Columbus Day Myths and Truths

Columbus Day was declared a federal holiday in the United States in 1934 by President Roosevelt after lobbying from a Catholic fraternal association called Knights of Columbus. Since then, many have questioned the appropriateness of celebrating Columbus by bringing some of his lesser-known actions to light. Let’s lay it out and look at the myths and truths surrounding Christopher Columbus and his legacy:

The Myths

  • Columbus proved the world is round
  • Columbus was a courageous explorer who discovered the Americas

The Truths

Columbus proved the world is round

No educated European during the medieval times thought the world was flat. The “Flat Earth” theory was disproved by Ancient Greeks, and to say that Columbus or Queen Isabella didn’t know the Earth was round is (according to the Members of the Historical Association in 1945) “one of the hardiest errors in teaching.”

Scientific Historian Stephen Jay Gould said “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

According to author James Hannam who studied at both Oxford and Cambridge,

The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants against Catholic teaching. But it gained currency in the 19th century, thanks to inaccurate histories such as John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Atheists and agnostics championed the conflict thesis for their own purposes, but historical research gradually demonstrated that Draper and White had propagated more fantasy than fact in their efforts to prove that science and religion are locked in eternal conflict.

Columbus discovered the Americas

If, by “discovered the Americas,” we mean that Columbus introduced the majority of Europeans to a section of land that they had never before known, we would be correct; however, the Native Americans had been living there for 14,000 years prior to when Columbus stumbled upon them, making one of their ancestors the technical “discoverer” of the American continent.

Leif Ericson, a Norse explorer, is considered the first European to land in North America (Greenland excluded). He landed in modern-day Canada 500 years before Columbus.

Perhaps it is better said that Columbus completed voyages to the American continents that led to “general European awareness” of said continents, and began the Spanish colonization of the “New World.” In fact, Columbus never admitted that he never found his original destination of Asia: Amerigo Vespucci was the first European to posit that the Americas were wholly separate from Asia and a new landmass entirely.

Columbus’ Legacy

More recently, Native American populations have begun speaking out about celebrating Columbus’ efforts. The Taino tribes of Hispaniola, for example, were made Columbus’ slaves and disappeared rapidly after the introduction of diseases and overwork. The system of slavery the natives were forced in to, called the encomienda system, meant that if the explorers spread the Spanish language and Catholic faith, they could “extract tribute” from the natives in the forms of gold, labor, or other goods. To put into context just how much Columbus and his men affected the Taino population, consider that their pre-Columbian numbers ranged from 250,000-300,000. About 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than 500 Taino were left on the island–meaning 0.2% of the original Taino population survived being “discovered” by Columbus.

Columbus was investigated by the Spanish crown for accusations of tyranny and brutality in his governing of native populations. According to a report recently found, Columbus punished a native who stole corn by cutting off his ears and nose, then selling him into slavery.

Columbus, for his accidental contribution to the development of the Western world, committed mass-exterminations of Native populations and unspeakable acts of violence and torture to innocent human beings. In 1990, 350 representatives from Native groups all over the hemisphere met in Ecuador for the first intercontinental gathering of indigenous Americans, said regarding Columbus Day celebrations that “what represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others.”

Suggested Alternatives

Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal comic and blog suggests Bartolomé de las Casas as an appropriate alternative for Columbus Day. Bartolomé was one of the first European settlers to the Americas. He owned a plantation, slaves, and followed the encomienda system. After seeing the terrible acts being committed by Spanish colonizers, he gave up his land, freed his slaves, and became a friar. He became one of the first advocates for universal human rights and eventually opposed slavery in all forms. He spent 50 years of his life fighting slavery, brutal abuse of indigenous peoples, and attempting to convince Spain to adopt more humane colonization practices.

In the words of Matthew Inman, “Christopher Columbus left his home and found a new world. Bartolomé de las Casas left his home and found his humanity.”

What do you think of Columbus and his efforts? Does he deserve to have a U.S. federal holiday? Comment below!

Featured Image:  Biblioteca General Antonio Machado (Fondo Antiguo y AH) · Universidad de Sevilla

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