Statue of Columbus in Barcelona

Where next for Columbus Day?


Is Columbus finally sailing off the edge of the world?

Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1937 and has been observed on the second Monday in October since 1971. The holiday that marks Europe’s discovery of the new world has run into uncharted waters and feels as though it could sink without a trace.

In recent years, the question has increasingly been asked if Columbus Day should still be a holiday. Christopher Columbus is noted as the traditional discoverer of the new worlds in 1492 and his expeditions to the Americas clearly had a massive global impact. They initiated an age of expansion and imperialism in Western Europe, creating colonial superpowers from Spain, Portugal, France and Britain, in turn forming the cultural heritage of all parts of the American continents and leading directly to the United States of America becoming the most powerful nation on the planet.

The trouble with Chris is that firstly it’s now pretty clear he wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas, secondly he didn’t set foot on US soil or the American mainland for that matter and thirdly he was undoubtedly a bit of a dick.

An episode on his first journey gives an insight to the type of chap he was. The sighting of land on the morning of October 12th 1492 is recorded as having been made by a lookout. When told of this notable event, Columbus insisted that he had seen a light from land a few hours earlier, therefore making sure that he was awarded a lifetime pension from the Spanish Royal family for being the first person to spot land.

So far, so what – Columbus simply sounds like prime middle management material, but when he reached what he thought was the West of the Indian continent, stealing a pension proves to have been the least of his misdemeanors. Columbus clearly did not see the natives in these new lands as the same as Europeans. He and his crews used them as slaves for work and sex and even used the bodies of dead natives as dog food. There are conflicting views on how badly Columbus treated the indigenous peoples, but his own words tell us all we need to know – “These people are very unskilled in arms. … With 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”

True to his word, without any control, Columbus and his men did do as they wished, bringing disease, stealing precious resources and leading to the elimination of many indigenous land tribes. Columbus was made governor of Hispaniola, but did such a terrible job he was brought back to Spain in chains.

And what of the Golden Age of exploration he began? It was the best of times if you were in the business of gilding Spanish churches, but not such a great turn of events if you were an indigenous person in the Americas. If the conquistador’s sword didn’t kill you, then smallpox would probably see you off. From the Aztecs to the Apache, atrocities were routinely committed by the Western arrivals in the name of Christianity, modernity and enlightenment.

“Christopher Columbus, as everyone knows, is honored by posterity because he was the last to discover America.”

James Joyce

Of course, if we shine a light on many important historic figures, we would find some uncomfortable aspects of their personality or behavior. The difference is that Columbus’ failings as an individual have become intertwined with the treatment of minorities in the Americas.

Understanding that impact of colonisation on the Americas, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean means that the traditional date of discovery by Christopher Columbus – 12th October is now celebrated as a ‘Day of the Races‘ in most countries. In the US, many cities and towns have voted to replace or supplement Columbus Day with a day for Indigenous Peoples.

However, Columbus Day remains a federal holiday and is observed as a state holiday in 22 states. For Columbus Day to reach a tipping point and slide off the edge of the world, it will take more than individual cities to vote for change – that change needs to happen at a state level.

2023 Update
As with 2022, it has been a quiet year for changes to this day, with just a small number of cities adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As it stands, of the 27 states who observe a state holiday, 23 observe it as Columbus Day.

Columbus Day

What has really damaged Columbus Day is that private companies by and large ignore it. In a poll from 2014, only 14% of Americans had the day off. That is less than observe some non-federal holidays such as the Day after Thanksgiving. Indeed, Tennessee has made the interesting move to observe Columbus Day on the Day after Thanksgiving.

So will it remain a public holiday? Probably – despite the clear animosity and protestations, once public holidays take hold they are hard to shift. Maybe one solution is that America should consider a name change and call this holiday ‘The Day of the Americas’. This would be a fitting rebrand for Columbus Day. It would take the focus off a single Genoese scoundrel, and provide an opportunity for all to reflect on the impact the arrival of Europeans had on both those who came after and on those who were here before.

Who knows, maybe this would encourage the 27 states who don’t celebrate Columbus Day to consider marking this wider American holiday?

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