The History of Columbus Day
This popular refrain and playground rhyme learn helps children remember the year explorer Christopher Columbus left Spain for the Americas. Many Italian-Americans are proud of his legacy and schools often celebrate his accomplishments. However, there is another somewhat dark side to this historical story. Let’s examine some of the interesting facts leading up to Columbus Day.
Columbus, the Man
Christopher Columbus is a mysterious man in many ways. No one is absolutely sure about his origins—where he was born—and on the other end, no one is sure about where he is buried.
We know that Christopher Columbus was Italian and most history books claim he was born in the Republic of Genoa, Italy in 1451. Genoa was in Liguria at the time, a northwestern territory snuggled on the Mediterranean coast near the South of France, a bustling city of trade and port-of-call –a place where ships docked—and today, a popular cruise ship destination. Because of this, Columbus would have spoken many languages including Ligurian, Portuguese, Latin, Spanish and maybe even Catalan.
Christopher’s birth name was Cristoforo and his father, Domenico Colombo was an apprenticed wool weaver since age 11, eventually becoming a master weaver. His mother Susanna Fontanarossa had four other children. Columbus was expected to become a weaver as well, and indeed worked in the trade.
However, a 1501 letter housed in the Provincial Archive in Genoa states in his own writing, “From a very early age, I entered sailing upon the sea and have continued it until today.” This attitude was probably facilitated by his learning to become a mapmaker in a chart-making shop in Lisbon, Portugal—a great seafaring city—along with his two younger brothers. More importantly, between the ages of 10 and 14, he made his first voyage and by age 20, was sailing to France and Tunisia. Later, he sailed to Greece and Turkey.
What Is There Beyond?
Columbus would have heard tales from men who traveled widely and had knowledge of northern routes as far as Iceland and Scandinavia, south to the Equator, and east into China and Japan—the East Indies. In terms of exploration, it was east and west that men really thought about as targets of discovery.
A popular notion among seafaring men was the hope of finding gold, spices and other goods from Asian lands. Since the land route was arduous, the explorers sailed south around the tip of Africa, a long and dangerous undertaking. Columbus surmised that sailing west would be easier. He attempted to fulfill his dream by obtaining support and funds from Portugal’s King John II in 1484, but was rejected in meetings in both Genoa and Venice.
Christopher’s folly was in his belief that Asia was 3,000 miles to the west when it was more than three times that far. His other miscalculation was thinking that Asia was a clear sail when in fact it was blocked by a huge landmass—North and South America.
The Dream Funded
Columbus sailed to Spain with his son, Diego, and made plans to seek help from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It took a year for him just to receive access. He made a pitch for three ships (rescue ships in case one sank) and sailors to operate the boats.
The royal couple and their experts were skeptical; they correctly believed the world was much bigger than Columbus’ estimation and they were not convinced it was a doable investment. He was rejected, but Isabella had taken the bait and kept him on retainer so he could think over his plan while the Spanish war with the Muslims played out. In January 1492, the army captured the last Granada stronghold and the monarchs finally agreed to finance his expedition after their treasurer Luis de Santangel was won over by the idea.
The Great Voyage
Columbus received three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María. Ninety men signed on after the seafaring Pinzón family used their influence to find sailors. The ships left the Palos port on August 3, 1492 and made a brief stop in the Canary Islands for food, water and repairs.
Christopher Columbus was a great “dead reckoning” captain, according to Robert Fuson, geographer. The wind pushed the sails of Columbus’ three ships to the tune of 100 miles a day. By early October though, the men were sufficiently scared they would starve and worried about everything from sea monsters to the possibility of never returning home.
On October 12—36 days of sailing since their departure—the moonlight framed an island somewhere off the coast of Florida, probably either the Bahamas or Watling Island.
A Native People: Taíno
The Taíno Indians, a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians, inhabited Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola—Haiti and the Dominican Republic—including Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean Sea at the time when Christopher Columbus arrived to the New World.
The Taíno, meaning “good people,” had never seen men with beards and so strangely clothed but they were friendly and open to trade when Columbus’ men finally arrived on land. The Taíno offered up beads, showed off their parrots and carried large wooden spears.
Christopher Columbus claimed the islands for Spain and felt obligated to exploit the land for riches and slaves. He talked about bringing the natives to religion, to convert them to Christ. Columbus wrote, “And these people appear to have neither religion nor idolatry, except that they believe that good and evil come from the skies; and they firmly believed that our ships and their crews, with myself, came from the skies, and with this persuasion,—after having lost their fears, they always received us.”
One of his objectives was to find gold. His crewmembers had been promised great wealth. According to author, Filson Young, in his book Christopher Columbus Complete, “Indeed Columbus was seeing yellow at this point in his career. The word ‘gold’ is scattered throughout every page of his journal; he can understand nothing that the natives say to him except that there is a great quantity of gold somewhere about.”
Other islands were visited and, on Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria actually became shipwrecked near Hispaniola. The islanders helped to salvage what they could and built the beginnings of a settlement using reclaimed lumber from the torn ship. Thirty-nine men remained behind to “colonize” the settlement and Columbus returned to Spain.
When Columbus returned to Spain, his travelogue was overly embellished for the royals. He boasted about gold, spices and the well-bodied men. He went back to the islands again in 1493 and discovered that his Navidad settlement had been decimated and the sailors massacred. In retaliation, he subjugated the tribe peoples as slaves. Slave exploitation and trade was a common occurrence in his present-day Europe, but not so popular with the queen. The truth is, Columbus did not admire their culture as much as he wanted their treasures.
Other voyages followed and he came to realize the lands he found were not part of China. (Though today, they are often referred to as the “West Indies.”)
It is interesting to note that Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer, visited the New World after Columbus’ voyage and a German cartographer created a new map in 1507 and named South America the “Americas” for him.
On October 12, 1792, New York City citizens honored the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ famous landings. It was not until 1971, though, that Columbus Day became a legal holiday. The U.S. Congress decided that Columbus Day should be the second Monday in October to give people a three-day weekend. There are often parades in namesakes such as Columbus, Ohio and Columbus, Georgia as well as other cities including Chicago, Illinois.
Many people feel Columbus’ legacy is a mixed one. He is blamed for the destruction of a native people who were forced into slavery; the Taíno Indians suffered under warfare and were decimated by small pox and other diseases that were imported into the islands. In addition, since the islands were already heavily populated, the assertion that Columbus founded them can never be true.
No less important is that Columbus had actually failed to find that route to Asia. In addition, history notes that Viking Leif Ericson had preceded him to the New World by 500 years.
There is a movement to re-dedicate Columbus Day as Exploration Day, what do you think?