Excerpted from James Nevius’ fine essay, to be found here in its entirety.
“The second Monday in October has been designated an American federal holiday in Christopher Columbus’s honor since 1937. To most people in the United States, this commemoration of his 1492 landing in the Bahamas no longer has much meaning – many Americans outside of large Italian American communities are only dimly aware that it’s an official holiday. Many people don’t even get the day off work, instead trading Columbus Day for the day after Thanksgiving.
“For generations, school children learned to recite, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. . That tale, much of it created by Washington Irving (the man who gave us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), is bunk. Mariners knew full well the earth was round, including Columbus and his crew.
Columbus just thought the circumference of the earth was thousands of miles smaller, and thus that the islands of the Caribbean were the East Indies. Our holiday celebrates a man who was lost.
“Lost or not, he immediately captured some of the natives he met, writing of the “seven [natives] which I have ordered to be taken and carried to Spain,” and further musing that “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased”. In December, his ships reached Hispaniola – the island that now hosts Haiti and the Dominican Republic – where he forced the natives to provide him gold; those who didn’t had their hands lopped off.
It was the beginning of a rapid decline of the island’s population; historian Laurence Bergreen estimates that there were 300,000 natives on Hispaniola when Columbus arrived; by 1550, there were just 500. Many had been killed by disease or Spanish soldiers; others had been enslaved and sent back to Spain. A huge number simply took their own lives rather than live under Spanish rule.
Is this really worthy of a celebration and a three-day sale at the local department store?
“Rather than a holiday celebrating one man, let’s have a day where every local community celebrates the native cultures connected to that locale. In New York, we could honor the Algonquin-speaking Lenape; in Utah, there could be a festival for their namesake Utes; in the Dakotas, a celebration of the Sioux, while at the same time recognizing the plight of many Indians on reservations.
“Of course, not everyone would be pleased. These days, the strongest argument in favor of the holiday comes from Italian Americans, who helped originally promote Columbus Day as a way to mark their heritage and to celebrate a Catholic hero in a decidedly anti-Catholic country. But does anyone really want to ride a float commemorating a vicious slave trader who caused 50,000 natives to spontaneously commit suicide? I’d argue that they can come up with better symbols of Italian American pride.”