One of the things I quickly realized while visiting Santo Domingo is the prominence given to Christopher Columbus in the city, particularly in the tourist sites. I’ll admit that I was not much of a history kind of guy growing up. I was more into math and science and recess. So, there are a lot of things I am finding interesting about history in later life that some people might think, “Of course you dummy! Didn’t you learn that in school?” I may have, and forgot. Or maybe I didn’t learn it in school. I grew up in Canada and learned about Samuel de Champlain, John Cabot, George Vancouver and other explorers but don’t actually remember studying Christopher Columbus other than somewhere I picked up that rhyme, “Fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
My recent experience in the USA has been that disfavor of Columbus is growing. Many cities have abolished Columbus Day celebrations and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on October 12th instead. The overall thought being that when the Old World (Europeans) found the New World (The Americas) it was not good at all for the inhabitants of the Americas. Indigenous people were resettled, enslaved, died of all the new diseases or were just plain murdered.
I decided to do a little digging on my own and see what the real story about Columbus was.
Examples of Columbus in the DR
Before coming to Santo Domingo, I knew to expect a Spanish colonial city. What I didn’t expect was so much on Christopher Columbus.
The most prominent plaza in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo is Parque Colon (Columbus Park). The Faro de Colon (Columbus Lighthouse) is a huge monstrosity built for the 1992 anniversary of Columbus coming to the DR. The Alcazar de Colon (Columbus House) is one of the top tourist sites in the Colonial Zone. The Catedral Primada (First Cathedral of the Americas) plays up the fact that the bones of Christopher Columbus were stored there before being moved to the Faro de Colon. (The audio guide tells you not to believe those losers in Seville, Spain who claim to have Columbus bones. DNA evidence, they say, proves the ones in the DR are the real ones.)
In many other museums in Santo Domingo they have exhibits about Columbus and refer to him as, “The great Admiral and Viceroy” or “The great explorer” or “The great hero and discoverer of the Americas.” I saw many paintings of Columbus and his kin. More than one tour guide or audio guide in a museum has used the quote that say that when Columbus saw the island of Hispaniola he called it, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” (Interestingly enough, the Cubans claim he said this about Cuba, the Dominicans say that he was talking about the DR).
What is his real name?
One of the first things that bothered me is that in Santo Domingo he is referred to as Cristobal Colon. I can get Christopher from Cristobal, sound like an Anglicization of the name Christopher. But how do you get Columbus from Colon? Here is what I learned. He was born in Genoa in 1451 as Christoffa Corombo. The Italian language variation of that is Cristoforo Colombo. When he moved to Spain he became Cristobal Colon and Christopher Columbus is the Anglicization of his Latin name Christophous Columbus.
Anyway, Cristobal Colon is how he is referred to in the Dominican Republic and the entire Spanish speaking world.
Did Columbus discover America?
I bet you if you asked just about any USA school kid who discovered America they would say, “Christopher Columbus.” Let’s
forget about the fact that the Phoenicians and Vikings had been here way before and that it is tough to “discover” a place that already has millions of people. I would hazard a guess that most USA school kids might think that this means that Columbus landed on what is now known as the United States of America, which of course would be wrong.
Columbus never set foot in what we typically call North America today. No part of what is now the United States of America was seen by Columbus. He explored the Caribbean Islands, and the coasts of Central and South America.
Note: I know that it drives some people crazy when people from the USA describe themselves as, “American.” The logic being that anyone that lives in any part of North or South America (including Greenland) is “American.” The nerve of people from the USA claiming two of the 6 continents in the world!! I don’t get too hung up on it. The name of the country is the United States of America. American is a contraction of the full name. “United Statesian” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Besides, people in the Estados Unidos de Mexico (the United States of Mexico) shorten their name to “Mexican” so what’s the big deal?
In Santo Domingo Columbus is a hero and Francis Drake is a villain
In looking at various web sites doing a little research for this piece I found many specific references to Columbus and his poor treatment of the indigenous peoples. Things like: cutting off the ears and noses of people and sending the people back to their tribes as an example of what would happen if they didn’t obey him, cutting off the hands of slave mine workers if they didn’t mine enough gold, selling 9 and 10 year old native girls into sexual slavery, etc.
I mentioned before that I don’t have a large background in history. I had heard of Francis Drake before. I knew him as an English explorer who circumnavigated the world in his ship the Golden Hind. In Santo Domingo, Francis Drake has a very different image. While Columbus is referred to as “The great Admiral and Explorer,” Francis Drake is described as, “The evil pirate and murderer.”
In 1586 Drake and his men took over the city of Santo Domingo forcing virtually all of the residents out. His men began sacking the city, looting the homes and churches. Drake set up his headquarters in the Catedral Primada. He held the city for a month and finally left after being paid a ransom after threatening to begin destroying the Catedral.
Many of the museums and displays refer to the siege by, “The evil pirate and murderer Francis Drake.” In particular, they refer to an incident where two priests were trying to save artifacts and documents of the church from destruction by Drake and his men and were captured, taunted, tortured and eventually hanged to death and displayed in the street.
I guess what struck me was the sharp contrast in how Columbus and Drake are viewed, at least in the museums of Santo Domingo. If you had asked me before our trip what I thought of Columbus and Drake I probably would have shrugged and said that they were both explorers. I had a fairly neutral feeling on both of them. It was clear that in Santo Domingo that Columbus is a hero and Drake is a villain.
What do the Dominican people think of Columbus?
I really didn’t ask too many people what they thought about this, but I did have a couple of conversations. One of the Uber drivers we used told us about a conversation she had with her son. When discussing Columbus, her 12-year-old son said, “I don’t know why people think Columbus is so great? All he did was come to the Dominican Republic and kill the Tainos (indigenous people of the DR) and steal their gold.”
I asked a 21-year-old Dominican friend what people thought of Christopher Columbus. His answer was a little different. “This is all history that we can’t change anything about. I am sure that Columbus did some bad things, but you have to understand that it was a long time ago. Also, most people here consider themselves to have some Spanish ancestry, so they are not going to talk bad about their ancestors.”
Why is Columbus still so prominent in Santo Domingo?
So why is Columbus figured so prominently in Santo Domingo tourism, especially given how strong the backlash against Columbus has been in recent years in the United States and other parts of the world? I am not sure I know the complete answer.
- Part of it, I’m sure, is commercially driven. You have a great draw of having a tie to arguably the world’s most well-known explorer.
- Columbus was Catholic, the country of Santo Domingo is largely Catholic. I know that there may be those who believe that spreading Catholicism and “saving the souls” of the indigenous people outweighs the negative aspects of what he did. The Pope visited Santo Domingo in 1992 and attended the opening of the Faro de Colon.
- Columbus was the start of the widespread settlement of the Americas by Europeans. North and South America combined now hold about 8% of the world’s population and 25% of its wealth. Although the Phoenicians and the Vikings were here before Columbus, Columbus was the start of colonization.
- It is a part of history. Regardless of your view or the validity of the atrocities attributed to Columbus, it does have historic significance.
At any rate, Christopher Columbus and his family figure prominently in the history and tourism of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.