Four Facts About Columbus Day

Who else remembers having to recite this poem in school? “In fourteen hundred ninety-two. Columbus sailed the ocean blue. … He sailed by night; he sailed by day;”

There was a little ditty we used to sing, too, but I can’t remember it, nor can I find it on the Internet.

Picture from Pinterest

I’ll be honest, I never was much into Columbus Day as a holiday way back then – although I did like to color the ships in art class – and even less so in recent years. Maybe I already suspected the fallacy.

See, Columbus didn’t really “discover” America. It was already here and there were already people living here. Had been for centuries.

Okay, I can already see all the linguists waving hands to say, “Wait! To discover means to obtain sight of or knowledge of for the first time, and this was the first time for someone from Europe to see America.”

Right, but the problem with that, in my mind and some other minds, is that continuing to talk about it in those terms diminishes the people who were already here. As if their knowledge of this place didn’t count. Only the white European knowledge did.

There’s a fascinating article at Time Magazine, Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, and the Problem with “Discovery” written by Lily Rothman. “While Columbus was the first man from Europe to set foot on the continent, he was not the first person to live here, and history fails to acknowledge the significance of that.”

Ms. Rothman went on to mention, “The idea that Columbus could have “discovered” a region that was already inhabited is one of the subjects dissected in the recent book “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker.”

This was a time when Spain was dominating exploration with the full support of the Queen and Rome, as long as they did so to win more Christians. That fact was mentioned in a recent podcast from Throughline that focused on a city in Mexico – Tenochtitlan and the fall of an empire. That episode is about how Cortes and a small army of conquistadors conquered the Aztec Empire.

The story that we learned in history classes about the Aztecs is much like the glossed-over story of Columbus and the discovery of America. According to the Througline writers, “In a sense, 1521 is Mexico’s 1619. A foundational moment that has for a long time been shaped by just one perspective, a European one.”

The episode is well worth a listen.

This post isn’t written to diminish what Columbus did accomplish. He was a daring explorer and he did prove that the earth was not flat and we would not all fall off the edge. He is also responsible for the naming of San Salvador, known as Guanahani by the natives living there.

Some little known facts about Columbus and Columbus Day:

  1. Americans might not have a Columbus Day if Christopher Columbus had not been born in Italy. Out of pride for their native son, the Italian population of New York City organized the first celebration of the discovery of America on October 12, 1866.
  2. In 1905, Colorado became the first state to observe a Columbus Day.
  3. In 1892, a statue of Columbus was raised at the beginning of Columbus Avenue in New York City. At the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago that year, replicas of Columbus’s three ships were displayed.
  4. Portugal, Italy and England refused to support Columbus’s venture and it took several tries before Queen Isabella of Spain agreed.

On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples. For the first time Columbus Day will share billing with a recognition of the people who were forced into assimilation, or killed, and now too often overlooked or dismissed.

So, whatever you do today to mark this National holiday, take a moment to remember there’s always more to the story than what we are told.

Even though it’s a holiday, my day will be spent working for the most part. I hope whatever you have planned brings you some joy. Stay safe. Stay happy.

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