Columbus Day — a holiday without a hero

YESTERDAY WAS a holiday, and we celebrated with the traditional activities we typically engage in to pay homage to the great Italian explorer: Columbus Day sales, leaf-peeping, apple-picking, lazing around. Or at least, most of us were celebrating. Some — with good reason — were in mourning.

Columbus Day has become an odd day off. There are 10 official federal holidays. Christmas has deep religious roots and themes of birth and renewal. Thanksgiving is our day for family and friends. Others, such as Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, are civic commemorations of the founding of the nation and the sacrifices required to keep it strong. One can run through the rest — Labor Day, New Year’s, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and Presidents’ Day — and agree that each is cause for introspection.

Not so, it seems, with Columbus Day. I suspect that few of us, if any, spent much time yesterday contemplating the sailor’s exploits, and for good reason. He was not an especially admirable man. Indeed, he was quite evil.


For those of us who grew up listening to the history of, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” Christopher Columbus was a brave and bold adventurer who defied the conventions of the day, including the widespread belief that the world was flat, in order to discover the Americas.

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None of that is true. Columbus, of course, didn’t discover the New World (in fact, most historians believe he never knew he had encountered a new continent); there were millions of natives already living there. Nor was he the first European. Leif Erikson preceded him by almost 500 years, perhaps even visiting Massachusetts — and has a statue on Boston’s Commonwealth Mall to mark that very possibility.

Moreover, by the time Columbus set sail, it was common knowledge that the earth was round. His crew may have feared storms and diseases, but they weren’t worried about falling off the edge. Columbus’s proposed voyage had its skeptics, but that’s because he believed the planet smaller than it was. Scientists of the day knew it was larger, and — not knowing of the American continents — thought he’d run out of food and water before he hit land. Nor was Columbus motivated by some noble spirit of discovery. He was hoping to find a new route to Asia and had cut a lucrative financial deal with the Spanish monarchs who backed him should he be able to make his way.

But the real problem with Columbus was that he was an enormously brutal and cruel man. He readily enslaved and subjugated the natives he encountered, killing and mutilating them seemingly without compunction. This is hardly revisionist thinking, by the way. Spain had originally given Columbus the right to govern the new lands he discovered. But after his third voyage, the tales of his atrocities were such that the Spanish had him arrested and imprisoned. He was eventually released, but he never was given back his power to rule.

It makes one wonder why we have a holiday for this man. Perhaps it’s less about him personally, and more about marking a dividing line: pre-Columbus and post-Columbus. His discoveries were an immediate sensation in Europe and launched an era of exploration that rapidly drew together the disparate continents of the Earth. The “new world” was, in truth, not the Americas, but rather a world where wildly different civilizations and cultures were now thrust into daily contact with each other. It wasn’t necessarily pretty — millions died of disease alone — but it gave us what we now inhabit.


Still, what new, ennobling wisdom is to be gained from celebrating the day? There are no more undiscovered countries (and won’t be, until we figure out interstellar travel), so it’s not as if we can use Columbus’s experiences, both good and bad, as a model for future exploration. Some have argued for changing the holiday to something else — a contemplation of diversity and cultures and how they interact. It’s an idea of some merit, and would probably of great use in today’s divided world, but I don’t see it catching on. Instead, I think, Columbus Day is destined, perhaps deservedly, to fade away, a remembrance of a time long past, a day off but nothing more.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.