Setting the Record Straight on Christopher Columbus with Author and Expert Rafael Ortiz
By Mary Kovach, Ph.D.
Originally published in ItalyUSA Magazine
Rafael Ortiz is a highly sought-after expert on Christopher Columbus. He authored four books on Columbus (three in English, one in Spanish). He’s done his due diligence reading the actual journals written by Columbus himself as well as the memoirs from Columbus’ son, and can point-by-point clarify any misinformation. He’s a member of the National Christopher Columbus Association and is currently collaborating with the National Columbus Education Foundation on their new website. He was recently a featured guest on the OSDIA Interviews LIVE: Columbus special Facebook show as well as an expert guest on a webinar hosted by Drexel University. Ironically, Ortiz is Hispanic (of Puerto Rican descent) with Indigenous lineage from the Taino tribe – the very tribe that Columbus supposedly eliminated through genocide. His native language is Spanish, which allowed him to read first-hand the original documented exchanges between Columbus, Queen Isabella, and others. In the interview below, Ortiz clarifies distorted information on topics including revisionism, racism, diseases, Columbus’ faith, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and more. He supplies the original sources for the reader to read the true facts from history.
Kovach: According to Marco Polo and the Franciscans, the Grand Khan asked for Friars to be sent, to teach about Christianity and convert his people. Columbus thought these natives were part of the Grand Khan's empire. Additionally, Columbus was very religious - living quite humbly, dressing as a monk and making his men pray often. Why do you think that information isn't shared in a more mainstream conversation?
Ortiz: Unfortunately, it won’t fit the current false narrative that is promoted today. If Columbus was known a good person, it would be harder to slander him. If he is presented as a man who did terrible things, it’s easier to get more people on board with the false narrative. One reason why there is not much mainstream conversation about the actual facts is because it seems as though they are more interested in a good story than the truth. In my opinion, many of them are lazy and lousy in their research and reporting. Promoting the new notion that “Columbus was evil” sells more and gets more clicks, likes and shares, than “Columbus discovered America.”
Kovach: Some revisionists call Columbus a racist to further demonize him. Can you give us some insight as to the comments Columbus wrote about in his journals and how he described the natives?
Ortiz: Revisionists play the race card because one of their tactics is to “divide and conquer.” They are playing people against each other: Whites vs. Blacks, Italians vs. Indigenous, etc. Revisionists falsely claim Columbus initially called the natives “good people” but later he called them “evil” so he could “enslave them.” Columbus, and subsequent explorers, called the natives who were good people, “good,” and those who were bad people, “bad.” Their judgment was based on character and not skin color. The colonists were intermarrying with the natives from the very beginning creating the “Hispanic” race. They were far from any white supremacist thought.
Kovach: When Columbus first arrived in the New World, can you please clarify what happened when Columbus got off the boat to meet the natives? I know this has been recently raised as a point of contention as well.
Ortiz: As part of Italian customs, Columbus greeted the natives with gifts. Revisionist Howard Zinn decided to spin the situation to fit his narrative once again. Unfortunately, he is the source (although false) many revisionists use as their authority. According to Zinn, “When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” Here, Zinn is immediately trying to create the impression that Columbus was a bully who came here with swords, but received by natives with gifts because they were “angels.” However, if you read Columbus’ journal (i.e. the actual words of Columbus), it paints a different picture. Columbus wrote in his journal that after he arrived, “many of the islanders gathered round us. I could see that they were people who would be more easily converted to our Holy Faith by love than by coercion, and wishing them to look on us with friendship I gave some of them red bonnets and glass beads which they hung round their necks, and many other things of small value, at which they were so delighted and so eager to please us that we could not believe it. Later they swam out to the boats to bring us parrots and balls of cotton thread and darts, and many other things, exchanging them for such objects as glass beads and hawk bells. They took anything, and gave willingly whatever they had.” Source: Columbus’ Journal, translated by John Cummins, Friday, October 12, 1492.
Kovach: August 9 was declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day by the United Nations, yet there are still calls to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Why do you think this is? And why should we celebrate Columbus?
Ortiz: I’m sure most people don’t know this – there are already two Indigenous Peoples’ Days. The first one, you just mentioned. The second one is celebrated the Friday after Thanksgiving known as “Native American Heritage Day.” I did not know about them either until recently. We need to share this kind of information. There is no need to rename anything. As for Columbus Day, we should celebrate him because he is the most important person in history, after Jesus Christ. He is the one who discovered a continent the Old World did not know existed. We are here because of him. Without 1492, we would not have a 1776.
Kovach: In your first book Christopher Columbus the Hero, you claim “Columbus is the most unfairly treated historical figure” (p. 109). Why do you make that claim?
