By Annalise Bossert ’21
Every young child has heard the story of Christopher Columbus, a tale that highlights a pioneering adventurer and amateur scientist ahead of his time who rejected the societal norms to prove his point. It is a part of history that we as Americans have grown up with, and most likely if anyone asked us who discovered America, our automatic answer would be “Christopher Columbus.”
Many, however, do not really know the full story of Columbus’ escapades in the New World and how these exploits can call into question the ethical nature of having a holiday in his honor. After all, Chris Columbus was not the brave paragon of virtue we’ve heard all about in first grade.
While today Americans have grown up knowing his name, Columbus did not become a well-known figure in the United States until the mid-1700s, after the country declared independence from Britain. In fact, Columbus Day was not observed for the first time until 1906, when the Italian immigrant Angelo Noce persuaded the state of Colorado to honor the Genoese explorer.
Noce wanted to create a holiday in recognition of Italians as many immigrants from Italy were facing ethnic and religious discrimination in America at that time, and many Italian Americans considered celebrating Columbus to be a way for them to be accepted into society. Then, in 1935, a group called the Knights of Columbus were instrumental in President Franklin Roosevelt making it a federal holiday, once again to show recognition of Roman Catholics, a minority at the time.
Thus, Columbus Day was created to celebrate the heritage of an oppressed people. However, it seems to have solved one problem of discrimination and created another. Columbus was brutal in his behavior towards the natives that he encountered on his journeys, enslaving, slaughtering, and treating them as if they were mere hindrances to his success and not human beings.
In fact, on his very first day landing in the Caribbean, he had six curious natives forcibly taken aboard his ship and kept there because he felt they would be “good servants.” He also had all the natives, men, women, and children, work under horrible conditions where the fruits of their labor went directly to fulfilling his own greedy purposes.
As if that were not enough, he also shipped thousands of natives off to Spain to be slaves sold for his profit back across the ocean. Conditions aboard were so terrible that many perished before ever reaching the Iberian shores.
As testament to the extent of the damage wreaked by Columbus’ barbarity, of the 250,000 Taino Indians peacefully residing on the island of Hispaniola, where Columbus based his settlement, only a few hundred remained as soon as 60 years after Columbus’ arrival, utterly exterminated by the sword and foreign diseases spread by contact with the Europeans.
Certainly, such a man does not deserve our praise, so the easy solution seems to be to eliminate the holiday. However, attempts to eliminate the holiday have proven to be a source of unrest for Italian Americans. On August 30th of this year, Los Angeles, California, replaced Columbus Day with “Indigenous People’s Day” on the city calendar.
Italian Americans in the state protested this act, saying that it was a part of their heritage. They proposed having an Indigenous People’s Day, but on a different day, keeping the holiday celebrating Columbus alive. Though this action appears to be a compromise, it does not actually solve the problem.
Celebrating this man at all is disrespectful to all descendants of natives today; in keeping the holiday we are in effect stating that what he did was right, and that includes enslaving and slaughtering their ancestors. In a country that proclaims liberty to be a right, how can we continue to celebrate such a holiday.
Evidently, Columbus was no hero. If we celebrate him, we condone his actions, and if we condone his actions, we put a barrier between us and the descendants of these persecuted natives. In a world where there are dedicated people working for equality, there can be no holidays like these.
Columbus Day divides us, instead of bringing us together. Columbus Day is an unethical, savage celebration of brutality that perpetuates the inane idea that some lives are worth more than others, and it is for this reason that the holiday needs to be completely eradicated from our list of dates meant to honor those who truly deserve recognition.