Columbus day is actually on October 12th every year because that’s the anniversary of when he reached America. But the reason we’re celebrating Columbus day 4 days early this year is because congress changed the official date to the Second Monday of October in 1971. Incidentally, October 8th is the absolute earliest that Columbus Day can take place.
The day didn’t start off as Columbus Day. Initially it began in 1792 as the 300th anniversary celebration of the discovery of the Americas. We had just ratified the current US Constitution 4 years earlier and were feeling particularly proud, so the Columbian Order of New York held a celebration. This caught on across the country, and it became a general celebration of the contributions of Italian-Americans to the country’s founding. The Church held parades and such. It reappeared in 1866 as The Revelation of America Festival, held in New York to commemorate the discovery of America. It spread across the country, and San Francisco named it Columbus Day three years later. Then in 1937, Roosevelt made it into a federal holiday due to lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternity. It used to be the celebration of the discovery of the American continents and of Italian-American heritage, but then we found out that the vikings were on the east coast ~500 years earlier. So now its a celebration of the beginning of the colonial pursuits that would eventually form the United States.
The actual contributions of Columbus are significant, but not for the reasons we’re taught. Like educated people knew the Earth was round at that time. Eratosthenes, a greek mathematician, had proven that over 1700 years earlier by measuring the angle of shadows cast by the Sun at the noon in different cities. He also used this method to accurately determine the size of Earth and its curvature. And even Columbus realized that he wasn’t actually in India by his third trip. Columbus’ actual contribution was the discovery that the Atlantic and Pacific are not the same, which spurned people to travel across the Atlantic. Popular belief was not that you’d fall off the edge of the world, but rather that the ocean was so vast that it was faster and safer to just sail around Africa. They didn’t know that America was there. Columbus’ assertion was incorrect and based in ignorance; he believed that the world was smaller than it actually is. And that’s one of the reason he had difficulty finding somebody to sponsor his journey. Like when came into King Ferdinand’s court and proposed that the world was smaller, the king’s scholars immediately vetoed the notion because they knew better. It was Queen Isabella’s financial advisor who convinced them to sponsor the voyage. He reasoned that it was a low-risk venture with high potential profits. At worst they’d lose a few criminals, some old ships, and an annoying guy. At best they’d open a new trade route to Asia. He didn’t find a trade route to Asia, but he did find land when people thought there was none. He does deserve credit for that, although I wouldn’t say its so important that it needs a holiday.
Lief Erikson Day (hinga-dinga-durgin) has been proposed as a replacement holiday, commemorating both the actual discovery of the continent and the contributions of Nordic-Americans to American culture and society. Its tomorrow, October 9th. ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ is what UC Berkley wanted to replace the holiday with. But the decision was driven by emotion rather than reason or historical worth. Like one would imagine it to be a more solemn holiday, mourning those who died to disease. Which is fine. Disease is terrible and 95% of the native popular was wiped out by it. But Berkley’s holiday is more about blaming Columbus than honoring the dead, which is moronic. Like it was going to happen eventually. There is no possible way that the two civilizations were going to coexist on Earth but never meet. If it wasn’t 1492, then it’d have been sometime shortly after. Its horrible, but that’s the nature of disease. Its why everyone was scared of the bird flu, and the swine flu. Because new diseases are always catastrophic. There’s a misconception that Europe knew they were spreading disease, and that they were doing so to commit genocide. Its a lot of what Berkeley’s holiday was based on. The reality is that it was largely an accident because nobody knew germs were a thing.
For example, Guy de Chauliac, a the pope’s personal physician during the Black Death, managed to survive the plague by breathing clean air, exercising, and eating healthy foods. Also bloodletting. And in general people thought he was a madman. The general populace thought it was more likely that the Jews were bringing divine retribution upon Europe by not being Catholic. Or that the Jews were poisoning their water, also because they weren’t Catholic. And this general belief that God brought disease persisted until relatively recently.
Like the idea that Spain intentionally presented smallpox blankets to the natives is true, but completely irrelevant. Its almost like a buzzword that’s used to vilify the Spanish by pretending that the natives were murdered. As if Spain swung smallpox like a weapon. In reality disease doesn’t need help spreading. Especially not a real contagious bastard like Smallpox. The actual cause of the epidemic was an infected African slave that was brought to the New World. Blankets and other traded goods didn’t contribute to the epidemic in any noticeable way because the disease outpaced European exploration. Its the reason for the Pristine Myth; the idea that America was just a pure, wild continent before Columbus arrived. Because by the time Europeans moved inland, the disease had already swept through and killed most of the natives leaving just wilderness behind. That’s not to say the Spanish were upset by it. They viewed it as God’s retribution upon a heretical people. Only this time the Spanish weren’t affected, so they got all cocky about it and thought they were chosen by God to embark on a divine mission to ‘civilize’ America.
A large portion of history is actually based on people misinterpreting disease. But I digress. In any case, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a fine concept, but it needs a better name and a better champion. Like the reason we don’t call it ‘Christopher Columbus Day’ is because its cumbersome. Just like ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ is too cumbersome and too pretentious, and that’s why it’ll never gain nationwide appeal. I’m personally a bigger fan of regional holidays regardless. For example, ‘Discoverer’s Day’ is what the people of Hawaii celebrate. Nothing to do with Columbus, rather its in commemoration of the Polynesian people’s discovery of Hawaii that coincidentally also happened on October 12th. For California, perhaps a holiday that commemorates the recognition of the Pacific Ocean. Like imagine we had an Ocean Festival every year. That’d be neat.
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