12th. Even if all statues of Columbus or other slave traders were removed, Native history would remain. Columbus’ image is immersed in myths that glorify him as a hero. Instead of celebrating, this is a day to learn about the exploitation of indigenous peoples.

Yasmin Orouji

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