We are here in Colorado, the first state to officially recognize the celebration of Columbus Day. Earlier this year, and several states back on our 50 state road trip, we visited with some folks in Durham, NH, a town which last year officially celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day.
This got us thinking and questioning why a town would do that and why we celebrate Columbus Day at all. Here are a few facts we learned.
Fact #1: Columbus didn’t discover anything. It is impossible to discover a place that is already inhabited. Tens of millions of people were living in the so-called New World when Columbus arrived, and had been doing just fine for thousands of years without being “discovered.”
Fact #2: Columbus never stepped foot on American soil (* with the exception of the present day US Territory of Puerto Rico). In 1492, his ship landed in the Bahamas. His subsequent trips led him to islands throughout the Caribbean.
Fact #3: Columbus Had Little Value for Human Life. After failing to locate the gold and riches he was looking for, he began trafficking in humans saying that the people he found “would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.” And later said, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” He brought back hundreds native men to be sold at slave markets in Seville. In addition, the native people who first met Columbus on his voyage were almost totally wiped out within 50 years from their pre-Columbus levels of over 100,000 people.
Fact #4: Columbus Day was invented as a political ploy of a sitting U.S. President to win votes for reelection. When you think about Columbus Day, the celebration is much more about 1892 than 1492.
Starting in the mid 1800s, European immigration to the U.S. was booming. Immigrants were coming from Ireland, Germany, Poland, and Italy. A large number of them were Catholic. Many Americans regarded these Catholic immigrants as a threat to the white Anglo Saxon Protestant way of life. Due to the hostility they faced, many of the immigrants developed their own subculture, including churches, schools and civic organizations.
One of the top priorities for these immigrants was to assimilate. This required a narrative that appealed to the American public and allowed them to ascend into the white American power structure. And what better symbol to mobilize and Americanize these immigrants than to use one of their own? Italian-born Catholic Christopher Columbus. Soon after, Catholic schools, hospitals and churches began to bear his name in an effort to “Americanize” their Catholic heritage. These Catholic immigrants soon became a powerful voting bloc with the potential to swing national elections.
So, in 1892, during the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus’ non-discovery of the Bahamas, incumbent President Benjamin Harrison saw this anniversary as an opportunity to use his political power to gain the Catholic immigrant vote by issuing a Presidential Proclamation “recommending to the people the observance… of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, on the 21st of October, 1892…” This conveniently fell less than three weeks before the Presidential election.
So why are we celebrating this, people?!?
As I see it, this is a celebration birthed out of a political stunt to maintain power by honoring a man who got lost, arrived in a land where the people were perfectly happy before his arrival who he then proceeded to rape, exploit, pillage and traffic as goods back to Spain, all in the name of discovery. This feels like a slap in the face to indigenous people everywhere, a poor choice for a role model for Italian immigrant families (my family being one of them), and it gives the false impression that this is our best example of an actual American explorer?
What do you think? Is this a reflection of who we are? Should we continue to celebrate Columbus Day? We’d love to hear your feedback.