Oct 12, 2015
I know usually at Two-Fisted History, I alternate between one week a History article, and the next an article about Education Theories & Practices. I felt the need today to switch that up a bit.
Today is Columbus Day, and here at Two-Fisted History, we happily celebrate it! We happily celebrate it, but it makes us wary for one particular reason:
Yes, 2FH is braced for all the revisionist, negative press that the Genovesi Man With A Plan is going to get today. All of the undeserved bad press, mind you. But Columbus Day isn't just about Christopher Columbus, or the sales, or the day off.
Some background on Columbus: Columbus arrived on Hispaniola in the Caribbean in October 1492. One of his ships, the Santa Maria, had run aground, and there wasn't enough room onboard Nina and Pinta to bring the crew back to Spain. Columbus left them behind with the intention of picking them up during the next expedition.
That second expedition left Spain in September 1493 with 17 ships, 1500 men, and a mandate from the Dual-Monarchs of Spain to found the first permanent Spanish colony on Hispaniola. When the fleet arrived, they discovered that the crew left behind from the wreck of Santa Maria had been attacked and killed by the natives. Columbus refused to attack them or seek retribution, and got to work on building the new Spanish colony.
Columbus wasn't really into the whole 'governing' thing, though. He was an explorer. He put a Spaniard named Pedro Margarit in charge in April 1494, and left to explore the Southern coast of Cuba. Margarit, meanwhile, went crazy on Hispaniola: plundering and pillaging, raping and enslaving the natives, allegedly in retaliation for the attack on the crew of Santa Maria.
Fast forward a bit. There was all kinds of drama when Columbus returned to Hispaniola. Ferdinand & Isabella had gotten all sorts of letters from Spanish nobles at the colony claiming that Columbus was a tyrant, and he was forced to return to Spain in 1500.
Columbus was allowed to make one more voyage. He was to head South to look for a sea passage into the Pacific. Although he discovered many interesting people and lands (including the region of Panama where Scottish settlers would attempt to colonize), he never made it to the Pacific.
So what does that have to do with Columbus Day itself? Let's fast forward quite a bit more; all the way to the 1840s. Famine in Ireland and revolutions in the German states caused many people to immigrate to the United States. Many native-born Americans feared losing their jobs to immigrants who would work for lower wages, while others were threatened by the new immigrants' cultures and religions. . . particularly Catholicism. We call these folks who opposed immigrants, 'nativists.' Nativism persisted well into the 20th century when immigrants from Southern & Eastern Europe, as well as East Asia, were coming to the U.S.
In 1881, Irish-American Catholic priest, Fr. Michael McGivney, founded the Knights of Columbus: a fraternal society for Catholic men who were often excluded from labour unions and similar groups that offered social nets. The society was also formed in response to other groups of nativists who regularly harassed and discriminated against Catholic immigrants. Fr. McGivney decided to call his new organization the Knights of Columbus, in part as a jab at the nativists (typically Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who considered Columbus an American hero on par with Washington or Lincoln (even though he was an Italian Catholic working for Catholic Spain – two countries nativists disliked immigrants from) while they attacked Catholic immigrants. The Knights also wanted to show that Catholics were instrumental in the founding and building of the United States, and that they could be just as much a member of American society as anyone else.
Historically, the 300th and 400th anniversaries of Columbus's landing had been nationally celebrated, but there was no regular celebration (except in some cities that would host Columbus Day celebrations as an 'Italian-American Heritage Day') until 1905 when an Italian immigrant named Angelo Noce Successfully petitioned the governor of Colorado to declare it a state holiday. The Knights of Columbus took up the cause as a show of Catholic-American patriotism. In 1934, they convinced President Roosevelt and Congress to declare it Columbus Day a national holiday.
So the next time you see someone on Facebook make a post about Columbus Day being a celebration of genocide, harken back to what you've learned today and teach them that Columbus Day isn't about the sales, or the day off of work/school, or even their notions of genocide. Go ahead and teach them the true meaning of Columbus Day.
Author's Note: Yes, I'm aware Columbus wasn't the first European to reach the Americas. However, for all you 'Leif Ericson Day' folks out there, I'd like to point out that Brendan of Clonfert was the hipster of trans-Atlantic exploration.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers