Brief History of Columbus Day

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Brief History of Columbus Day

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison urged Americans to observe October 12 as the day marking the 400th anniversary of “the discovery of America” by Christopher Columbus, “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” The following year, Chicago’s famous World’s Fair was devoted to the commemoration of Columbus’ discovery and dubbed “The Columbian Exposition.” For decades after, the Catholic fraternal organization, The Knights of Columbus, lobbied state governments to declare October 12 a legal holiday. In 1907, Colorado was the first state to oblige. Many other states followed until President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it a national holiday in 1934. The holiday was later designated (in 1971) as the second Monday in October.


Columbus Day has become controversial.

Below are popular arguments for and against the celebration of Columbus Day.

Proponents argue…

Opponents argue…

Columbus represents a historical figure representative of Italian-American heritage. Columbus, as a cosmopolitan Italian who, on behalf of the Spanish crown and all Europeans, opened the path to the New World. In fact, it is no accident that the largest influx of Italian immigrants (over 5 million), from 1880 to 1910, coincided with the elevation of Columbus as a celebrated national hero. It’s even likely that Columbus’ status as a national hero helped ease Italian immigrants’ integration into American culture.

Figure : Christopher Columbus statue in Pueblo, Colorado

Further reading: Oct 9, 2010 Op-Ed in Pueblo Chieftain

Why We Should Celebrate Columbus Day by The Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) (PDF)

Far from deserving to be honored as a national hero, Columbus should be reviled as one who launched the conquest of the Americas by Western European powers, introduced the atrocities of slavery and genocide in the New World, and began the imposition of European commercial values and religion upon the natives of America. His attitudes represent the start of a deplorable period in history when European commercial and religious enterprises led to the inhumane treatment of people of other cultures. Moreover, such attitudes overtly persist today through racism and, more subtly, in unconcious attitudes of cultural and racial superiority, of which the sentiment that Columbus “discovered” America is illustrative. Such a notion ignores the millions of people living in America long before Columbus landed.

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Figure : Columbus enslaves the Caribs

Further reading: Sept 28, 2010 Abagond blog

Video excerpt from 500 Nations: The Discovery and Arrival of Christopher Columbus Part I & Part II

For some Catholic Americans, Columbus served the role of a major missionary for the Christian faith. Columbus’ primary purpose for his voyages was to convert other nations to Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism. Columbus viewed his spread of the faith as a beneficent mission of peace and charity with the purpose of ensuring salvation for the people he encountered. True to his name (Christopher), Columbus was the “bearer of Christ” to the New World.

Figure : Christopher Columbus Presented the Catholic Majesties the New World, by Diego Velazquez

Further reading:

The Real Presence Association, Father John A. Hardon’s Defense of Columbus

Rather than embodying Christian charity, Columbus represents Christian domination of the western world. His attitude towards the natives was primarily one of subjection and misunderstanding, not fraternity and enlightenment. Although Columbus assures the Spanish monarchy that “the beginning and end of the enterprise was the increase and glory of the Christian Religion,” his writings seem more obsessed with the acquisition of gold and the colonization of an earthly paradise. And, of course, his non-Christian actions – stealing, murdering, coveting, etc. – betrayed his true motives.

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Figure : Columbus in the Carib

Further research: Oct 6, 2006 Democracy Now radio program transcript -- Columbus Day Protesters in Denver

If for no other reason, we should celebrate Columbus as an enlightened figure of the European Renaissance whose radical vision of the world opened the course of western exploration. Furthermore, we should understand him as a man of his time, and suspend our modern values and morals in judgment of his character. (Some still argue that, at a time when the world was considered flat, Columbus boldly and persistently challenged this universal assumption; and, for that, he should be celebrated as a scientific visionary who proved the world to be round. However, many defenders of Columbus acknowledge this view as fallacious.)

Figure : Columbus as American Hero

Further research:

Watch an old educational cartoon video

Oct 13, 2008 The Northern Agrarian blog

Columbus Day should be converted to a kind of anti-Columbus acknowledgement of the peoples whose subjection he helped initiate. Rather than a commemoration of a dubious triumph, it ought to be celebrated as recognition of today’s multiculturalism in America.

Figure : Members of the Transforming Columbus Day Alliance Protesting on Columbus Day, 2007

Further research: The Transform Columbus Day Alliance

Some states and cities observe alternative Columbus Days

News footage of Brown University’s revision of Columbus Day

The Debate

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Below are some links to articles about the Columbus-Day debate itself

New York City news clip regarding controversy

Oct 3, 2010 perspective in Denver Post

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