• Some locales around the US have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
• Observance of the holiday in North America dates back to colonial times.
• The general public has become increasingly aware of the dark side of Christopher Columbus’s legacy, causing controversy.
Columbus Day has become one of the most controversial holidays in the US.
A number of cities across America have already swapped it for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Detractors argue Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus brought along slavery, disease, and death when he colonised the Caribbean for Spain, and should therefore not be hailed as a hero.
Either way, the fact it’s a debate at all is unusual, considering Columbus himself never even made it to North America — let alone the portion of the continent that would one day become the US. And his actions in the Caribbean and Central America were controversial even by early modern standards. He wasn’t simply a navigator whose arrival in America set off a wave of destruction. Columbus actively participated in some pretty gruesome crimes himself, in his pursuit of profit.
On Hispaniola, Columbus served as the governor of Spain’s new territory. The Spanish colonizers enslaved the native Taíno people, forcing them to work in gold mines. Harsh conditions, starvation and disease decimated the local population, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
In some areas, native individuals above the age of 14 were forced to collect a certain amount of gold powder in order to receive a token, Smithsonian Magazine reports. If they failed to meet the quota, their hand would be hacked off.
Historians have recognised a phenomenon of the Black Legend — attempts by non-Spanish historians to portray the Spanish as the most brutal colonizers of all. But even Columbus’ contemporaries recognised the nature of his conduct.
To address the rumoured abuses and incompetence of Columbus, Francisco de Bobadilla travelled to Hispaniola. After collecting testimony from the governor’s allies and enemies alike, he assembled a report alleging Columbus and his brothers were hapless tyrants. The report contained horrific allegations of torture and mutilation.
Modern day Columbus supporters have portrayed Bobadilla as a dishonest usurper, but Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand did jail Columbus and his brothers for six weeks in response to the report. While he was freed and sent on another voyage, Columbus was not reappointed as governor.
So how did Americans come to celebrate the legacy of Christopher Columbus in the first place?
The Columbus fever caught on as far back as the Revolutionary War, and only began to truly break for the general public in the 20th century.
Venetian explorer John Cabot was in fact the first European explorer to reach the continent in 1497 — aside from the Vikings that settled in Canada. But he had claimed the land for England. During the clash between the colonies and the Crown, this proved to be a rather politically incorrect fact, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
After securing independence from England, Americans began naming almost everything after the explorer. Towns, rivers, landmarks — even our capital city — bear his name.
When Italian immigrants began arriving in the US in the 19th century, they faced nativist hostility and violence, according to the Library of Congress. Columbus became an important symbol for the community — despite the fact Genoa was truly more of a “fiercely independent” city state, the Washington Post reported.
“What better symbol to mobilize and Americanize these immigrants than one of their own?” writes Sam Wineburg in the Los Angeles Times.
US President Benjamin Harrison added fuel to the nation’s admiration by holding up Columbus as a symbol of patriotism and declaring the anniversary of his arrival in the Americas a holiday. The New York Times reported there was even a petition to canonize Columbus in 1909, which the Vatican swatted down.
A few decades later in 1937, Columbus Day was officially established as a federal holiday under US President Franklin Roosevelt.
This wave of public support was heaped upon the innocuous — and fictional — image of an entrepreneurial, adventurous Renaissance seafarer. Now, it’s more common knowledge that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 — and did some other horrific things, too.
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