Historical analysis of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day
In all that has been written about Christopher Columbus – since he was the first American of Italian descent to the ancestor of a continental genocide – one of the most crucial aspects of his biography is missing: a main force behind Columbus’ crossings of the Atlantic was fear and hatred of Islam.
It shaped the way white Europeans engaged with the “New World” and its indigenous peoples for centuries, and the way Americans today understand the world. This should influence our perception of the second Monday in October, whether you call it Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, or Italian Heritage Day.
Columbus was born into the anti-Islamic mentality of Europe in 1451, raised on accounts of the Crusades and the territorial losses suffered by his hometown of Genoa after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
As a teenager, he left for the Mediterranean as an apprentice sailor. Some of his early sea voyages brought him face to face with the awe-inspiring power of the Ottomans in the Aegean and other Muslim states in North Africa. He then sailed along the coasts of West Africa where the powerful Muslim kingdoms in the region made him realize that Islam was everywhere, surrounding Christendom. When Columbus returned to Europe, he joined Spain’s fight against Muslims in the southern Iberian Peninsula, six months before crossing the Atlantic.
Deep down, Columbus was a crusader. Throughout his life, in his encounters and his battles against Muslims, he felt the weight of the holy war in the depths of his soul. As he headed west on the high seas – with the formal mission of finding a trade route to the Far East that would bypass the need to cross Muslim territory – his mind was neither occupied by an age-old passion. for discovery nor by a calculating business vision. More than anything else, he sailed to the Americas imbued with Christian zeal.
This centrality of Islam in the life of Columbus explains one of the strangest and least recognized aspects of traveling the Atlantic. When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, he saw Islam there too, where it did not exist so clearly. For example, he called the arms of the native Tainos alfanjes, a Spanish word derived from Arabic for a curved metal scimitar inscribed with Quranic verses that was commonly used by Muslim soldiers in combat. Columbus himself tells us that the Taino “have no iron” and of course did not know anything about the Koran, but he compares them to Muslim soldiers by putting alfanjes in their hands, thus placing them in a mental category familiar to him and to the target audience of his writings.
Later, when he first saw the scarves of a group of indigenous women, he thought they were related by trade or some other form of Eurasian contact to what he called Moorish belts. . Such declared equivalences between Islam and Native America would continue. A few decades after Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés also wrote that the Aztecs in Mexico wore “Moorish dresses” and that Aztec women looked like “Moorish women”. He claimed to have seen more than 400 mosques in the territory he conquered 500 years ago, which we now call Mexico, and he called the leader Montezuma a “sultan”.
How do you explain something so strange?
The answer lies in the long history of Christopher Columbus and Europe’s crusade against Islam. The melting pot of centuries of these wars of religion, and the growing encroachment by Ottomans and other Muslims in the years following 1453, forged the notion of Islam as an enemy in the minds of Columbus, Cortés and the thousands of other Europeans who fought the Muslims in the Old World and then the American Indians in the New World.
Throughout their lives, these men had learned that Muslims were their main enemies. In their minds, an enemy conjured up the image of a non-white Muslim. Europeans turned to this framework to understand the new enemies they faced in the Americas: indigenous peoples. Europeans viewed Muslims and Native Americans as somehow tied to a chain of continuity that today seems chimerical.
This largely forgotten story is important. An anti-Islamic worldview was the mold that molded the European understanding of race and ethnicity in the Americas, as well as the concept of war in the Western Hemisphere. It must therefore be part of any understanding of the history of the Americas and, unfortunately, of the history of the Native Americans.
While Europeans and white Americans aimed at the warlike spirit of the Crusades against Native American populations, they also appropriated Indigenous iconography in their mode of warfare. As a result, the Americans flew Apache and Kiowa helicopters over Afghanistan; the Navy launched Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets; and Black Hawk helicopters carried Navy SEALs in the night raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, codenamed Geronimo.
Embedded in these names, and in these wars, is a historical line that goes back to Columbus. Recognizing the history of these seemingly disparate but related cultures helps lay the groundwork for a richer vision of the past and new forms of solidarity, collective thought and action.
The only federal holiday in October, for all its justified passions, offers such opportunities.
Alan Mikhail, chairman of the history department at Yale University, is the author of “God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World”.