Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who lived in the late 13th century, who is commonly credited as being the first person to discover the Americas. This holiday, dedicated to his discoveries, is usually celebrated on the second Monday of October. However, there has been massive uproar on the topic of this celebration. Should Americans celebrate our blood-stained history? Do we want to idolize a man who left behind a trail of disease and death in his wake on his journey for glory? Does Columbus truly deserve the praise that we give him? Many say no, but others still believe we should respect and honor his memory. I discovered that many arguments in favor of celebrating Columbus Day stemmed from a minimal knowledge of the true history of Columbus’ exploration. I’ve compiled a list of the top three reasons many choose to celebrate this controversial holiday and developed responses in refutation to these reasons. By tying in our violent history, I hope to shed some light on why many do not think Christopher Columbus deserves the attention he is given.
1. Christopher Columbus was the first person to discover the Americas. (Not.)
This is, by far, the most common explanation given in favor of Columbus. Many people are under the impression that Columbus was the first non-native to ever step foot on American soil, when in actuality, the vikings were. During what is estimated to be 1000 C.E., Leif Erikson led his band of fellow vikings and set off for an exploration of new territory. His exact landing location isn’t certain but, “In the early 1960s, excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, turned up evidence of what is generally believed to be the base camp of the 11th-century Viking exploration, though others believe that the region is too far north to correspond to the Vinland described in the Icelandic sagas.” No matter his location, it has been historically proven that Leif Erikson was truly the first person to explore the new continent of North America. (Fun fact: Leif Erikson day coincidentally falls on Columbus Day this year!)
Additionally, Columbus wasn’t even aware that he had discovered a completely new continent, until Amerigo Vespucci set off for an exploratory mission to the Americas and claimed it to be a “New World.” Columbus had initially believed that he had landed in the spice-rich land of India (hence the term “Indians” coined by Columbus in reference to Native Americans). He found the spices he was after, but never realized that he had landed in a completely new territory. This is the reason America is named after Vespucci and not Columbus.
2. The Columbian Exchange was established because of him. (The exchange also includes diseases.)
This argument is a tricky one. The Columbian Exchange was the period of cultural and biological exchanges between the New and Old Worlds. Plants, animals and technology were transferred between Europe and the Americas; without this exchange, Americans wouldn’t have items like turkey, peanut butter, and (*gasp*) avocados. But although it is easier to focus on the positive impact of this trade, there were also things brought to the Americas that wreaked havoc, especially among the Natives. Europeans brought back many diseases that infected the Natives, such as smallpox, influenza and the measles. Without having built up any immunity to these diseases, the Natives experienced massive casualties, being easily susceptible to catching a virus at the immediate time of exposure. It is believed that, “(Natives) had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.” This statistic also doesn’t include the various sexually transmitted diseases that were given to Natives when they were ravished by the Spanish conquistadors.
In the beginning, the infection of Natives was unintentional. But when Europeans realized the reason for the mass epidemic, they started using that to their advantage. There were many supposed accounts of Europeans giving out items purposefully infected with Old World viruses, in an attempt to thin the Native population. An incident at Fort Pitt was the most well-documented case of the use of biological warfare against Native Americans. Blankets containing the puss or dried scabs from British smallpox victims were given as a gift to Natives at the fort. A captain recorded that he hopes “it will have the desired effect,” clearly displaying that this infection was intentional. And he was correct, it created a massive smallpox epidemic among the Native population.
3. Columbus Day celebrates the spirit of exploration. (But not that of human rights.)
It is true that without Christopher Columbus’ discoveries, America wouldn’t be the way it is today. Eventually, someone from an outside country would have discovered the land and colonized it. The desire to explore is an insatiable craving and the curiosity brought on by uncharted territory will continue to draw people in for centuries. However, will we continue to prioritize the importance of discovery over the basic human rights of everyone, no matter your background or ethnicity? Are Columbus’s discoveries more important than the lives he terminated? Can we allow ourselves to stand behind someone who steps on others to get to the top? Glory was one of the driving factors of Columbus’ voyages, and glory is the reason and excuse given by people who chose to ignore the destructive history of many events. Yes, exploration is important, and yes, exploration is the reason I’m sitting in my American bedroom right now, typing away at this article while I munch on some grapes (which were brought to the Americas by European explorers). None of our lives would be the same if Columbus didn’t take the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria over to the coast of the Bahamas.
But what about the Natives? How different would their lives have been without Columbus? How many things would they have discovered on their own, without the interference of Europeans? We can’t allow ourselves to overlook the mass casualties the Natives suffered at the hands of greedy explorers. Our selfishness has caused the dismissal of Natives for ages and the superior mentality of many Europeans must be put to an end. Many people have proposed that we change Columbus Day to Indigenous People Day. States like California, Texas and many others are all opting to celebrate the history of Native Americans instead of the conquests of Europeans.
Eurocentrism has been the dominant worldview for a majority of history. Native American erasure unfortunately runs rampant in modern culture, with many history classes refusing to discuss our bloody history and abusive past. For example, a Canadian textbook was recently discovered to have white-washed the exploration of Columbus, stating that the natives peacefully gave up their land for the Europeans. We all know this is not true, but if this is what we are raising the future leaders of America to believe, in the earliest and most vulnerable stages of their lives, we are already setting them up to become racially insensitive. Even the president of the United States chose not to acknowledge the horrors of history. Donald Trump’s statement focused on Italian-American pride and the successes of Columbus in America, but contained no mention of the disease and murder wrought upon the Natives.
The history of natives has been one filled with unfortunate carnage and destruction. It is unfortunate, but we now have a chance to stop this before it continues. By being more aware of our history and choosing to celebrate the overlooked rather than the aggressor, we can learn from our mistakes and prevent something like this from happening again. Some might think that Native violence has ended, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The construction of the Bakken Oil Pipeline in the area of Standing Rock, North Dakota is a prime example of modern day Native dismissal. Despite the thousands of people protesting, lobbying, and rallying to stop this pipeline from being built, it was constructed anyways. Corporations have disturbed the land and ignored the Natives cry for justice, yet again. Why can’t we allow their voices to be heard for once?
Racism against Natives is far from over and we need to take action against it. Protesting Columbus Day is only the beginning. By becoming more aware of what we celebrate and who we idolize, we can become more active in the fight against racism. Learning about the accurate history of the world is the most vital aspect of life. Without it, you will never be able to learn from past mistakes and create a better future for the next generations.
I’ll leave you with this: do you really want to stay stuck in the violence filled, self-centered past, or be a part of the fight for a brighter and more equal future?