What Columbus Day means to us
Another hero of a bad cause creates controversy
In my youth, Springfield’s Roman Cultural Society held an essay contest every year in which grade school kids were invited to address the topic, “What Columbus Day Means To Me.” I never entered then – I hadn’t yet learned how to spell “imperialist exploitation” – so here is my essay, 50 years late.
Illinois and the captain of the Santa Maria go back a long way. Recalling how Columbus put the Western Hemisphere on the world map put Chicago on the world map when it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Chicago’s Italians in particular adopted him as their George Washington; he not only put the Americas on the world map, he later put Italian Americans on the U.S. map. In the 1960s, for example, Columbus Day drew a reported 750,000 Chicagoans to State Street in a parade sponsored by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans; they even said a mass for the guy at Holy Name Cathedral.
The actual landing took place on Oct. 12, but since 1971, the holiday has been observed on the second Monday in October. Not that Columbus Day has ever had much to do with actual history. In 1893, Illinois Gov. Joseph Fifer proclaimed in part, “Let us devoutly acknowledge the Divine Providence so signally displayed in the discovery of this country . . . ” This country? Columbus made four voyages; in not one of them did he set foot even on North America, much less on the future U.S.
In fact, Columbus did none of the things we honor him for. He did not discover that the New World existed; that was done by Norseman Leif Eriksson 500 years before Columbus. He did not prove the Earth was round; that was known. (What wasn’t known was how large it was; Columbus dared to undertake his voyage only because he thought the trip would be a lot shorter than it was.)
We know our history a little better these days. We know that the Western Hemisphere was not a sparsely populated wilderness when he stumbled upon it but was home to a human population numbering in the millions. We know that Columbus was the agent of incalculable woe wrought on these native peoples by introducing to this hemisphere European technology, European religion and, especially, European diseases. He did so not in pursuit of science but Christian imperialism and money. His sponsors’ aim was finding a new route to Asia, but his immediate aim was to pay the costs of the trip by opening plantations. (He was never intent on genocide, as some claim, but only because he wanted the Indians kept alive, as slaves.)
Whatever the value of his example to generations of American schoolchildren, Columbus has long inspired our nation’s presidents, who are forever setting off to faraway places they know nothing about to subjugate brown-skinned people; in this hemisphere alone the list includes Haiti, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Cuba.
No wonder that disquiet has spread over whether it is fit to celebrate such a man and such an event. Most readers will have heard of local movements to abolish the holiday or change its name to something like Discovery Day, yet another instance of the ongoing debate over whether and how to commemorate heroes of bad causes. The General Assembly, honoring its own traditions, has ducked the controversy by agreeing with both sides. Columbus Day remains sanctioned by the state, but an Indigenous People’s Day will henceforth be observed unofficially on the last Monday in September to promote understanding about Native Americans in the state. (According to Melyssa Navis, board secretary of the American Indian Center of Chicago, local indigenous people were not consulted about this bill; old habits die hard, as whites have been deciding what is good for native peoples for more than 500 years.)
Why not just abolish Columbus Day? Not everyone in Illinois shares legislators’ enthusiasm for the day. It is a holiday for Sangamon County government, for example, but not for the City of Springfield. Most businesses ignore it, as do schools not under the thumb of the General Assembly. It is likely to endure nonetheless, because these days racist imperialism again has a constituency. Our renascent white supremacists honor Columbus as an Italian Donald Trump, eager to rescue North America from barbarous and backward peoples.
Instead of arguing the relative merits of such dubious holidays as Casimir Pulaski Day or President’s Day, we ought to abolish all civic holidays as a waste of the people’s time and money. Until then, we ought to have the schools devote Discovery Day to teaching history. That way, Columbus Day might lead to kids’ discovery of the actual Americas.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.