Columbus Day - Second Monday of October
"In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." As children, most Americans are taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. This national holiday, observed on the second Monday in October, was established to commemorate that historic discovery. However, much controversy surrounds this holiday as many see his achievements as reason to celebrate while others may find it outright offensive. So why do some celebrate this day and others do not? The history of Columbus' adventures tells why.
After petitioning to several Kings of different countries to fund his expedition, Christopher Columbus was granted his request by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, of Spain. It was also granted that, upon finding land, Columbus would be named Governor of the new land and would receive ten-percent of all revenues produced by his discovery. In early August of 1492, Columbus set out to sea to find the East Indies with his crew of 90 men and three ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
After months of sailing Columbus and his crew spotted land, and on October 12, 1492 they landed on what he believed was a string of islands off the coast of India, but were actually the islands we now call the Bahamas. They later landed on several neighboring islands in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Haiti (then named Hispaniola). Over the course of his life, Columbus made a total of four similar journeys to these lands all the while thinking he was discovering new land in the East Indies.
This New World he "discovered" was already inhabited by natives, who Columbus called "Indians" since he believed he was in the area surrounding India. Upon discovering these islands, he and his men exploited the peaceful native people and their resources extensively. Columbus' logbook describes his initial description of the Indians: "They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.... They would make fine servants.... with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." The population of the island's indigenous Taino people was drastically reduced in just a few short years, through slavery, war, and introduction to diseases to which the tribes were not immune. Historians state that within thirty years of Columbus' fleet landing, the native population was decreased by 90%. Their cultural and spiritual history was diminished by force, so much so that little is now known about their true Taino heritage. Columbus' expeditions to the Americas directly lead to further explorations of Northern America by the Europeans in the years to come. Though not the intention of Columbus, the exploration of this new land lead to the loss of a great number of indigenous groups now referred to as Native Americans.
It was some 300 years after Columbus' first landing in the Americas that his achievement was celebrated. On October 12, 1792 the 300th anniversary of Columbus' landing was celebrated in New York which was organized by the Columbian Order, a dominant political group, and the primarily Italian-American communities. These celebrations were held annually on a smaller scale by New York's Italian-American community as well to commemorate the discovery of the Americas by one of their own people. This day strongly represented their Italian heritage. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a presidential proclamation that implored the American people to celebrate Columbus Day as a holiday on the 400th anniversary, supported greatly by a religious and political organization called the Knights of Columbus, who were a large part of the immigrant community.
Colorado was the first state to officially observe the holiday in 1905. Later in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt officially proclaimed October 12th as Columbus Day, a federal holiday, largely due to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. Then in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson declared Columbus Day a federal holiday to be observed on the second Monday of October, in accordance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that was soon to be passed.
Many believe the terrible atrocities done to the indigenous peoples of the lands Columbus so vigorously "conquered" give reason to resent and condemn a holiday celebrated in his name. In 1990, 350 representatives from various Indian groups from all over the hemisphere, met in Quito, Ecuador, at the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People in the Americas, to rally against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day. A year later at a follow up conference, they declared October 12, 1992, "International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People". Several other South American countries have also memorialized the plight of the indigenous people of the Americas by creating their own version of this day. In Cuba, the day is referred to as Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Costa Rica also changed the official holiday from Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) to Día de las Culturas (Day of the Cultures), to recognize the mix of cultures that helped compose the culture of Costa Rica. Even the National Council of Churches, one of the largest religious bodies in the United States, urged Christians to forgo celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing, stating, "What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others."
While it was a great feat to make the voyage to the 'New World' which opened the door to much more exploration and eventually led to the establishment of the United States, there remains a cloud of controversy surrounding Columbus Day.
Click here to read some great quotes such as:
"In all parts of the Old World, as well as of the New, it was evident that Columbus had kindled a fire in every mariner's heart. That fire was the harbinger of a new era, for it was not to be extinguished."
~Charles Kendall Adams
"Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected. "