As I write this, Columbus Day weekend is fast approaching and I, along with many of my fellow Americans, am certainly looking forward to the prospect of a long weekend. However, with that being said, it is important that we take a look at who exactly we’re celebrating, and whether he really did anything that merits celebration.
First, let’s take a look at the origins of Columbus Day, because even putting aside the many other problems with Columbus that we’ll get to in just a moment, it’s more than a little strange that large parts of the United States would choose to celebrate a man who had nothing to do with the United States, and never even set foot on the land that would eventually become the United States. Columbus Day can trace its roots to Italian American immigrants, who, after having arrived in the United States, were often treated with hostility. As a result, Italian Americans used Columbus’ Genoese nationality to show that Italians had always been part of the American story. This culminated in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison called for national celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ journey. Since that day, many parts of the U.S. have celebrated Columbus Day and Franklin Delano Roosevelt would later make it a federal holiday.
As for the fictional portrayal of Christopher Columbus that many Americans are probably familiar with, this can be attributed to Washington Irving’s “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.” In this work, Irving portrayed Columbus as a brave explorer who proved the world was round, discovered the Americas and was kind to the natives. None of this was true. It was common knowledge that the Earth was round long before Columbus’ time. The idea that the Earth is round was first seriously advanced by Aristotle, and later proved by Eratosthenes in Ptolemaic Egypt, who was able to calculate its circumference with remarkable accuracy. This knowledge was never lost either. Columbus set sail because he falsely believed that the Earth was smaller than it is, and that one could sail from Iberia to India via the Pacific Ocean. He also did not really discover the Americas. Though the natives, Vikings and maybe even Chinese explorers all reached the Americas first, it is fair to say that Columbus was the person who permanently connected the Americas to Afro-Eurasia and began the exchange of goods, people and disease. That being said, Columbus thought he had arrived in Asia, and died without knowing he had actually landed on a new continent. It was only after Columbus’ death that Amerigo Vespucci realized the Americas were separate continents. What Columbus undoubtedly did do was expose the Americas to European imperialism with disastrous consequences for the people already living there. The Taino, an indigenous tribe that lived where Columbus landed, greeted him with the utmost hospitality, yet his first instinct was to take advantage of them and ultimately enslave them. By the early 16th Century, the Taino were nearly gone, wiped out by violence and disease. The rest of the native population of the Americas suffered a similarly horrific fate.
All of this brings us to the question of whether Americans really ought to celebrate Columbus. I say no. In many Latin American nations, as well as in increasing number of states and cities in the US, the day is instead a celebration of the indigenous people who populated these continents long before Columbus arrived, and so many of whom were lost as a result of that fateful arrival. It seems to me that this would be a much more historically accurate and morally appropriate way to mark the occasion.