Columbus Day: How did Christopher Columbus become so controversial?

A century ago, Christopher Columbus was considered the most glorious explorer in American history. Today, major cities are voting to eliminate the national holiday in his name. What happened?

Elaine Thompson
Ferntree, of Duncan, British Columbia, a member of the Cowichan Tribes, holds her hand up as a prayer is given during a Native American protest against Columbus Day, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011, in Seattle. Protest organizers say that Columbus could not have 'discovered' a Western hemisphere already inhabited by about 100 million people.

In 1495, three years after Christopher Columbus became (allegedly) the first European to set foot in the Americas, the Italian explorer embarked on a series of expeditions – ones that have been historically omitted by textbooks.

“Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior,” Howard Zinn wrote in his groundbreaking history text, "A People’s History of the United States."

“They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town.”

“Columbus later wrote,” Zinn quotes, "’Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.’"

For centuries after his voyages from Spain to what we now know as the Bahamas and Cuba, Columbus was heralded as the courageous trailblazer who discovered the New World. In 1934, Columbus Day became a national holiday, courtesy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress.

But sometime between then and now, a more nuanced narrative of the explorer emerged. Mainstream understanding has accepted the intentions behind Columbus’s exploits, and Zinn’s book, published in 1980, certainly had a significant impact.

“For hundreds of years following Columbus' voyages, the story of Columbus is one of celebration, of discovery and of conquest,” historian William Fowler says in a 2011 NPR program. “And I think in recent times, certainly in the 20th century and certainly today in the 21st century, thankfully, we've become much more sensitive about indigenous cultures and the harm, the wreckage that the European arrival here in the New World visited upon those people.”

Indeed, the biggest controversy clouding Columbus’s reputation is the destruction – many would say genocide – of American Indians to which his expeditions led. Gold had always been the goal of his conquests, and when he failed to deliver his promise of “great mines of gold and other metals,” slaves became the consolation prize.

Within 70 years of his arrival, of the hundreds of thousands of Arawak Indians on the Bahama Islands, only hundreds remained. Zinn writes: “A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.”

The account of Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest and contemporary of Columbus, affirms the atrocities of the conquest of the Indies.

“While I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months,” las Casas wrote in his "History of the Indies," as quoted by Zinn. “Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation ... in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk.”

In the late 20th century, "Indigenous Peoples Day" arose as an alternative to Columbus Day, in remembrance of the native populations eliminated by European colonization. As The Christian Science Monitor reported last year, South Dakota and Berkeley, Calif., were first to designate the second Monday of October to recognize native Americans.

Berkeley’s decision went into effect in 1992, two years after the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People in the Americas, where hundreds of representatives from American Indian groups across the Western Hemisphere met in Ecuador and agreed to use Columbus Day as a celebration of their tragic history.

This year, Portland, Oregon; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Bexar County, Texas, are eliminating Columbus Day altogether, in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, Reuters reports.

Another point of contention in the legitimacy of Columbus Day is the claim that the Italian explorer "discovered" the Americas. For one, native populations had called the continent their home for nearly 15,000 years before Columbus was born. Nordic explorers had reached North America hundreds of years before him, and Columbus wasn’t even the first European to set foot on North America – that was John Cabot in 1497.

As the myth of Columbus-as-intrepid-hero continues to crumble, the efforts to rebrand Columbus Day are not aimed at vilifying one man as the sole culprit of genocide. 

“I think, as we reflect on that and the cost to native peoples here in this world, the damage that was done, I think that sort of mellows the way we might be thinking about Columbus, not suggesting we blame him individually. I don't think that's correct,” Fowler says.

“He was a man of his times. But there was great evil that was done when the Europeans came. Today, perhaps, we think of discovery. We might also think of the word, invasion, and the result of that. Much good has happened, clearly, but much evil happened, as well.”

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