Columbus Day was celebrated on October 12 as it is every year on that date. The purpose of the holiday is to commemorate Columbus’ “discovery” of America in 1492 (more on that later). In addition, Italian-Americans observe the holiday as a means of celebrating their proud heritage. The holiday is celebrated in various forms in most, but not all, of the States and in many foreign countries as well.
The roots of the holiday can be traced back at least to 1792 when various cities, such as NYC, celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. Other celebrations were held in succeeding years. For the most part, these celebrations took on patriotic themes, such as nationalism, good citizenship and even support for wars. The first state to recognize Columbus Day as a holiday was Colorado in 1906. This was largely due to the lobbying efforts of one Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian-American living in Denver. It became recognized as a federal holiday in 1937, through the strong and persistent lobbying efforts of the Knights of Columbus and other Italian-American organizations.
As I alluded to above, Columbus Day is not celebrated universally in the US. The methods of celebration vary widely. Most states, such as NY and California, treat it as a major holiday. Schools and state office buildings are closed; there are parades and other official events. Other states mark the day merely as a “Day of Observance.” Virginia combines two celebrations on the same day – Columbus Day and Yorktown Victory Day, which recognizes the decisive victory that marked the end of the Revolutionary War. Four states – Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota – do not celebrate it at all. Hawaii celebrates the Polynesian discovery of Hawaii on that day, but it is not an official state holiday. Government offices and schools are open. South Dakota celebrates “Native American Day.”
Throughout the years there have been various protests surrounding the day. In the 1800s there was an anti-Columbus Day movement based upon its association with immigrants and Catholics in general and the Knights of Columbus, in particular. Those biases were prevalent in those pre-politically correct days. In present day, opposition is based primarily on Columbus’ harsh treatment of Native Americans. He has been labeled as an unsavory character and an opportunist. Furthermore, he has been accused of introducing slavery and disease to the indigenous populace. In general, many historians have a somewhat negative view of Columbus.
There are many myths and exaggerations surrounding Columbus and his famous voyage of discovery. Here are the facts as close as I was able to discern them:
1. Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. He was not Spanish, as many assume.
2. The main purpose of his voyage was to discover a western route to Asia. He was convinced one could reach Asia by sailing west. It wasn’t so much to prove the world was round instead of flat as by 1492 most astronomers, scholars and educated people recognized that it was. In point of fact, Aristotle had proven this concept scientifically over 1,000 years before by using astronomy. Trade with Asia was very lucrative. The only known routes were either sailing around the Cape of Good Hope or travelling overland, both of which were long, arduous and dangerous. If he could, in fact, find a faster alternate route, so much the better. Literally, time was money.
3. Columbus had great difficulty finding backers for his venture. Before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to finance his venture, he was turned down by many others, including the governments of England, France and Portugal. Potential financial backers were quite skeptical of Columbus’ proposal. For one thing, the conventional wisdom of the day was that the earth was much larger than Columbus thought, and, of course, the experts were correct.
4. The “Nina and the “Pinta” were not the actual names of two of his ships. In those days it was customary to name ships after saints. Often, the sailors would rename them with nicknames. So, for example, the actual name of the Nina” was the “Santa Clara.” “Nina” referred to the ships owner, Juan Nino. The name Pinta was slang for “prostitute.”
5. Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the Americas. It has been well documented that the Viking, Leif Ericsson, landed in what is now Newfoundland in about the year 1,000. Furthermore, there is evidence that Irish and Celtic explorers may also have preceded him, and, of course, many thousands of years before even them Asians had trekked across the Bearing Strait to settle the Americas.
6. Columbus never did accomplish the primary objectives of his mission. He never found the Northwest Passage to Asia. In fact, Columbus did not even set foot in North America. In his maiden voyage he landed on the West Caribbean island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti). He thought he was in India, so he called the natives “Indians,” an appellation that has stuck. On subsequent voyages he landed on other Caribbean islands and in what is present-day Venezuela, never North America. It’s true that navigation in the 15th Century was far from an exact science, but nevertheless Columbus was nowhere near where he thought he was. (I suppose he could have used a GPS.)
Unlike other holidays, Columbus Day is not universally celebrated. In fact, one can argue that it was founded due to the intense lobbying efforts of Italian-Americans and other interested parties. As far as Columbus, himself, is concerned, his “discoveries” certainly paved the way for opening up the New World to European exploration and settlement (some would say exploitation). He deserves credit for that. But, present-day evidence shows conclusively that he did not actually “discover” anything. One might say he had a good press agent. I’m not trying to “trash” the man, but facts are facts.