Oct 10, 2016
Note: This article originally was posted on 12 October 2015. It's been updated for this year and has a postscript with thoughts I've had after some debates from last Columbus Day.
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 a fourth and final 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.
On Columbus Day you're going to see a lot of people posting quotes like the following:
'A hundred Castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls, those from nine to ten are now in demand.'
Unfortunately, what people often fail to do when interpreting History, is read the entire Primary Source to understand the context. A Primary Source such as this letter from Columbus. In the above quote, Columbus is lamenting that slavery is being practicved by his less honourable men, and is asking Ferdinand and Isabella to put a stop to it. After all, Queen Isabella had forbided slavery in Spain and all Spanish territories.
This is why critical thinking and reading Primary Sources is so important to Citizen Scholars. The above quote was pulled out of the letter without context, and used to make Columbus seem like a bad man. Men like Howard Zinn and James Loewen popularized it, and, with the growth of the internet, it had become so widespread that it is considered Truth. After all, if it's on the internet, it has to be true. This is similar to what news media outlets do when covering a story; they use sound bites that don't convey the whole story.
I entreat you to follow the sage advice of LeVar Burton: 'Don't take my word for it.' Research for yourself and find out what was actually said or done by someone and why they did it before trusting to the internet.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers