The second Monday of October is celebrated across the United States as a federal holiday in commemoration of Christopher Columbus. Widely, yet erroneously, considered to be the first explorer to have “discovered” America in 1492, Columbus was indeed a brave, adventurous sailor. However, it cannot be said that he was the first to find what we now call North America.
Columbus Day presents us with many quandaries and conflicts regarding the man himself. His name was not even Christopher Columbus; that is an Anglicisation of Christoforo Colombo, his Italian christening. It is not known exactly where he was born; it may have been Italy (Genoa is the generally accepted site) or Portugal, or even Spain.
And, perhaps the strangest “fact” of all: he was buried no less than five times (two separate occasions in 1506 and again in 1542, 1795, and 1898) in three different countries (Spain, Dominican Republic, and Cuba). Some of his remains may now be in the Dominican Republic and Spain, as DNA tests have been inconclusive, but each nation claims to have Columbus firmly entrenched in their sovereign domain.
There is even debate regarding our understanding as to his physical appearance. The best known portrait of Columbus that we have all seen in the history books has never been confirmed as accurate. Painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1519 (well after Columbus’ death in May of 1506), it does depict a large man (Columbus was known to have been taller, well over six feet, than average for that time period) and it shows him to have auburn hair, which is likewise congruent with contemporary descriptions. However, the facial features themselves have long been a source of controversy, as have many other aspects of the Christopher Columbus story.
As for Columbus “discovering” America, he never came close to the continent itself. Though the precise location of his point of initial contact with terra firma on his 1492 voyage continues to be debated by scholars, it is believed that he actually first “landed” on either what is now the small island San Salvador in the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic on Hispaniola. Either way, it was certainly not North America.
Yes, he made three other excursions between Europe and this side of the Atlantic after the 1492 trip, but none of those resulted in any landfall on the North American continent either.
In fact, Columbus himself was not even one of the first to actually see the new land. His lookout on Oct. 12, 1492, was Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodriguez Bermeo) and it was he who, at approximately 3 a.m., was the first to sound the alarm of “land ho.”
This alert was spread throughout the crewmen and was soon followed by the firing of a small canon by the captain of the Nina. It was this shot that awakened Columbus on the Santa Maria. However, he immediately argued that he had actually seen the island before retiring for the evening, but did not wish to announce such a discovery until daylight. It was this claim that technically allowed Columbus to collect rewards offered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to the “first to sight new lands.”
But Columbus countered his own credibility with his personal writings; throughout his remaining years he consistently contended (at least privately) that he had indeed found the East Indies of Asia (specifically what we now call Japan), despite convincing evidence to the contrary. Though some historians dispute the accuracy of this purported blight upon his legacy, the fact that Amerigo Vespucci, rather than Columbus, is the namesake of our American continents (as of 1507) lends credence to the argument that Columbus died never knowing, much less claiming, that he had indeed discovered islands that were previously uncharted by Caucasians.
Regardless, even if he had made it to the coast of North America, the continent was already well populated with “native Americans” (which is exactly why we make such a reference to this day) who had been here for thousands of years by the time Columbus and his ocean-going crew members crossed the Atlantic on the first of four similar ventures that he made.
Other rather unseemly facets of the life of Columbus remain largely ignored or disregarded when nationwide homage is paid to him on Columbus Day. He had an illegitimate son by his 20 year-old mistress (though neither of these situations was uncommon, then or now) and suffered from ailments associated with syphilis through his later years.
It is well documented that he was an original slave-trader, at least in the way that we think of such an institution as it evolved in the United States. He was also a ruthless governor of the areas that he “discovered,” often sending bands of heavily armed men (complete with attack dogs) to frighten the natives into cooperating with his “proposals” of indentured servitude and total subjugation. Entire cultures (Taino, Arawak) were eradicated as a direct result of Columbus’ policies and the diseases that his men spread throughout the native populations.
And yet we have a federally ordained commemoration in the name of someone who seemingly condoned policies and actions that resulted in horrific atrocities, if not total genocide, and never even saw, much less “discovered,” what we now call America.
The “holiday” itself has been recognized in some form or other as early as 1792. Two separate groups (the Tammany Society of New York and the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston) each gathered to bring attention to the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ first journey to the Americas. President Benjamin Harrison noted in 1892 that the 400th anniversary should be recognized as “Discovery Day,” but it was not officially designated as a national holiday until 1934 under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
And although there are indeed occasional protests and demonstrations against it, we continue to “celebrate” Columbus Day without much ado either way. Perhaps, considering the ambiguities and paradoxes associated with the life and times of Columbus himself, that is indeed the most fitting and proper way to acknowledge the man, the explorer, and his place in history.