Columbus Day celebrates the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas on October 12, 1492. The holiday used to be celebrated every October 12, but that was changed in 1971. Columbus Day is now celebrated every year on the second Monday in October. It was enacted as a holiday by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. But in 1991, Native American supporters created a counter-celebration witnessed every second Monday in October named Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which gained followers in the recent years.

Americans have been celebrating the anniversary of Columbus’s landing since at least 1792. During the last half of the 1800s, October 12 was celebrated in cities with large numbers of Italian Americans. Since Columbus was Italian, they wanted to honor his achievement.

The 500th anniversary in 1992 led some people to reflect on the meaning of the holiday. Many Americans object to Columbus Day. They think the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans led to the mistreatment of Native Americans.

In Latin America, Columbus’s landing is observed as Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race” or “Day of the People”). This is a celebration of the culture that developed over the centuries as native cultures melded with Spanish culture.

BACKGROUND

•  Christopher Columbus was a Genoese explorer and adventurer who was known for leading a Spanish expedition that was meant to discover new trade routes to India.

•  Spanish Monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella financed his voyage after believing his suggestion on sailing west to reach Asia may be fruitful. Their eagerness in discovering a new way was driven by the Turk’s blockade of the only known trade route from Europe to Asia and vice versa.

•  While Spain was left behind, Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator was already financing voyages for the same reason.

•  In August 3, 1492, after his negotiation with the Catholic Monarchs, Columbus sailed west from Palos, Spain, crossing the Atlantic.

•  Three ships, namely Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, and over 90 men were under his command.

•  On October 12, 1492, Columbus reached an island which he assumed was part of Asia, but was actually the modern-day Bahamas. For months, he explored the islands surrounding San Salvador (the name he gave to the Bahamas) which is today part of the Caribbean.

•  In March 1493, he sailed back to Spain leaving 40 of his men in La Natividad, the first Spanish settlement that he would later find devastated.

•  A total of four voyages to the Caribbean were made by Columbus until 1504. He died two years after his fourth voyage.

CONTROVERSY

•  States including South Dakota, Hawaii, and Alaska do not recognize Columbus Day.

•  Another faction believes that Columbus directed violence and destruction towards Native Americans, thus creating a counter-celebration: Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day, also held every second Monday in October.

•  They suggest that honoring Columbus is offensive to many Native Americans as he opened European colonization in the Americas, which resulted in the extinction of native populations like the Arawaks and Taino people.

•  Another argument was that Columbus set the stage for slave trade which lasted for centuries.

•  On October 22, 1991, Berkeley, California’s City Council first officially adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day in replacement of Columbus Day. A year later was the Columbus Quincentennial year marking 500 years since he arrived in the Americas.

•  The idea of celebrating the heritage and contribution of Native Americans was declared during the first International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas held in 1977, in Geneva, Switzerland.

•  Yet Columbus Day was still celebrated in the following years. In 1984, U.S. President Ronald Reagan commemorated Columbus with words: “This great explorer won a place in history and in the hearts of all Americans because he challenged the unknown and thereby found a New World.”

•  Detractors of Columbus emphasized that he should not be honored after he brought slavery, disease, and death to the Caribbean when he colonized the islands for the Spanish crown.

•  According to Smithsonian Magazine, it was Columbus who initiated slavery of the Taino people to work on gold mines when he became the governor of Hispaniola.

•  Moreover, natives over 14 years of age were forced into labor to work in gold mines where they needed to reach a certain quota. If they failed to do so, their hands would be hacked off.

•  Francisco de Bobadilla was the one who investigated and proved the rumors of tyranny and abuses of Columbus and his brothers in Hispaniola. In response to Bobadilla’s report, Columbus and his brothers were sent back to Spain and imprisoned for six weeks, but King Ferdinand I pardoned him and he managed to set out on another voyage.

•  Some critics also argue that celebrating Columbus Day is irrelevant since he was not the first European to actually set foot on the Americas. Aside from the Vikings, John Cabot already settled and claimed present-day Canada for England in 1497.

•  Among the earliest critics of Columbus was the Spanish Dominican friar, Bartolome de Las Casas, who became known as the Defender and Apostle to the Indians. Las Casas’ father and grandfather were among the people who joined Columbus early voyages. In 1502, he personally visited Hispaniola and started to document everything in his journal.

•  In Las Casas’ Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, he protested against the excesses of Spanish colonization in the Americas.

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