The Columbus Day Celebration

First Landing of Columbus on the Shores of the New World; painting by Dióscoro Puebla (1862)

Pope John Paul II broke new ground when he apologized to the Indigenous populations and to African Americans on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage.

Columbus understood sea navigation very well because his basic education was solid. He probably had attended one of Prince Henry’s schools of map-making. After ten years of begging the king of Portugal for subsidies, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain financed his trip. Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, initially landing in the Bahamas before moving on to Cuba and Hispaniola. When he returned from his initial voyage, Portuguese leaders saw Columbus’ sea excursions as conflicting with their exploration rights. They cited the 1455 papal bull stating that Portugal exclusively had the rights to “…reduce to servitude all infidel peoples” (Williams 3).

Portugal’s Regret

Pope Alexander VI mediated a compromise between the two countries resulting in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which officially split the East and West between Portugal and Spain. However, one Portuguese leader, Don Juan, expressed regret over failing to explore western seas before Columbus did. In a meeting with Columbus in 1493, Don Juan told Columbus that he had seen African sailors heading west many times, so he knew land was there. West Africans used the equatorial currents that run from West Africa to South America and the Caribbean. They had been sailing to the Americas as far back as the Mali Empire (1250 CE). Portuguese sailors, however, were reluctant to venture into the area because of faulty advice coupled with their decision to explore India (Van Sertima 8).

Since Pope Nicholas V sanctioned Portugal to make slaves out of all non-Christians, in 1992 Pope John Paul II attempted to rectify that declaration on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. He apologized to Native Americans and African Americans for the Catholic Church’s role in colonization and the slave trade. Pope John Paul addressed them in a speech from Santo Domingo. His intent was to get Native Americans and African Americans to forgive Columbus and the atrocities that he and other European adventurers committed.

Pope John Paul’s Apology

The pope premised his speech by saying that he understood the enormity of the devastation against Indigenous and African populations at the hands of colonizers from Europe. He went on to say that those Europeans were unable to see the victims as people created by God. Then the pope got into the forgiveness aspect of his speech by saying: “In the name of Jesus Christ and as pastor of the church, I ask you to forgive those who have offended you. Forgive all those who during these 500 years have been the cause of pain and suffering for your ancestors and for yourselves” (Quoted in Clarke 13).

Pope John Paul tempered his speech by defending the church’s treatment of Native and African Americans over the years. Although he denounced slavery and colonization and their negative consequences, he made a distinction between them and the spread of Christianity. He indicated that although European colonizers brought devastation to the area, they also introduced Christianity, meaning it has had positive effects.

Different Messages for Both Groups

The day after his speech, the pope met separately with Indigenous and African American representatives to give them written testimony of his position. In the letter to Native Americans, he said that the church remembers the slaughters and atrocities done to the people of the region. He went on to say that European invaders were extremely abusive because of the “lack of love in those people who were unable to see the Indigenous as brothers and sons of the same God” (Quoted in Clarke 15). His letter to African Americans stated that it was unfortunate Africans had to forcibly come to the region as captives, which caused tremendous changes in traditional African practices. The pope added that the slave trade was a shameful and criminal event conducted by people who failed to adhere to Christian principles.

The Question of Forgiveness

In his letter the pope rhetorically asked: “How can one forget the enormous sufferings inflicted on populations deported from the African continent…? How can one forget the human lives cut down by slavery?” (Quoted in Clarke 16) Even though his questions are thoughtful, most, if not all, African American and Indigenous representatives view Columbus as a “rapist, slave trader, reactionary religious fanatic and the personal director of a campaign of mass murder of defenseless peoples” (Clarke 11).

Why didn’t the pope ask, as Dr. Clarke suggests, the descendants of the criminals and enslavers to repent? Before the descendants of Indigenous and African peoples can consider forgiving anyone, there should be repentance. The dictionary definition of repent is to feel sorrow for one’s sin and determine to do what is right. This is the major problem with the Columbus Day celebration. American leaders have yet to determine the right thing to do about Columbus’ devastating adventures into the New World.


  1. Clarke, John Henrik. Christopher Columbus & the Afrikan HOLOCAUST.
  2. Brooklyn, NY: A&B Books, 1992.
  3. Van Sertima, Ivan. They Came Before Columbus. NY: Random House, 1976.
  4. William, Eric. Capitalism & Slavery. NY: Perigee Books, 1944.