Thoughts on Columbus and his Day

Photo by Leo Pekaar on

Once again, people in the United States are squabbling over a made-up, moved-to-create-a-three-day-weekend holiday. Being honest, I must say that when I taught a long weekend in early to mid-October was always welcome, especially because it occurred around the time of my birthday. However, I urge those who are patriotically waving the flag to stop and look at the facts.

 Columbus was an idiot.

He did not discover America.  America wasn’t lost. The people who lived on the American continents knew it was here.  The Vikings knew there was land west of Europe and never claimed it was Asia. Rumors exist that a Welsh monk and even Chinese sailors knew the land existed. The advantage the Columbus had over others who might have sailed from Europe to the coast of the Americas was the invention of the printing press.  After returning from his first voyage, before reporting to his sponsors, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, he dropped his journal of the voyage at the printer so that everyone could read of his voyage. He used the social media of the time to spread the news.

Gastaldis Weltkarte von 1548 in “Atlas Geographia CL Ptolemaei Alexandrini”, Venedig 1548

From these journals, we know he thought had had arrived in Asia. He called the islands he saw ‘The Indies,” forever confusing students learning geography. As an Italian sailing for Spain, he made four trips across the Atlantic but was never sure he hadn’t reached Asia. But even if it wasn’t actually Asia, he was sure he was close. And based on this 1548 map, that idea of being in Asia continued for years.

This happened, because Columbus was a terrible mathematician. There is that oft-repeated myth that everyone but Columbus believed that ships sailing west into the Sea of Darkness would fall off the edge of the world as if rolling out of bed. There were people, many of them sailors, who understood that the world was round, just as there are still people today who think it is flat.( Google the Flat Earth Society). Because Columbus vastly underestimated the size of the earth from pole to pole, his estimation of the circumference was off by about nine thousand miles.  His math was wrong.

Furthermore, consider, as people are parading down the streets of cities and towns across the United States, that Columbus never set foot on any land that belongs to the fifty states. During the 1930s the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternal organization pressured the government until in 1937, F.D Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday.  The group wanted to recognize Italians more than celebrate a sailor who didn’t know where he was going or where he had been. From 1937 to 1971, October 12th was a federal holiday. Then in 1971 a number of federal holidays including Memorial Day, Presidents’ Day, and Veterans’ Day were moved to a Monday ensuring three day weekend.  Only Veterans’ Day has been moved back to its original date.

While there are those who want to celebrate Columbus, there are others who mourn his impact on history. They would suggest we call the day Indigenous People’s Day and recognize the harsh realities of slavery, torture, and death brought to those living here by Columbus and the Europeans who followed him.

Columbus never discovered America, he invaded it.

And he changed the course of history.  Indigenous civilizations and cultures were destroyed or forever changed. Populations were decimated. Europeans seized territory and then imported captured Africans to work the land. Europeans benefited. The first Americans and Africans did not. The legacy of that situation continues today from Terra del Fuego in the south to Nunavut in the north and all points in between.

Did any good come from Columbus’ voyages? Well, if you like pizza, you say a resounding ‘yes’. In the years that followed 1492 there was an exchange of food. Potatoes, corn, tomatoes, avocados and chocolate which grew in the western hemisphere were made of part of the European diet. Horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens made the ocean voyage to the Americas along with the seeds of wheat, barley, and oats.  The interaction between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas introduced to sugar cane, coffee, tea, and citrus fruits into diets around the world.

Columbus might not have known where he was going or where he had been, but he set off an explosion of exploration, conquest, sharing of foods, which changed the world in ways both good and bad. He certainly changed history. Not bad for an idiot.

So, October 11, 2021, is it Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day? There will be loud debate on both sides. Or is it just a three day weekend?  If you are not into parading, you might want to mark the day by having some pizza—a food not available if not for Columbus. Or you might have some chocolate cake.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

If however, you don’t believe we should set aside a day for a man whose impact on the world brought about so much tragedy in the past and present, then look to Canada. October 11, 2021 is Thanksgiving Day there. Surely there is something in your life for which you can be thankful.

Published by Kathleen Fair

After a career sharing her love of history with middle school students, Kathleen Fair is now pursuing new challenges in retirement. Her first work of fiction, Princess to Prioress, was released in June 2019 and is available at Amazon in paperback and as an E-book. Hell Hath No Fury--the story of two women and one scoundrel--was published on October 15, 2021.

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