Perhaps no other holiday on the American calendar raises such contentious debate and such comfortable indifference. Christopher Columbus’s expedition of three ships from Spain landed on 12 October, 1492 in what are now called the Bahamas. That landing was followed by three other expeditions led by Columbus, the last of which included his son, Diego Colombo, who documented the journey and helped his father write up narratives of the first three.
The landing is marked in various ways throughout the Spanish and English-speaking Americas (not, therefore, in Brazil). In the US, banks and government agencies are closed, and parades are occasionally held, at least on the east coast. But no meal, no pic-nic tradition, no fireworks or gift-exchange, marks this particular holiday.
Though a fairly nondescript holiday, it has become the lightning rod of challenges by Native Americans and others who see Columbus as the thin edge of a wedge of European colonization and genocide. Counter-parades became common in the mid-1990s, and continue today, though the influence of ‘Columbus Day’ has been muted by many schools who turn it into a three-day ‘Fall Break’ from classes.
Columbus’s legacy is a difficult one to parse. I have taught students via the published records of Columbus and his son, and some of their contemporary allies and challengers, and one of the things that continually surprises them is how contradictory Columbus could be toward what he saw. He ran out of superlatives by the time he was on his second or third island: every river becomes ‘the most beautiful,’ with ‘the sweetest water,’ or guiding ‘the most handsome natives.’ Yet he also was amazed at how naive the locals could be about sails and metal work (one was apparently stunned to discover that a sword could be sharp).
Columbus no doubt was moved by the religion of his day, namely, that he was on a mission from God to convert the peoples of the east (He was, of course, on his way to China). His vocation only grew stronger with each voyage, as he began to understand the natives (in so far as he could understand them at all) as having complex societies and great gifts of physical strength and beauty from the creator (Though his prejudice arose here again: he found them simple and malleable enough that perhaps slavery was the best option for them.). In fact, Columbus usually spends his descriptive energies on the flora, fauna, and waterways of the Caribbean, not on the peoples.
It is clear from his writings, however, that Columbus was not out to destroy the native peoples, if that is any consolation from a man who felt no moral qualms about enslaving many of them. Indeed, a colleague on his later trips, the friar blamed not Columbus but those who came after him for establishing horrific slave camps that seemed to be bent on raping the environment and grinding the peoples to an exhausted death. He fought his case for the freedom of the native peoples all the way to the king of Spain, who paid lip service to passing laws ending the worst abuses. The enslavements (and profits) continued, unfortunately. I confess that Bartolome has continued to be something of a hero to the historian in me, as his arguments of a universal humanism and demand for moral governance predates the likes of Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson by a century.
One of the many incongruities of Columbus’s legacy is that he died with the conviction that he had indeed discovered the outer islands of the east, though perhaps he was a bit south, near India (which is why Native Americans were called ‘Indians’). Despite the reports of fellow sailors and contemporary explorers that this was a ‘new’ world with no clear passage farther east, Columbus defended his claims (based on ancient cartography and vague medieval mathematics) to the end. So if you are celebrating the day, or lamenting it, or simply taking a day off from work or school, take a moment to appreciate the complexities and foibles of the man and the world he both opened up and helped shut down. Perhaps we could implement ‘Bartholome de las Casas Day’?