Columbus Day: On this holiday, we’ll examine the passionately advocated cases for and against Christopher Columbus’ role in American history. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1792, the man who “had three ships and left from Spain and sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain” was already celebrated by a young and fragile new country — the United States. You see, America has honored this captain who “sailed by night and sailed by day and used the stars to find his way,” for nearly as long as the country has existed. “The earliest known Columbus Day celebration took place on Oct. 12, 1792, on the 300th anniversary of his landing,” Susan C. Faircloth writes for The Conversation. “But since the 1990s, a growing number of states have begun to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day – a holiday meant to honor the culture and history of the people living in the Americas both before and after Columbus’ arrival.” Here’s what both sides are saying about the second Monday in October.
Those who believe we should keep Columbus Day urge their fellow Americans to contemplate the arch of history. Was Columbus — and is America — perfect? No. However, his voyage represents the start of a new chapter for mankind that left behind centuries of war and servitude and replaced it with a path towards enlightenment and equality.
“Getting rid of Columbus Day entirely is a sad development” Henry Olsen, The Washington Post: “Western civilization remains, for all its historical faults, the noblest civilization mankind has yet devised. It, more than any other major civilization today, has emphasized the dignity and unique worth of each and every person. That central principle has allowed it to change from within, to recognize its past failures and to liberate those whom it used to repress. It is the fuller recognition of its own principles that has allowed Western nations to enfranchise women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and Native Americans themselves. … America has changed immensely over its lifetime. We have used the liberal ideals of that small, British republic hugging the Atlantic Coast to make full citizens of immigrants from Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond. We have used those ideals to free slaves and continue the hard work of undoing the effects centuries of slavery and segregation wrought on our African American brothers and sisters. We are not perfect, but no human society ever is. We are simply what we have always been: a good society trying to get better. Columbus Day should be a celebration of that.”
“Happy Columbus Day — say it loud, say it proud” David Marcus, New York Post Opinion: “Christopher Columbus wasn’t just the man most responsible for opening up the New World to the Old; he was also an example of the American Dream centuries before our nation was born. … This wasn’t a privileged young man, but rather one who through pluck, will and a healthy Catholic faith rose far above his humble origins and became one of humanity’s greatest and most famous heroes. At a time when the world is battling a global pandemic … Columbus offers an example to us about balancing the fear of death against the immortal human longing for prosperity, achievement, and discovery. … Don’t allow the naysayers who line their pockets with the outrage of the guilt steal from you the history that belongs to all of us; don’t fear their sneers or snide remarks. Christopher Columbus endured plenty of those in his own day, but rather than cower beneath the criticisms of those who were supposedly his betters, he trusted in himself, in God, and in the limitless possibilities of human exploration. Monday is his day but also ours. Let’s hold it in our hearts.”
“Let’s Not Say Goodbye to Columbus” Robert Paquette, RCP: “Columbus critics often use him as a stand-in for all of European or Western civilization. But we shouldn’t forget that he sailed from a world of war, colonization, servitude, and immiseration to another world of war, servitude, colonization, and immiseration. Neither the Aztecs nor any other polity of indigenous peoples qualifies for sainthood. … Whatever the net balance of Columbus’s demonstrable sins when weighed against his remarkable achievements, his ‘Enterprise of the Indies’ set in motion the formation of an Atlantic world with sustained and intensifying contacts between peoples on four continents. Over the ensuing centuries of exploration, successful and not, the design emerged of an orderly system of trans-Atlantic commerce—one that, along with considerable human suffering, also brought enormous and undeniable benefits to the world’s peoples. Determining who won and who lost defies any simple calculus. … The point on Columbus Day should not be to ignore or absolve Columbus, the Spanish, or anyone else of their prejudices or their complicity in horrible acts, but to appreciate the complexity of history in all its unsentimental and tragic unloveliness.”
Those who believe we should cancel Columbus Day also urge their fellow Americans to contemplate the arch of history, especially as it relates to Native American tribes who suffered horrible fates at the hands of Christopher Columbus and his men. These voices believe Columbus was a rapist and murderer and that his expedition initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“It’s Time to Abolish Columbus Day” Bill Bigelow, Common Dreams: “Columbus initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in early February 1494, first sending several dozen enslaved Taínos to Spain. … The eminent historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, also assigns responsibility to Columbus for initiating the African slave trade to the Americas. According to Davidson, the first license granted to send enslaved Africans to the Caribbean was issued by the king and queen in 1501, during Columbus’s rule in the Indies … If Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday. The fact that we have this holiday legitimates a curriculum that is contemptuous of the lives of peoples of color. … More cities—and school districts—ought to follow the example of Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Seattle, which have scrapped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day—a day to commemorate the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas … We don’t have to wait for the federal government to transform Columbus Day into something more decent. Just as the climate justice movement is doing with fossil fuels, we can organize our communities and our schools to divest from Columbus. And that would be something to celebrate.”
“It’s Time To Abolish Columbus Day” Matthew John, Medium: “In 1495, during his second voyage, after landing at what we now know as Haiti, Columbus and his men then abducted 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children and took them as captives. … Of those 500, only 300 survived the journey back to Spain where they would become slaves. This is recognized as the origins of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which is the true legacy of Christopher Columbus. … We are often told not to judge the past by the standards of the present. But the shocking sadism of Columbus and his men was recognized even during this seemingly unimaginable era. For instance, Bartolome de las Casas, who was a Spanish priest at the time, wrote a first-hand account in which he opined, ‘What we have committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind’ … In less than two decades, 3 million indigenous people had been killed or died due to the conditions of enslavement. … Columbus Day, a commemoration of brutal colonialism, slavery, and genocide, has only been on the books for five decades. It is time to abolish this monstrosity and embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
“Columbus Day is nothing to celebrate” Carter Kolpitcke, The Argonaut: “We aren’t celebrating the discovery of the Americas. No one discovered the Americas because there were hundreds, if not thousands, of native tribes that independently developed from the Eastern world. Columbus wasn’t even the first foreigner to land on the Americas. A viking explorer, Leif Erikson, visited nearly 500 years before Columbus even thought to set sail. Celebrating Columbus Day glorifies the rape and genocide of Native Americans that lived here before. There is no argument against it. European foreigners are the direct cause of millions of natives dying from disease. Many were raped, murdered, and disregarded as not human entirely. … We need to turn the tides of how we’ve treated Indigenous people. The first step is right in front of our eyes. It only takes one motion to change just the name of Columbus Day to show solidarity—to show that we recognize what he did is no cause for celebration. If we really want to be the best country in the world, we should strive for this realization and this development. I no longer celebrate Columbus Day. I celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. You should too.”
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Polls regarding the popularity of Columbus Day reflect diverse opinions on the matter. In 2017, a Marist survey showed that roughly 6 in 10 Americans (57 percent) believe that celebrating Columbus Day is a “good idea,” while only 29 percent oppose the holiday. In 2019, College Pulse found that 79% of students polled “supported replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including 34 percent who strongly supported the replacement. Only 21 percent opposed the change and 9 percent strongly opposed it.” Then, in 2020, a Just the News Daily Poll with Scott Rasmussen found “35% of voters favor eliminating Columbus Day as a national holiday while 52% are opposed. Voters with a college degree are evenly divided on the question. Those without a degree oppose ending the holiday, by a 2-to-1 margin.”
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What do you think? Do you believe celebrating Columbus Day is a good idea, or do you support replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Comment below to share your thoughts.