Cambridge excoriates Columbus, sets Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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BOSTON – Across the Charles River from the seat of Bay State power sits the city of Cambridge, the intellectual heart of the commonwealth and sometimes known as the Peoples Republic.

So when the Cambridge City Council formally declared Christopher Columbus as a sort of historical persona non grata Monday, it may not have raised many eyebrows.

But was he really a war criminal, as Councilor Nadeem A. Mazen declared at a May 26 public hearing on his proposal to change the name of the October holiday celebrating the discovery of America? The official minutes say he asserted that “Columbus probably was not Italian, did not discover anything, and was a war criminal.”

Some Cantabridgians seemed to agree. Rosalba Solis, for instance, declared that the explorer committed atrocities against the native Taino people he encountered on the islands he first set foot on, in what is now the Bahamas. The school teacher cited a book she reads to students.

Claims against Columbus include that he slaughtered native people, that he took hundreds as slaves back to Spain and worse. But historians don’t all agree.

One early chronicler of the day, a Milanese named Girolamo Benzoni, cited shocking cruelty by Spaniards committed against natives in what is now Latin America in a work published in 1565, according to the Library of Congress. But the library also says the Taino were largely gone by 1550, mainly because of diseases inadvertently brought to the New World by European explorers.

But does that count as genocide or a war crime?

Writing for, a nonpartisan research website, Athol Dickson points out that European medical knowledge in the late 15th century scarcely included an understanding of communicable diseases. And he notes that Europeans returning from the Americas brought with them syphilis, which resulted in some 5 million deaths on the continent.

In the text she reads to students, it includes the claim that the actions of Columbus “led to the triangulated trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Apparently it draw this conclusion from the assertion that the explorer shipped hundreds of Taino to Europe as slaves.

But as Dickson notes, slavery at that time was widespread in Europe and among the tribes explorers encountered in the New World. Columbus could hardly be blamed for creating the slave trade, even if he engaged in the heinous business.

Nonetheless, Councilor Mazen won the day and the council voted to rename this year’s Oct. 10 holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Cambridge. The renaming, according to Mazen’s resolution, provides “recognition of the indigenous people of America’s position as native to these lands, and the suffering they faced following European conquest of their land.”