Closed Captions from Vox video
Christopher Columbus is all over America. There are statues in his honour. Streets and cities are named after him. He’s got his own national holiday– complete with parades. For centuries, Columbus has been celebrated as the “brave explorer” who “discovered” the “New World.” “We celebrate Columbus Day.” “The anniversary of that day in 1492, when Columbus first sighted the land of the New World, America.” But Columbus never even set foot on North American soil. His four voyages brought him to the modern-day Caribbean islands, Central, and South America… but never to the country where more than 50 cities, towns, and counties bear his name. We rarely hear about the other explorers, who actually landed in the US just a couple decades after Columbus. So how did a man who never even set foot in North America end up with a national holiday and a permanent place in American mythology? Columbus and his arrival in the Americas is mostly introduced to kids through books, songs or cartoons like this one: “I will discover a shortcut to India and bring back some of the great wealth I find there. And I can do it, for I know the world is round.”
One of the many problems with cartoons like this one is that it taught a lot of wrong information. Children were told that Columbus defied conventional wisdom and proved the world was round. But at the time people already knew the earth was round. Columbus actually claimed the world was smaller than predicted, and he was wrong. Children were also told that Columbus’ voyages to the inhabited islands in the Americas were peaceful… “The people Columbus called Indians were very friendly, and they gave Columbus and his men many gifts.” But they don’t mention that Columbus and his men were responsible for mass deaths of native people.
A friar who lived on the islands Columbus reached and experienced the brutality of the conquest, wrote about it: He wrote: “They forced their way into settlements, slaughtering small children, old men and pregnant women.” These details have been kept out of most textbooks from the beginning, allowing Columbus to become an American icon. The idealized version of Columbus is as old as the United States. It all began during the War of Independence when the US fought the British. The new nation needed a rebellious, non-British symbol. And they found one in Columbus. Once the US won independence, streets and cities were named after him. Columbus’ iconic status was further cemented in 1828 when Washington Irving published a biography glorifying him. He described him as Brave, heroic and a genius. But he neglected to mention his brutal treatment of indigenous people.
But Columbus’ real big break came in the late 1800s– when the country he’d never visited started experiencing some massive changes. Italian immigrants were arriving in the United States in big numbers. And they faced harsh discrimination. They were treated as perpetual foreigners and restricted to manual labour. Their Catholic beliefs opened the door for even more discrimination. So they embraced Columbus. After all, he was Italian and Catholic and already admired. So he quickly became an icon for Italian immigrants who argued that they, too belonged in America.
On the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, in 1892, “Columbus Day” was first brought into the school system. Schools held celebrations and students pledged allegiance to the flag for the first time, associating Columbus with patriotism in classrooms across America. A year later, Columbus became the theme of the World Expo in Chicago, branding him America’s hero around the world. As Columbus and his legend became further embedded in American culture, so did the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic social club founded by Italian immigrants. By 1937, the Knights of Columbus had gained enough influence to convince President Roosevelt to proclaim Columbus Day a federal holiday. But not everyone wanted to celebrate Columbus. While the myth of Columbus had been developing throughout history, Native Americans in the US had been dealing with destruction and discrimination for centuries at the hands of all the European settlers that followed Columbus.
But in the 60s things started changing in America. As the civil rights movement demanded change, Native rights became a part of the conversation. “We\’ve asked the federal government for hundreds of years to do things for our people or with our people.” “The government has only compromised, only given us token issues to deal with.” “We are here today as living factors of the problems that are still existing.” Historians started reexamining Columbus and his story, correcting the myth and including the missing historical facts. As revelations about Columbus have become mainstream, some people have rejected the holiday. As well as the man and the legacy behind it. Today cities around the US are opting out of celebrating Columbus Day.
In some cities, they are choosing to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead. At the same time, more than half of Americans think celebrating Columbus Day is a good idea, according to a poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus. Most countries are formed with the help of myths and heroes to forge a sense of unity and belonging. It’s human nature. But as the myth of Columbus is confronted with brutal historical facts, the US will have to decide which myths are worth keeping and which ones to discard.