Columbus day has long been 👏🏿👏🏻👏🏼celebrated👏👏🏾👏🏽 in the 🇺🇸 United States, 🇪🇸 Spain and throughout Latin America.🇳🇮🇲🇽🇭🇳🇬🇹🇩🇴🇪🇨🇸🇻🇩🇲🇨🇼🇦🇷🇸🇷🇻🇨🇱🇨🇵🇷🇺🇾🇻🇪🇻🇮🇹🇹
🇨🇦Canada celebrates Discovery Day, which is the same in principal. 🇧🇷
While Columbus Day was not made “official” until President Roosevelt made a proclamation in the late 1930s, its history goes back centuries.
Although the Renaissance and the age of Exploration were well underway before Columbus set sail, historians proclaim the year 1492 to be the end of the middle ages and the start of modern times. His voyage symbolically took Europe out of isolation and brought forth a new, global age.
Since the 19th Century, Columbus day celebrations in the New World were so big that they were reported in the British press with great fanfare. In the 20th century, Columbus day was usually a big day for the stock market.
Yet, in 1992, Xan Smiley of the Telegraph was referring to Christopher Columbus as a “disease carrying villain.” What turned people against Columbus?
Some people might blame American academia, but anti-Columbus feeling actually had its origins in Europe.
Smallpox was carried to the New World by Europeans, who received the disease from Arabs and Moors when the Iberian peninsula was under Moorish rule. Now, we could trace where the Moors got smallpox from, but it also went East, to China and Japan. Eventually, smallpox probably would have reached America through the Bering Strait. To call Latins, or any other group of people, “disease carrying” sounds at least xenophobic, and usually racist.
To blame Columbus for slavery is to be ignorant of African, American, Arab, Asian and European history.
While slavery was technically abolished in much of Europe during the middle ages, the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula, and Turkish and other empires, kept slavery alive in parts of the continent. And in many cases, Serfs, though technically not slaves, were treated as such by the vassals who owned the land they farmed on.
The return of slavery to Christian Europe took place before the discovery of the New World, as reconquered countries ended up copying the customs of their former masters, and as distorted philosophers made excuses for the brutal trade.
While two wrongs don’t make a right, it’s important to note that the Spanish (and indeed Europeans) did not invent smallpox, slavery, genocide, or any other evil associated with Columbus, and that while the nature of evil changes, disease and degradation were already on the American continent before the Spaniards arrived.
However, it’s also important to note that no one likes to be ruled by outsiders. If extra-terrestrials were to “discover” us, we wouldn’t take it too lightly. So, it’s understandable if some Native Americans dislike the whole idea of Columbus Day.
If we can blame Christopher Columbus for the trail of tears, the results of the war of Jacob’s ear, and all the other crimes against the natives of America and the slaves brought from Africa, then we should also credit him with the very newspapers, universities, and other institutions that are currently demonizing the man.
If we blame Columbus for all the bad people who came to the Americas, we should credit him for all the Europeans, Asians, Africans who came, good or bad, and their descendents, good or bad. Or, we could remember, that he was just an explorer, like an astronaut on a boat, not a man of any power.
However, it’s more convenient just to blame Columbus. That way, like the Taliban with the tall Buddha’s, and Eastern Europeans with the Soviet war heroes, Americans can knock down a few statues and pretend their own past is clean.
But, even before white people in American universities started using Columbus as a scapegoat for the crimes of their own ancestors, Columbus found himself surrounded by controversy.
Where is Columbus buried? In Spain, Italy, the Dominican Republic? Different places claim to hold his bones, as he is still considered a hero by many.
Comedians were in on the act too, since at least the 1960s. “What do you mean you discover us,” Stan Freiburg imagined the Indians saying to Columbus, “We discover you, here on the beach.” Of course, neither the natives of Hispaniola nor Columbus would have understood or spoken that kind of broken English, but the joke continued with Chris Rock and others. Yes, it’s easy to make Columbus out to be the villain responsible for all that is bad in American history.
But, historically, the first person to cancel a Columbus Day celebration was General Franco. The Spanish embassy was going to hold a parade in Argentina, but the Argentinians were upset about Spain not keeping it’s promises, and not paying its bills. So, the dictator’s representatives retaliated by not celebrating Columbus Day.
The next group of naysayers were the Soviets. They claimed that Columbus had a chart, telling him where to go. This kind of propaganda “fake news” story claimed that one of Columbus’s sailors was later a slave aboard a Turkish vessel, and shared Columbus’s charts with the Turkish navy. The big fish story continues to evolve, and now some seem to claim that the Turks were there first Europeans to see America.
While I have come across stories of Ottoman slave raids around the Caribbean in the 16th century, I haven’t yet seen the primary sources.
And, of course, there were always big controversies on who were the first Western Europeans to go to America. One of the favourites has been the idea that the Vikings got to the continent first. And, we can also remember, that another man of Italian birth, John Cabot, reached north America soon after Columbus reached the Caribbean, without being accused of slavery and genocide. Some say that Cabot reached the mainland before those sailing for Spain did.
So, while Columbus gets blamed for all the bad things, credit for the good things is being given to others. That’s just not fair, if you take the blame, you should get the credit too.
The first big official big snub to Columbus, however, was a Tory snub to Latin America. The victory of the Falklands war was declared on Columbus Day, and the choice for that celebration probably wasn’t an accident. The telegraph called it a snub to Columbus.
So, the Tories, the Soviets, and Franco gave their thumbs down to Columbus before the Academics did.
But what about his fans? How did Columbus Day become as big as it is?
The first telegraph cable linking Europe and Latin America was inaugurated on Columbus Day in 1929. The recent official status of Columbus Day was used as an olive branch in America, to declare that Italians in the United States were no longer considered enemy aliens. And when Mussolini was being defeated by the Allies, the Americans used Columbus Day as a symbol of the link between the two countries, an invitation to the population for a peaceful co-existence.
President Roosevelt was the first President to officially declare Columbus Day. This could have been seen as a U-turn on the isolationist views of his predecessors, to tell Americans that affairs in the old world were of their concern. Roosevelt was no fan of Mussolini or Franco, so it definitely wasn’t an olive branch to the regimes that controlled Spain and Italy at the time, but it could possibly be seen as an olive branch to the people of those countries, as the day was used in Allied propaganda, and in the re-integration of Italian Americans and Italian immigrants into American society.
So, before you accuse Columbus Day of being a bad holiday, learn some history. No one is celebrating slavery or genocide, we’re celebrating the link between continents. If you’re of European, Asian, or free African ancestry, and you don’t like Columbus, then why don’t you go back to the land of your ancestors?