Happy Columbus Day

Erin Pfeifer, Webmaster

Today, October 14, 2019, is  Columbus Day, or at least it is in most states in the U.S.

For this holiday, here are a few fun facts about Christopher Columbus, and his infamous voyages.

1: There were actually four voyages.
Although most people only think about Columbus’s first voyage (1492, 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492) he sailed again in 1493, 1498, and 1502. That said, he probably should have stopped after the first one, because although he came back as hero after the first voyage, and even though he brought gold and slaves, by the time he died he was not rich-although he also was not living in poverty like many people believe-and was seen as a failure by many.

2: Columbus did not really discover anything.
First of all, as we all know, when Columbus reached the New World the first thing he found was the “Indians”, showing that people had discovered the Americas long before he ever arrived. Second of all, even if you’re considering it purely from the standpoint of Europeans discovering the Americas, Leif Erikson had reached the Americas almost 500 years before Columbus ever set foot there, although Leif Erikson landed in present day Canada and Columbus was strictly in South America, and did not even hit the mainland until his third journey. In fact, Columbus was not even the first one to land in South America, because Amerigo Vespucci (The man that the Americas are named after) was said to have landed in Venezuela in 1497, which would have been a year before Columbus ever hit the mainland.

3: Columbus Day as a national holiday was initially only meant to be a single year event.
In 1891, New Orleans was home to the bloody lynching of eleven Italian Americans. Most immigrated cultures in America have gone through periods of oppression, and at the time it was Italians. President Benjamin Harrison declared the celebration of Columbus Day as a one year event in 1892, as a way to try and calm the hostility towards Italian Americans and to try and remind all the citizens of the importance of patriotism.

4: Sex slaves were common gifts to Columbus’s men.
Now, Columbus enslaved many different Natives for many different reasons. In his journal after first landing on the Canary Islands and meeting the Native Americans, he described them, saying that they were strong and intelligent and that he believed they would make good servants, and he and his men had many slaves of their own. But along with the general abhorrent slavery and abuse, he also gave female Natives as sex slaves to the men who worked with him, as rewards and comfort.

5: He did lead to a lot of travel.
As previously stated, Columbus did not actually discover much of anything, but it is true that his voyages led to a lot of the European exploration of the Americas, and in fact eventually led to the Columbian Exchange.

All in all, Columbus really was not the hero that many of us believe he is. It is true that if Columbus had not traveled to the Americas, someone else would have, and it is likely that they would have led to equal tales of genocide, rape, abuse, slavery, and the plundering of natural resources. Many people use this to justify Columbus, saying that is simply the way things were at the time, but being equivalent to the ways of the time does not really excuse the horrible actions of the old times. Even if it shifts our understanding of what happened, it does not make the actions of Columbus, his men, or the other people of the era alright.

This said, we should not merely be saying that Columbus was terrible and let that be that. The lack of knowledge that many people have about Columbus and his atrocities comes merely from ignorance, and for the blatant disregard of Columbus’s horrors in American public school curriculum. To really celebrate Columbus Day, what we should be doing is trying to increase education about what he did and who he was, and to talk about the true history of America. Various states now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, rather than Columbus Day. Whether renaming the holiday is the best course of action or not is impossible to know, but increasing education and understanding is perhaps the only way that we can try to learn and grow.