“English Settlers”: Call Them by Their Name: English Conquistadors

Photo: “February 22, 1637” by Charles Stanley Reinhart, 1890, public domain.

The United States has turned yet another important page towards decolonization: saying goodbye to Columbus Day. Thanks to the unrelenting work of indigenous leaders and activists to reclaim their legacy, President Joe Biden proclaimed October 11 officially as Indigenous People’s Day. This act marks a significant reframing of how this country was built. It breaks with the old myth that pilgrims and puritans came seeking freedom to show a darker truth: the English, much like the Spanish, were conquistadors who came to this land seeking land and riches and were willing to perpetrate intolerable violence against the people who originally inhabited it to attain them.

In Latin America, we are taught at a very early age about the Spanish conquistadors and the cruelty perpetrated by them on indigenous people. In the creation of these republics, the Spanish conquest was held as an antithesis to the “free” nations established by the criollos, the elite class who had benefited from stolen land. Essentially, to create the nationalism myth, it was easier to divert people’s anger about injustices on an old enemy, the Spanish crown. “We are so poor! The Spanish stole our gold!” While continuing to exploit the people that their Spanish ancestors had murdered and enslaved for centuries. It created a Latin American schizophrenia among the elite and middle class where we couldn’t be full-blooded Spanish but we definitely couldn’t be “indios,” creating a safer place, mestizo, to pretend we were multiracial but without the emotional baggage of looking too deeply. “Mestizo” thus became a way of assimilating into a hegemonic whiteness equated with “progress.”

That schizophrenia has taken newer heights in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, where the indigenous culture is appropriated by the state, even celebrated as a cultural relic, but excluded (even eliminated) if it doesn’t move the nation’s extractivist developmentalism forward. I encourage you to read Pedro Uc Be’s essay “What Is Maya, What Is To Be Maya?” on this point. I often feel the use of “Americans” in the US can be equated to that use of “mestizo” in Latin America: we must abandon our identities, traditions, and ancestors to follow, humbly, the nationalist project created by “our founding fathers.”

In the US, ethnonationalism was a project that originated early on but was perfected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After a bitter Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving in 1863 a holiday for national reconciliation but in doing so, began a process of reimagining “America” as a country built on “bloodless colonialism,” as David Silverman, author of This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, puts it. Essentially, “Americans” began systematically erasing past crimes against humanity to become a uniform nation, a melting pot of “progress and freedom.”

Eugenics, meanwhile, came into being, or rather, white supremacists began theorizing on long-held beliefs of racial superiority to move the Industrial Revolution at a dizzying speed. By 1910, it had become a movement among the elite in the US with the establishment of the Eugenics Record Office, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Institution magnates. Over 64,000 people would be forcibly sterilized under eugenics state laws by the 1930s.

Children at the NY Columbus Day parade, 1892, NY Public Library

In 1892, the white European hegemony in the “old” and “new” worlds celebrated the 400th anniversary of the “discovery of America” with great pomp and splendor. In New York, according to historian David Mark Carletta, an entire week was dedicated to the Columbian Celebration, which included a military parade of “20,000 boys carrying American flags…girls, wearing uniforms of red, white, and blue, sat arranged in the shape of a giant American flag in the stands…[and] 350 Native American boys and girls from the Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.” A float of a colossal statue of Christopher Columbus–followed by people dressed as “indians” offering “gifts of fruits and birds”–was paraded to celebrate the “pioneer of Western civilization.” Replicas of Columbus’ three caravels, La Niña, La Pinta, and Santa Maria, were built in Spain at the behest of the US State Department and sailed to the US (although only the Santa Maria was safe to sail, the other two were hauled by US navy ships). Then-President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day as a national day of celebration, which together with the Pledge of Alliance would be used to teach “expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer” in public schools.

Photo: Columbus Parade, 1892, New York Public Library

During a sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral pulpit in New York City, adorned with the US flag, flanked by the US shield on one side and a Columbus’ coat of arms on the other, Reverend William O’Brien Pardow had no problems equating Columbus’ arrival to the “new” world with the Puritans’ arrival on Plymouth Rock, who moved the country forward by “bringing the Cross of Christ to thousands of unregenerated.”

The sentiment quickly turned into social Darwinism in 1863 during the World’s Columbian Fair in Chicago, aimed at “teach[ing] a lesson; to show the advancement of evolution of man.” The fair included a White City, surrounded by “less advanced” cities, and a lesson on “race science” of humanity’s “progress” from “savage races.”

The European “kind benefactors” also brought with them unprecedented genocide, suffering, and slavery to a continent where civilizations had thrived for millennia. English conquerors imposed their culture and religion by force, stole land, and spilled blood just like their Spanish counterparts did. While it is common knowledge that Francisco Pizarro murdered Inca’s emperor Atahualpa, few know about Metacom’s resistance in New England in 1675 and the millions of indigenous people murdered and enslaved after King Philip’s War.

Reclaiming Indigenous People’s Day from Columbian colonialist ideology is an opportunity to set the record straight, and to stop romanticizing the birth of this nation in order to build a more just society for all.

Co-fundadora y co-editora de Awasqa.