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You may remember Christopher Columbus mostly through the “sailed the ocean blue” childhood rhyme, but the famed explorer of North America is no longer made out to be the heroic adventurer he once was.

Why has the public begun a critical reevaluation of Columbus, and what does that say about the way we study and approach history?

Who Was Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451 to parents Susanna Fontanarossa and Domenico Colombo, a wool merchant. Christopher was the oldest of Domenico’s five children. 

Columbus is best known for his overseas voyages to the West. He is often credited and celebrated as the first explorer to discover the Americas. In total, the Italian explorer made four voyages across the Atlantic, in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502.

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Why Did Columbus want to Sail West?

It had nothing to do with the New World and everything to do with the fact that Columbus had an iffy sense of geography.

In 15th-century Europe, trade with Asia had been difficult for merchants to establish, as the long sea voyage there entailed crossing hostile waters filled with pirates and militants. Columbus believed a route to the East could be established through the West in a shorter amount of time than many had believed, in what was called the Northwest Passage. In his quest to find a sponsor to fund his idea, Columbus traveled around Europe looking for an investor to fund his trip. 

Soon, word of his endeavors had caught the attention of Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, who agreed to meet with the traveler on May 1, 1486. Columbus explained his plans, but the king and queen stalled after their advisers had warned that such a trip would not be feasible and that Columbus’s claims were overblown.

On Aug. 1, 1492, the monarchs reconsidered their position and agreed to sponsor Columbus’s voyage in exchange for setting up Spanish colonies, to which Columbus agreed. A contract was drawn and signed, generously offering Columbus 10% of his findings as well as viscountship over discovered lands.

What Lands Did Columbus Discover?

On Aug. 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from Castile, Spain, with supplies and three ships: the Pinta, the Niña and the flagship, Santa Maria. 

Columbus embarked on three more voyages to establish settlements under the Spanish crown, exploring territories in Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as many other islands and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1492, he established his first successful colony, La Isabela, in Hispaniola (now Dominican Republic) along with 1,500 settlers. 

In 1493, Columbus’s health began to decline. He began to suffer bouts of influenza, periods of blindness, gout and arthritis, which would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. Columbus died on May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, Spain, at age 54. His remains are interred at the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic.

Columbus's tomb, Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic
Columbus’s tomb, Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic (Mariordo: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

 

How DId Columbus Day Become a Holiday?

Columbus’s October 1492 landing is celebrated in the Americas, where the U.S., as well as large swaths of Latin America, hold a national holiday. According to the Library of Congress, “the first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States took place on October 12, 1792. Organized by the Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, it commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landing.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it an official federal holiday in 1937

Most states in the U.S. officially recognize the second Monday of October as Columbus Day, with the exception of several states that have chosen to celebrate the holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day.

 

Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples Day

Columbus’s discoveries were great for the European empires but disastrous for the people who lived in the Americas.

Throughout his travels in the West, Columbus and his crew encountered several native tribes, many of which they enslaved, beat and tortured as the Spaniards sought to establish colonies under the Spanish crown. In 130 years following first contact with Christopher Columbus and other explorers, it is estimated that indigenous peoples lost 95% of their population.

In recent years, many have spoken out against celebrating Columbus Day as a national holiday, arguing that it ignores the suffering and brutal violence native peoples endured under the colonization efforts of the Italian explorer and the Spanish crown. They argue that to celebrate Columbus Day is to dismiss, even celebrate, these genocidal losses experienced by the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere.

As a result, there have been growing efforts to rebrand the day to better reflect events from all perspectives. These efforts largely began in 1990, when the United Nations held an indigenous peoples’ conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss replacing Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day in the U.S. In light of these events, some states have taken to renaming Columbus Day to commemorate and highlight Native American history in the territories that Columbus claimed. 

In 2021, President Joe Biden declared Oct. 11 of that year to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day (spelled with an apostrophe).

“For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” his proclamation read. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

As president, Biden only had the authority to declare a onetime, unofficial day of observance. Congress would be required to turn Indigenous Peoples Day into a national holiday.

As of 2022, however, Indigenous Peoples Day is recognized as an official holiday in the District of Columbia and the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, in come case simultaneously with Columbus Day instead of replacing it.

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