How did an Italian explorer working for the Spanish crown become an American hero?
Columbus Day is a federal holiday in the U.S. It is celebrated on the second Monday in October and commemorates Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas on 12 October 1492.
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
Columbus first arrived on an island in the Caribbean in what is now the Bahamas. But since he was convinced that by sailing across the Atlantic he was going to arrive in Asia, he decided he had arrived in India. Hence, he called the indigenous people he found there “Indians”, and the Caribbean islands are called the West Indies to this day.
Columbus made four voyages to the region between 1492 and 1504, exploring the islands, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. He died in 1506, still believing he had been exploring Asia.
The Making of a Myth
Columbus never set foot in North America, so why is he celebrated in the U.S.? It wasn’t until after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that Columbus started to gain mythical status. He was seen as a New World hero, an intrepid explorer setting out into the unknown, much as the new citizens of the United States perceived themselves. Plus, he had been badly treated by the Spanish monarchy. Perhaps most important of all, he wasn’t British!
In 1792, a monument to Columbus was erected in New York. And the young country’s new capital was named Washington, District of Columbia. “Columbia” became a symbol of the U.S.A., a female figure representing Liberty (reminiscent of the French Marianne). The unofficial national anthem was “Hail Columbia” until the “Star-spangled Banner” was chosen in 1931.
Italian-Americans in particular venerated their countryman, and promoted him as an Italian and Catholic role model. By the late nineteenth century, they had established Columbus Day celebrations in several cities, then states. In 1937, Congress officially made Columbus Day a federal holiday. The same day is celebrated under different names in most of the Americas (except Canada), and in Spain.
Hero or Villain?
But as time has gone on, Columbus’ reputation has soured. After all, at best he was considered an explorer who didn’t even know what he had “discovered”. In his own lifetime, he was taken back to Spain in chains, accused of mismanagement of the colonies he established, cruelty and torture. He punished native “Indians” who didn’t produce enough gold by cutting off their hands, and executed rebel colonists. Although not only Columbus’ doing, contact with Europeans was disastrous for the native peoples of the Americas, who suffered enslavement and were decimated by European diseases. The population of the Taino, the native people who lived in the Bahamas, where Columbus first landed, is estimated to have been about a million. Ten years after his arrival, they were reduced to 500.
There are increasing moves for Columbus Day to be scrapped, or replaced with a Native People’s day. States such as Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska and South Dakota, and cities such as Seattle and Minneapolis no longer recognise Columbus Day. Like Thanksgiving, it is a national myth based on celebrating European colonisation and conquest. It is part of how the nation originally defined itself. Can it adapt to a less black-and-white, more modern and inclusive image of the nation?