HISTORY OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
The man who sailed from Spain to discover America was neither Spanish nor did he discover America, at least not the mainland. But it was true that:
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
History of Christopher Columbus
He was actually Italian, born in 1451 to a wool merchant in Genoa, and first went to sea in his youth. He sailed to Iceland and Guinea for business and later may have spent some time as a privateer. It was in 1484, the year after Martin Luther was born in Germany, that Christopher Columbus presented to King John of Portugal the idea of an “Enterprise of the Indies” (no relation to Star Trek‘s starship) where he would sail west to the East Indies, thinking it shorter than the eastern spice trade route.
After unsuccessful appeals to the kings of Portugal, England, and France, he eventually moved to Spain; after that, his fourth request; he secured the patronage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. You know them as the parents of Queen Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII of England, and grandparents of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who presided over the trial of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms.
Voyages of Christopher Columbus
Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain, with three ships on August 3 and arrived not in the East Indies but the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, where he named the locals “Indians.” He sailed on to the islands of Cuba and Haiti, thinking he’d reached the islands of the East Indies.
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus was not alone among 15th-century Europeans in thinking that the world was round, but he vastly underestimated Earth’s circumference.
Fame of Christopher Columbus
He returned with captives and gold to a hero’s welcome in Spain, which subsequently enjoyed its Golden Age of exploration. Columbus made three more voyages to the New World, including the Caribbean and South America, but never saw the North American continent.
So did he discover America? Perhaps, if you neglect the indigenous people already living there or the Viking Leif Erikson who had visited pre-Columbian America 500 years earlier. (There’s even a Leif Erikson Day on October 9.) New dating methods show that Vikings occupied Newfoundland in 1021 AD. But Columbus’ journeys did result in the first European colonies in the New World of a permanent nature.
And in the United States of America, Columbus Day is one of only four federal holidays that honor individuals, including:
- Jesus (Christmas)
- President Washington (since 1879, but in 1968 combined with Lincoln’s Birthday to be Presidents Day),
- Martin Luther King, Jr. (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
It is also celebrated across Latin America under many names as Dia de la Raza, Dia de la Hispanidad, Dia de las Americas, and Dia del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural.
Other European explorers, within decades following Columbus, landed in North America, including:
- Juan Ponce de Leon (Florida)
- Alonso Alvarez de Pineda (Texas)
- Giovanni da Verrazanno (New York)
But it was Columbus, who never got closer than Bermuda, whose name was used for the newly independent United States in the late 1700s.
Significance of the Word: Columbia
Columbia is a Latinized appellation given in honor of Columbus and used in a variety of poetic ways to refer to the nation itself, and more:
- Since 1775 American Patriots have used Columbia in anticipation of their independent United States of America.
- Previously used by a British writer in 1738, referring to 13 American Colonies and the New World.
- It is the female personification of the USA (at right) displaced subsequently by the Statue of Liberty.
- It is the name of the district of 70 square miles in the State of Maryland and north of Virginia, in which Washington, the capital of the Union, is situated.
- It’s the name for the river that flows from southwestern Canada and flows to the Pacific Ocean, separating the states of Washington and Oregon.
- It is the name of towns in South Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Missouri.
- It is the name of counties in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
- It was the name of a famous American sailing ship and later a space shuttle.
- It is the name of a private Ivy League university in New York, formerly King’s College.
- It is the name of a Hollywood film studio.
We have Columbus to thank for the phrase coined in 1972 by Alfred Crosby, Jr., the “Columbian Exchange,” which describes the exchange, following his voyages, of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old World and the New World, and vice versa. Specifically, exchanging plants and animals profoundly transformed farming and people’s diets on both continents.
Separated by an ocean, the Western and Eastern hemispheres had minimal contact. On Columbus’ second voyage, he brought domesticated animals:
horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens
Subsequent European voyages brought to the Americas:
sugar, rice, wheat, other cereals, olives, grapevines, apples, bananas, onions, mangos, citrus fruits, cotton, and most importantly… coffee
Historically, most infectious diseases have been passed from domesticated animals to humans through zoonosis. As Europeans lived with many species of domestic animals for thousands of years, they developed natural immunities. Indigenous Americans had fewer domestic animals and consequently did not. Accidentally, there was an exchange of European diseases brought by sailors to the New World, resulting in catastrophic death for indigenous peoples. These included:
smallpox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox, typhus, and influenza
From the Americas
But the exchange went in the other direction as well. From the New World, explorers brought back to Europe, Asia, and Africa some domesticated animals:
dogs and alpaca
But more importantly, plants:
avocado, sweetcorn (maize), tomatoes, beans, peanuts, pumpkins, cashews, pineapples, sunflowers, tobacco, potatoes, vanilla, quinine, chilis and peppers (cayenne, bell, jalapeño), coca (cocaine, original Coca-Cola), para (rubber tree), and most importantly… chocolate (cacao)
But there was a disease exchange from the indigenous peoples of the Americas to Europeans. Some of Columbus’ sailors had engaged in relations with indigenous women in the Caribbean. Consequently, they brought back to Europe what was first reported as an outbreak during the war in Naples in 1494/1495:
The Christopher Columbus Holiday
How did Columbus Day become a holiday? While he was not widely known in America until the mid-18th century, this began to change after the U.S. gained its independence from Britain. Italian immigrants began to arrive in America in 1820, but the large wave of immigration was between 1880 and WWI in 1914. As with the Irish who had settled in the U.S. before them, they experienced religious and ethnic discrimination, including mass lynchings in 1891.
The following year, President Benjamin Harrison became the first president to call for a national observance of Columbus Day on the 400th anniversary of the Italian’s arrival. The first state to observe Columbus Day was Colorado in 1906. Angelo Noce, an Italian immigrant and the founder of Colorado’s first Italian newspaper, La Stella (the Star,) was instrumental in creating the holiday. Fourteen other states followed suit within the next five years.
It was the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, who were instrumental in making it a federal holiday during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. It was set on October 12 but now is fixed to the second Monday in October to create a 3-day weekend. This has been the same day as Canadian Thanksgiving since 1957.
Today, Columbus Day is a 3-day Federal holiday celebrated every second Monday of October due to the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
Redaction of the Holiday
Though it remains a federal holiday and, in some cases, not all, a state holiday, over the last 25 years, several dozen cities have voted to observe the day locally as Indigenous Peoples Day. Some cities declare it an official city holiday; others do not.
In California, Native American Day is observed on the fourth Friday in September. California’s Burbank in 2017 narrowly voted for this new name, joining Berkeley (the first in 1994), San Fernando, and Los Angeles among the cities in the state that have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Some of the allegations supporting this change assert that the romantic biography of Columbus was based on a best-selling book that popularized his story, though supposedly inaccurately. In 1828 Washington Irving published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which has since served as a glorification of the voyager. It was the most popular book on Columbus for over a century.
Admittedly, Irving’s book has a confusing objective, intending to provide a historical biography while simultaneously endeavoring to promote nationalistic patriotism. In the book, Irving depicts Columbus as a benevolent man of adventure, known for his generosity to the indigenous native Americans.
This book also promoted the belief that most Europeans thought the Earth was flat then and that Columbus’ journeys dispelled this. The concept of a spherical world was widely understood at that time and, in some places, centuries before.
So, do you think Columbus is a hero or a heel?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian