What is Columbus Day? Who was Columbus? And why is the holiday controversial to some today? In this post, we’ll take a look at these questions and more.
What Is Columbus Day?
Columbus Day is a national holiday in the United States commemorating Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the Americas. It first became a federal holiday back in 1934, but had been celebrated unofficially for years prior, dating back to at least the 18th century. Variations of the holiday can also be found throughout many Latin American countries, and in Spain and Italy.
In the past, the holiday has been seen as both a commemoration of Columbus’ achievements, and also as a celebration of Italian-American heritage. Today, however, the holiday is becoming increasingly controversial, with many questioning whether Columbus deserves to be celebrated at all.
Who Was Christopher Columbus?
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator. We don’t know a whole lot about his early life, but do know he was born sometime before October 31, 1451. We also know he was mostly self-educated, coming to be well-versed in geography, astronomy, and history. From a young age, Columbus learned about the sea and traveled a lot. Later in life, driven by a desire to profit from the spice trade, he would become obsessed with finding a western sea route to China, India, and the rest of Asia.
(Despite the common myth, in the era of Columbus, most people already knew the Earth was a sphere. What was not known was that the Americas, and an even larger ocean, existed between Europe and Asia.)
In 1492, the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain would agree to sponsor Columbus and his crew on a journey westward. Columbus would set sail in August of that year, leaving Spain with three ships. A couple months later, on October 12th, he landed on an island that is now part of the Bahamas.
Columbus and his men would go on to visit the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. He would set up a settlement in what is now Haiti, the first European colony in the New World since the Norse came to North America in the 10th century.
(Another misconception is that Columbus was the first European to “discover” America. He was not. The Vikings beat him by some 500 years.)
In March, 1493, Columbus would return to Spain a hero, bringing back with him gold, spices, and slaves. He would ultimately cross the Atlantic again three other times. It wasn’t until his third voyage that Columbus finally realized he wasn’t in Asia, but a whole new continent. He died in 1506.
The History of Columbus Day in the United States
The first known Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage. The festivities took place in New York, and were organized by the Tammany Society. Soon after, other parts of the country began to hold similar commemorations. Many of these occurred in Italian and Catholic communities, and often featured religious ceremonies and parades in his honor.
In 1892, for the 400th anniversary of the event, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging all Americans to celebrate Columbus and his achievements. It was around this time that celebrations of Columbus shifted from being religious and ethnic-based, to more secular and patriotic.
Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt would proclaim Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934. This was largely the result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, and Generoso Pope, an influential New York City Italian businessman.
Why Is Columbus Day Controversial?
Columbus Day has a long history of being controversial, but for different reasons.
Back in the 19th century, there were strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments throughout much of the country. Given its religious and ethnic origins, groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Know-Nothing Party long sought to eliminate the holiday.
More recently, people are increasingly beginning to question whether this event really needs to be celebrated, especially given what European arrival meant for the indigenous populations of the Americas. European colonization of the New World, which began with Columbus, resulted in the death, rape, and enslavement of millions of indigenous peoples. It also marked the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.
Columbus himself has also become more controversial in recent years. Once a hero, modern scholars have brought to light many negative aspects of his life. Among the criticisms are Columbus’ role in the population decline of the Taíno people, his promotion of slavery, and allegations of tyranny towards Natives and Spanish colonists.
Today, many US cities and states have replaced Columbus Day with other days of remembrance, like Indigenous Peoples Day.
When Is Columbus Day?
In the past, Columbus Day was celebrated every October 12th (the date he reached the New World). However, in 1971, Columbus Day was changed to the second Monday of October.
While the holiday is becoming more and more controversial, it continues to be observed throughout the United States.