The second Monday of October 2016 was observed as Columbus Day on the federal calendar, as it has been since 1971.  The date (originally 12 October) is supposed to commemorate the date that Christopher Columbus discovered what became known as the Americas, named not after Columbus but after Amerigo Vespucci, another European explorer  who sailed to the land mass that he called the New World.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue

Christopher Columbus, of course, didn’t discover anything; as he noted during the voyage, he and his crew found people wherever his ships landed.  He then immediately claimed the land, writing:

I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance….

The inhabitants… are all, as I said before, unprovided with any sort of iron, and they are destitute of arms, which are entirely unknown to them, and for which they are not adapted; not on account of any bodily deformity, for they are well made, but because they are timid and full of terror…

But when they see that they are safe, and all fear is banished, they are very guileless and honest, and very liberal of all they have. No one refuses the asker anything that he possesses; on the contrary they themselves invite us to ask for it.

Columbus immediately enslaved some of the natives, as well as claiming the land: 

As soon as I had some into this sea, I took by force some Indians from the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and at the same time tell us what they knew about affairs in these regions. This succeeded admirably; for in a short time we understood them and they us both by gesture and signs and words; and they were of great service to us.

Flat earth?

The voyage wasn’t to prove that the earth was round rather than flat, but to attempt to find a direct water route between Europe and Asia for trading purposes.  (People had known the world was round since at least the time of the ancient Greeks; for example, Aristotle used constellations to prove the spherical-earth hypothesis.) Columbus wasn’t looking for scientific opportunities, but mercantile ones, and with a religious component as well — he truly believed that he was doing God’s work:

Columbus estimated the size of the Atlantic Ocean partially from reading his Bible. He had read in the Second Book of Esdras (in the Apocrypha) that God created the world in seven parts, six of them dry land and the seventh water. He thus calculated that the ocean separating Portugal from Cipangu (Japan) was one-seventh of the earth’s circumference, or about 2,400 miles. He figured that by sailing 100 miles per day, he could reach the Indies in 30 days.

The story that Columbus “proved” that the world was round seems to have originated from a much later biography, written by Washington Irving and published in 1828.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day

As more documents were discovered, and indigenous people began to speak out about their own histories and how they related to European conquest of the so-called New World, a different picture of Columbus emerged.  It was one that painted him not as a heroic entrepreneurial spirit who turned the scientific world on its head, but as a vicious slave trader whose work upended countless cultures and ushered in an era of oppression and erasure:

Throughout his years in the New World, Columbus enacted policies of forced labor in which natives were put to work for the sake of profits. Later, Columbus sent thousands of peaceful Taino “Indians” from the island of Hispaniola to Spain to be sold. Many died en route. Those left behind were forced to search for gold in mines and on plantations. Within 60 years after Columbus landed, only a few hundred of what may have been 250,000 Taino were left on their island.

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic, according to documents discovered by Spanish historians in 2005. In response to native unrest and revolt, Columbus ordered the a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed; in an attempt to deter further rebellion, Columbus ordered their dismembered bodies to be paraded through the streets.

According to the documents, Columbus subsequently lost his governorship and much of his prestige.  

Because of this new understanding of history, a longtime push to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day (a protest movement that came out of a 1977 conference in Berkeley, California) has grown to include regions such as Anchorage, Alaska; Phoenix, Arizona; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Boulder, Colorado, and as of 2016, all of Vermont:

The state of Vermont recognizes the historical, cultural, and contemporary significance of the Indigenous Peoples of the lands that later became known as the Americas, including Vermont, and values the many contributions of these peoples.

The campaign to make the second Monday in October a federal holiday, but one that celebrates Native Americans rather than the history of European exploration (and subjugation) has not been without controversy.  Oklahoma City, for example, has repeatedly rejected proposals to recast Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day saying there was too much opposition, and critics have said in the past that to refuse to honor Columbus is an insult to Italian-Americans:

“Italians are intensely offended,” Seattle native Lisa Marchese said. “For decades, Italian Americans celebrated not the man, but the symbol of Columbus Day. That symbol means we honor the legacy of our ancestors who immigrated to Seattle, overcame poverty, a language barrier and above all, discrimination.”

However, supporters of the change say that it is not intended as an offense or an attack against any group of people, nor is it an effort to erase Christopher Columbus (or any other European explorer) from the books, but an attempt to add to the national narrative and correct long-running inaccuracies and omissions in the historical record.

 

Sources:

Brochetto, Marilia, and Emannuella Grinberg,.   “Quest to Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day Sails Ahead.”
    CNN.  10 October 2016.

Columbus, Christopher.   The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492-1493).
    Hakluyt Society, 1893.

Numbers, Ronald L. and Kostas Kampourakis (eds.).   Newton’s Apple and Other Myths About Science.
    Harvard College, 2015.   ISBN 9-78067-496-7984.

USAToday.   “Support Grows for Indigenous People’s Day Amid Columbus Day Criticism.”
    10 October 2016.

Nader, Helen (ed.)   The Book of Privileges Issued To Christopher Columbus By King Fernando and Queen Isabel 1492-1502: (Repertorium Columbianum): v.2.
    September 1996.