Columbus Day: An Outdated Concept


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By Ethan Ruh

Columbus Day parade at Howard Beach, Queens, New York.
Photo credit: Steve Malecki.

Columbus Day (October 9 this year) is a federal holiday that commemorates the “discovery” of the New World on October 12, 1492 by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. It is celebrated on the second Monday of October and has been a federal holiday since 1937. The first-ever Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792 at Tammany Hall in New York, marking the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison tried to use the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ landing to teach ideas of patriotism. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday after intense lobbying from the Catholic-based fraternal organization Knights of Columbus.  

Knights of Columbus procession in Lourdes, France.
Photo credit: Elise Harris/CNA.

In August of 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain sent Columbus and his crew on a journey to find a western sea route to India and China in order to acquire spices and gold. He spotted land for the first time on October 12th. When he first spotted land, he thought he had found China, but he had actually found present-day Cuba. Later he discovered the present-day Dominican Republic, which he thought was Japan. In 1493, Columbus returned from his first voyage to Spain carrying gold, spices, and native slaves that he claimed were “Indians.”

Natives being punished in the New World. This engraving, by 16th century artist Theodor de Bry, appeared in Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, a 1552 text by Bartolomé de las Casas about European exploration of the New World. Image via wikimedia commons.

When Columbus arrived in Hispaniola, the island that is modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, he encountered a civilization of indigenous Taino people. Columbus and his men initially traded goods with the Tainos, but they were soon forced into slavery by Columbus and his men. He forced Catholicism on the Tainos, and the Europeans unknowingly brought diseases such as smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague, which decimated the Taino population. The Tainos were forced to mine gold for Columbus, and if they did not supply enough, Columbus and his men would chop off their hands. Columbus declared himself governor of Hispaniola, and he implemented an authoritarian method in ruling the Taino people. When the natives tried to rebel, he responded by having his men kill the revolters, and they paraded the dismembered body parts through the streets, hoping to strike fear in the other natives.  

After seven years of being governor of Hispaniola, the Spanish Court accused Columbus of mismanaging Hispaniola, and a royal administrator traveled to the Caribbean to investigate. Columbus and his men were arrested by the investigator and brought back to Spain.  However, after four years Columbus was released from prison, and he able to make more expeditions to the New World.

Columbus led three other expeditions, where he explored more Caribbean Islands, the Central and South American mainland, and the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, not only did Columbus fail in his task of finding an ocean route to Asian cities, he also never set foot in North America.  

Not only did Columbus never set foot in North America; he was not even the first European to set foot in the Western Hemisphere. After being expelled from Iceland, Norse explorer Erik the Red established a settlement in Greenland. Around the year 1000, his son Leif Erikson sailed from Greenland to the eastern coast of what is today Canada. In the late 19th century, many Nordic-Americans began to celebrate Leif Erikson for being the first European to set foot in North America. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared October 9th as Leif Erikson Day. However, this holiday is overshadowed by Columbus Day, as the two dates are very close. Leif Erikson Day has been a day of observance for over 50 years but has yet to receive much public attention; not as many people know who Erikson is, nor that he was one of the first Europeans in the New World.

Generations of school children have been taught the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” They are taught that Columbus discovered America and that he is a hero. Elementary school’s curriculums about Columbus often fail to mention his failures and his horrific treatment of natives. Years of not teaching children the truth about Columbus has created false perceptions about Columbus. Even many adults are unaware about what Columbus actually did.

Columbus Day protest in Chicago in 2015.
Photo credit: Anthony Roy.

While Columbus’ voyage to the western hemisphere was a crucial moment in the history of the world that kickstarted the age of exploration, Columbus should not be the one that is celebrated. His voyage opened up the exploration of the rest of the world, but his journey led to genocide, enslavement, and exploitation of native people. Columbus has been glorified for too long; he should not be posed as a national hero to children.

I believe that it is insensitive to indigenous people to have a federal holiday that celebrates a man who completely destroyed civilizations. It is time for Columbus Day to be replaced by a different holiday that does not celebrate genocide. The tale of Leif Erikson should be taught to children, along with teaching them about Columbus. States such as Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, and Oregon do not recognize Columbus Day, some have replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day, a day that celebrates Native American history and culture. In 2016, Vermont started celebrating Indigenous People’s Day as well. The movement to replace Columbus Day has made progress with many states and individual cities. Columbus Day is outdated and should not be a federal holiday.

Featured image: Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus, by Italian painter Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About the author

Ethan Ruh is a Senior at Collegiate School