Today, Yesterday: Columbus Day

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“Happy Columbus Day, America!” by oriana.italy is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Elizabeth Alton

In our history curriculum, there’s a lot of learning and relearning. Some of my first memories of Thanksgiving are the dioramas that we used to make in elementary school. We colored in pictures of Pilgrims and Native Americans, and talked about the way that they sat down together in unity for a great feast. We talked about how the brave Pilgrims and Puritans had survived the harsh winter with the help of their Native friends, and Thanksgiving celebrated the union of their communities. When we learned about Columbus, while there were a few mentions that he hadn’t really “discovered” America, there was also always affectionate “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” that followed any mention of him. And also, if we got a monday off of school because of him, he must have been pretty great, right?

It’s only later that all of that is relearned. Suddenly the great Columbus, the valiant Columbus’s “discovery” would also come with the information that he helped introduces diseases that ravaged native tribes (almost completely eradicating the Taino tribe), enslaved them, and after appointing himself the governor of the Indies, he displayed rebels dismembered bodies throughout the streets in order to discourage uprisings. Long story short, Columbus wasn’t everything he seemed when we first learned about him back in elementary school; in fact, he was very far from it.

So what is Columbus day? Columbus day, designated as the second Monday in October, marks the day that Columbus arrived in America. Columbus’s initial intention, sponsored by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, was to chart a course to Asia that could be reached by sailing West, lured by the legends of gold and spice, and a desire to bring wealth to Spain. When he reached the Americas, Columbus thought he had found Asia, instead happening upon the new world. He mistook Cuba for mainland China, and Hispaniola for Japan. He would return to Spain with gold, spice, and slaves, leaving behind smallpox, and the Americas changed forever. So why do we celebrate Columbus? Maybe because his interaction with Natives opened the door to a new world for Europeans? But then what about all of the pain he inflicted, why do we celebrate that? Did people just not know? Did they not care? When Columbus day emerged as a national holiday, it was more as a celebration of the Italian heritage that people shared with Columbus than of Columbus himself.

The first “celebration” of Columbus day took place in around 1792, to commemorate 300 years since Columbus had landed in the new world. The next significant celebration was 100 years later, in 1892, commemorating 400 years since the event. The 400th anaversary came after a lynching in New Orleans, where 11 Italian immigrents were killed by a mob. As a result, the President at the time, Benjamin Harris, made a proclamation announcing Columbus day as a one time national celebration, a move that was also meant to ease diplomatic relations with Italy, and satisfy Italian Americans following the lynching. Though it was celebrated as a symbol of Italian heritage for many years after 1892, it officially became a holiday after years of lobbying in 1937.

That said, the tides are starting to change in terms of support of the holiday. Today, eight states have replaced Columbus day with an Indigenous people’s day, and two other states choose not to recognize it at all. 

Either way, Columbus day serves as a reminder that the world would never be the same after Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in October, 1942, and provides us all with a time to reflect on the ramifications of its “discovery.” Whether or not you choose to celebrate Columbus day or not is entirely up to you, but either way we should all take this time to reflect on the sometimes violent and bloody history that our country was founded upon, as well as the rich cultures that make it unique.

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