Each year on the second monday of October, Americans celebrate the explorer accredited with the “discovery” of the New World. While it was unofficially celebrated as early as the 18 century in various states and cities, it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1937. For most people, Columbus Day means nothing more than a day off from school or a passing memory of history class in high school. But for others, the depiction of Columbus as a venerated hero comes as a great shock and even disgust.
The controversy surrounding this memorialized day stems from the cruel treatment many indigenous people suffered at the hands of the explorer Christopher Columbus and his crews. When the Spaniards arrived in the islands of the Caribbean, they subjected the natives to harsh labor, slavery, and brutal treatment. This began an enduring tradition of slavery and violence which didn’t end until hundreds of years later.
The lure of fortune and gold lead to the perception that the indigenous people were just an obstacle on the way to European prosperity. The people Columbus wrongly referred to as “natives” suffered greatly in the years following European arrival due to the violence they faced at the hands of Columbus.
Religion, in addition to slavery, was also impressed violently onto the natives. They were killed or beaten if they refused to convert to Christianity. The “convert or die” was a motto adopted and used to justify the treatment of the natives.
Furthermore, although it was inadvertent, the spread of disease became an effective form of biological warfare which wiped out native populations in massive numbers. Without immune systems that were used to common European diseases such as smallpox, indigenous people were virtually wiped out by the time colonization began in the Americas.
At some point in time we have all heard the rhyme, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, But did he? If there were already native peoples living and thriving on the lands that he discovered, is it truly discover? This idea has caused upset in many areas about the celebration of the day. In some Latin American countries, the day has been renamed to celebrate indigenous origins and resistance to European rule. In the United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota have officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, as have cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Whatever your opinion is on the Columbus controversy, the holiday continues to be an important way for Americans to examine how history impacts the ways we live today. But maybe the veneration of a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of people isn’t the best way to do that.