Columbus Day: Celebration and Controversy

Oct 12, 2009

Columbus Day is observed on the second Monday in October every year to honor the anniversary of the 'discovery' of America on October 12, 1492. Given recent discoveries, however, one has to ask: is celebrating Columbus Day appropriate, or are we just too lazy to do away with tradition?

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Classrooms and federal employees cross America celebrate Columbus'exploration of the world every year. Columbus' is often lauded as one of the greatest 'discoverers' in history. However, on His first day in the New World found him using violent force to enslave six natives.

While ruling as Governor and Viceroy of the Carribbean, Columbus killed paraded dead natives through the streets to deter unrest by the natives. Columbus also used force to make native peoples search for gold and to convert them to Christianity.

Despite these cruelties, many Americans continue to celebrate Columbus' 1492 voyage. Should we continue to honor a man who was responsible for the decimation of many native populations? Or should we focus on Columbus' great explorations that opened the path towards the creation of the United States.

The Real Christopher Columbus

What most people remember (or were taught) about Christopher Columbus can be boiled down into one effective mnemonic:

'In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.'

Of course, there is much more to the story than that. Columbus set sail to search for the East Indies in August of 1492. Gold and conquest were the driving reasons behind the historic voyage.

But, the hapless navigator misjudged the circumference of the Earth and landed instead on the Bahamas. He later sailed on to Cuba and to Hispaniola (now Haiti), which he mistakenly believed to be the East Indies.

From the viewpoint of the Europeans, Columbus discovered North America. In reality, Columbus discovered very little (other than the world is round and very big) as these regions were already inhabited by other people.

We also know, thanks to extensive evidence uncovered by historians, that Columbus was incredibly cruel to the indigenous people he called 'Indians.' His first day in the New World found him using violent force to enslave six natives, writing in his diary that he believed they would be 'good servants.'

Columbus enacted forced labor policies in the coming years and even shipped off thousands of peaceful Taino 'Indians' from the island of Hispaniola to be sold into Spanish slavery. Sixty years after Columbus' arrival, the 250,000 Taino on the island had dwindled to only a few hundred people.

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The History of Columbus Day

For more than 200 years, Columbus Day has been celebrated in the month of October. The first recorded Columbus Day celebration was held in New York City on October 12, 1792. The celebration was organized by a nationwide U.S. patriotic and charitable organization known as The Columbian Order or Society of St. Tammany.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged the country to continue the celebration to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus' famous voyage. The state of Colorado began to observe the holiday a few years later, and in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt made the holiday official by naming October 12 'Columbus Day.'

President Nixon took things even further in 1971 by declaring Columbus Day to be a federal holiday, which means that federal employees get to take this day off work each year.

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

Many people believe that we should continue celebrating Columbus Day as a show of patriotism. Others, however, cannot help but question the validity of calling a vicious villain an American hero.

Some groups even deny Columbus Day entirely. Indigenous People Day is celebrated instead by an organization called Native American Studies Indigenous Research Group. Hawaiians celebrate Discoverer's Day, where they honor several explorers including the man who first put Hawaii's coordinates on the map. Others still spend the day protesting Columbus Day parades and celebrations.

Should we continue to observe Columbus Day and honor the man who helped open the Americas to exploration? Or would it be preferable to rename the holiday and use it as an opportunity for learning more about the events that transpired during the Age of Discovery?

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