Columbus Day

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1937. He thought of it as a celebration of “promise” — the exciting discovery of a New World. President Reagan echoed FDR’s feelings in 1984, when he said, “This great explorer won a place in history and in the hearts of all Americans because he challenged the unknown and thereby found a New World.” In Italian communities, Columbus Day was a celebration of Italian-American heritage.

At the end of the 20th century, Columbus Day didn’t mean excitement to everyone. The idea of discovering a world where other people were already living was less appealing to many. There was also new information. For one thing, Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas. The archaeological record now shows that Vikings had already made the voyage before Columbus, thinking he was in Asia, reached the Caribbean. What’s more, it is uncertain that Columbus actually came ashore on any part of the United States.

There was also more awareness that Columbus, however bold an explorer he might have been, was not a representative of democratic ideals. His writings show that he encouraged slavery and mistreatment of the people living in the places he claimed for Spain.

By the 1990s, some communities were replacing Columbus Day observances with Indigenous Peoples Day. Columbus is important in world history because of the far-reaching effects of his voyages, but some communities prefer to focus on the indigenous peoples who were so greatly affected.

One thing that is not controversial: Christopher Columbus reached Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493. He named the Island San Juan Bautista. Juan Ponce De Leon became the first governor of the Spanish colony.

Puerto Rico observes November 19th as Discovery of Puerto Rico Day. The day is marked by closure of schools and businesses, and by a giant parade. There are fairs, and the day is the beginning of the Christmas celebrations.

2 Comments

Howard Hills

The only thing worse than the violent clash of cultures between the Europeans and rival peoples was the clash between tribal peoples before the Europeans arrived, and even after. Columbus need not have landed in the territory that became the U.S. to have been the first European to bring a new political order that became sustainable. The natives tribes driven from the southern colonies and later states took African slaves. The only thing worse than being a slave for Europeans in the colonies or later U.S. states was to be a slave for native Americans tribes.

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Howard Hills

Further to preceding, just for purposes of contrasting perspectives, it is arguable that we all should recognize that indigenous people conquered each other and stole land and enslaved one another. By what racist logic do we celebrate conquest and tyranny by indigenous peoples over European conquest that ushered in a colonial era followed by an anti-colonial era? Having a holiday for specific natives tribes and peoples and leaders is fine, but the idea that indigenous people were somehow more inherently good than European explorers and pilgrims is patronizing and dehumanizing condescension. If the indigenous people had the technology to Wie out the Europeans and invade Europe they would have done so with a vengeance that would make European conquest seem enlightened by comparison. The struggles of European pilgrims with colonialism led to a revolution and emergence of the most humane social and political order the word had ever seen. The idea that it is somehow wrong to celebrate the man who said into the unknown and discovered what became the New World is historic illiteracy.

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