Pride, Prejudice, and Christopher Columbus

Contrary to popular belief, most educated Europeans in Columbus’s time did understand that the world was round, but they had no knowledge yet that the Pacific Ocean existed.

Thus, Columbus and his contemporaries assumed that if they just sailed across the Atlantic, they would eventually encounter the riches of the East Indies.

When Columbus sighted Cuba, he believed it was mainland China, and when his expedition founded Hispaniola, he was certain it was Japan. It wasn’t until his third journey that Columbus dimly realized he hadn’t reached Asia after all, but had stumbled upon an entire continent, “The New World.”

The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order — better known as Tammany Hall, the ultimate cigar-smoke-filled political back room — held an event to commemorate the historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Controversy over Columbus Day dates back to the 18th and the 19th Century, when anti-immigrant groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, rejected the holiday because of its association with immigrants and with Roman Catholicism. In fact, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed the anniversary of Columbus’s landing a one-time-only holiday; this was part of an effort to placate Italian Americans and to ease diplomatic tensions with Italy, following a lynching in New Orleans, where a mob murdered 11 Italian immigrants.

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the day a permanent national holiday, largely a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a powerful Catholic fraternal organization. Yet old nativist antagonisms were revived during World War II, so that Roosevelt ordered the removal of the designation “enemy aliens” for Italian Americans – a gesture he clearly did not extend to Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, who were interned in camps.

In recent decades, Native Americans and other groups have protested the celebration of an event that resulted in the colonization of the Americas, the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, and the deaths of millions of people from disease, torture, and murder. Furthermore, the image of Columbus himself as a hero is highly questionable, since on arriving in the Bahamas he and his men forced the native peoples into slavery, and later, while governor of Hispaniola, he imposed torture as a form of punishment.

Nevertheless, Columbus Day is vigorously defended by Italian Americans who are quite innocent of this history and merely eager for some recognition of their own. And in many Latin American nations the day has traditionally been observed as Dia de La Raza, a celebration of the diverse roots of LatinX culture.

But a steadily growing movement to rename the day Indigenous Peoples’ Day has taken root, with such states as Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Florida, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, Wisconsin, and parts of California, including Los Angeles, commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Still, a reduced level of observance or lack of recognition of the day is not always due to concerns about honoring Native Americans. For example, a community of predominately Scandinavian descent might well wish to observe Leif Erikson Day, instead — especially since he “discovered” this New World much earlier, in the 10th Century!

Ah, nationalism. It begins in pride; why does it seem to end up in prejudice?