Thinking Aloud: What Columbus Day Really Celebrates

Oct. 13,  2014 by Darius 

Today is Columbus Day, dedicated to celebrating the life of the sailor who actually wasn’t the first European to get to the New World.  Let’s take a closer look at exactly what Columbus Day celebrates.

  1. Being scientifically wrong. Everyone’s heard the myth that Columbus believed the world was round, while the stuffy scholars of the Spanish court insisted the world was flat.  It’s ridiculous: everyone from the ancient Greeks forward knew the world was round.  You can thank Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus in 1828 for that particular falsehood.  But there really was a scholarly debate that took place involving Columbus.  This debate concerned the size of the Earth.  Columbus believed that the earth was much smaller than the prevailing view (again, going back to the ancient Greeks).  If there were a few thousand miles shaved off the Earth’s diameter, as Columbus argued, it would be a quick sail to Asia.  Guess what?  Columbus was dead wrong.  For years, though, even after he made landfall in the Caribbean, he insisted that he had indeed discovered Asia.
  1. Being an all-around nasty guy. Columbus was made governor of Hispaniola after his colonization of the island.  For seven years, he and his two brothers ruled the island’s colonists through torture and brutality.  Eventually, complaints against Columbus got so bad that he was recalled to Spain and imprisoned for a few months.  He was never considered for any leadership position again.
  1. And, last but not least, initiating arguably the greatest genocide in the history of mankind. When Columbus arrived on Hispaniola, there were hundreds of thousands of natives—estimates vary greatly.  All estimates agree, though, that 30 years later, between 80 and 90% of the natives were dead due to European diseases, Spanish brutality, and Columbus’s personal taxes on gold.  Columbus set a glittering personal example of how to wipe out natives, an example that would be repeated throughout all the Americas.  Eventually, so many natives died that new workers had to be brought in—slaves from Africa.

Fortunately, the rest of the US seems to be catching on that Columbus Day isn’t exactly something to celebrate.  In perhaps the ultimate test of public opinion, there isn’t a special Google Doodle for Columbus Day this year. 🙂

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