Ortiz: Columbus is the only person in history who is removed from his own historical context. Things like conquest, slavery, and imperialism were the norm of his day, but he is the only person who is singled out. If we are going to be consistent, then we should not celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day because they too practiced conquest, slavery, and imperialism. The Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas were Indigenous empires. In addition, they sacrificed their slaves to their gods and some tribes practiced cannibalism. But they were “cool.” Columbus lived in a time when many things throughout history were common practice that we don’t practice today. If we are going to condemn Columbus, then we need to condemn all history since history is spelled as W.A.R. Besides, Columbus did not commit any of the crimes revisionists claim. In other words, he did not commit genocide, cut the hands of natives, nor he sold children for sex. All those claims are fiction. Readers are welcome to read my books to learn more details on how these claims are completely false.
Kovach: Another accusation against Columbus is that he brought disease and sickness (such as syphilis) to the New World. Can you set the record straight?
Ortiz: Diseases existed before, during, and after Columbus’ lifetime. Syphilis was carried from the New World to the Old during the Spanish colonization because it existed there before Columbus’ discovery. One of the mythological characters of the Tainos, named Guahayona, had syphilis. (Primary source: The Life of the Admiral by Ferdinand Columbus, Cap. 62, p. 155).
Other sources said the following: Syphilis was among the Aztecs as well, along with scabies, hemorrhoids, pustules, boils, eye sickness, gout, paralysis, stiffness, mumps, dropsy, leprosy (the natives would kill their lepers), in addition to other unspecified sexually transmitted diseases, unspecified contagious diseases, unspecified incurable diseases, etc. (Primary source: Historia General by Sahagún, Tomo Primero, p. 196, and pp. 264-265. Tomo Segundo, p. 7, pp. 18-19, p. 27, p. 143 and 246. Tomo Tercero, p. 36).
Additionally, contagious diseases killed great numbers of people throughout history. Revisionists blame Columbus for bringing diseases, but as I mentioned, they already existed. Revisionists specifically blame Columbus for bringing smallpox to the New World. But smallpox killed many people in the Old World long before Columbus was born, and the spread of it in the New World happened after Columbus was dead. It is assumed that smallpox was a new disease introduced to America after the Europeans came here. That is pure speculation. Even if it were to be true, diseases killing great numbers of people was not new in history. The reason why revisionists are getting away with this claim (which they incorrectly call “genocide”) is because most Indigenous civilizations did not have written history as the Old World did. Therefore, we don’t know much about it, except for the stories recorded after the first European anthropologists and historians arrived here.
Kovach: In reading his journals, what did you learn about Columbus as a man, that you were surprised to learn?
Ortiz: I did not know he was a Christian and that bringing Christianity to the New World was one of his main goals.
Kovach: Why was Columbus revered in the United States for 500 years and now suddenly in the past 30 years he is a villain?
Ortiz: I often use that question as an argument to people. What I mean is that if Columbus was a hero for 500 years, and suddenly became a villain, that alone should bring some suspicion to the claims. Sadly, many people are not curious enough to investigate, reading primary source material.
Kovach: Why was Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States so widely accepted if it is filled with inaccuracies?
Ortiz: Zinn had connections with people in Hollywood and the media who have been repeating his lies everywhere. That’s why his revisionist book had been a “success.” Since he was an academic scholar, some people immediately believed what he, or anyone else with that titled, had to say. But the same way lawmakers are not (or should not be) above the law, so are historians and scholars: There are NOT above history.
Kovach: What piqued your interest in Columbus that led you to begin defending him?
Ortiz: I noticed the same activists that wanted to rename Thanksgiving Day as “UnThanksgiving Day” made similar claims with the Pilgrims - like saying they brought slavery, diseases, racism, genocide, etc. That’s when I knew this is not about Columbus, but about shaming America and our values. I also saw the reaction to some of those anti-Columbus videos by young people on social media. Young people saying they are now ashamed of their history. My motivation is also my concern about our future, and the future of our next generations. I don’t like where education is going right now. Many reforms are needed.
Kovach: If there's one thing you want people to know about Columbus, what would it be?
Ortiz: That Columbus was indeed the hero we were told about when we were kids. The myth is not that he was the hero; the myth is that he was the villain.
If you are interested in reading any of Rafael’s books (Christopher Columbus The Hero- Defending Columbus from Modern Day Revisionism ; Columbus Day vs Indigenous Peoples' Day- The Truth Behind the Anti-Columbus Movement; and Christopher Columbus and the Christian Church- And Why He Matters to Believers Today), they can be found here: https://amzn.to/34CnNxt
You can also follow Rafael on social media, searching for Official Christopher Columbus.