For over 200 years, the United States has had a weird obsession with a terrible person. Even all the way back in 1792, the blossoming years of this country, there was a celebration of Christopher Columbus’ voyage and “discovery” of the New World. Except, he never set foot in North America. So why do we even bother celebrating this guy, who, it turns out, was a terrible person?
It all goes back to the year before the 400th anniversary of his journey across the Atlantic, when a group of Italian immigrants was lynched in New Orleans for being Italian. In the late 1800s, anti-Italian prejudice was rampant as more Italians came to the country in search of labor opportunities — and there were certainly opportunities, as slavery had just ended and the South had many positions to fill.
After the lynching, the men accused of the crime were either acquitted or simply let go and the outcry from the Italian Americans was loud and even attracted attention from the Italian government. So to placate them, President Harrison announced the one-time national holiday of Columbus Day in 1892. This was meant to be a celebration of Italian heritage as well as a way to encourage an immigrant group to identify with the United States. It was here that Americans wrongly associated Columbus with American history.
Later on, thanks to lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a religious organization, the holiday began to become more popular. It wasn’t until 1937 that Columbus Day became a federal holiday, so it’s a relatively new one. But should it be a federal holiday? Columbus errantly landed in the Caribbean, not North America, he wasn’t looking for a “new” world, and following his landing, he decimated the people of the Americas. So many people died that it actually changed the climate.
Furthermore, Columbus left behind very extensive journals that justify his nomination for “Worst Person Ever,” as he clearly laid out his criminal plan to exploit and exterminate the local populations with zero regards for human life. He was even jailed for torturing people, so people were very much aware of his crimes, even back then. Why are we still celebrating this guy? There are tons of other things to celebrate in this country that don’t involve a murderous madman that never even came here. Obviously, we don’t need to abolish the federal holiday altogether, but we can find other things to be aware of rather than Columbus.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is the obvious replacement for Columbus Day. Replacing Columbus with a celebration and uplifting of the people he aimed to destroy is the ideal solution. As a result of lobbying by Native Americans in the 1960s and ‘70s, the movement to honor the native people of the continent instead of Columbus has gained traction over the last decades; in 2021, President Biden was the first American president to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, although it currently has to share the date with the traditional Columbus Day. It’s important to reiterate that Columbus didn’t discover anything. The Americas were well-populated with millions of indigenous people that came here tens of thousands of years ago. Every year, it seems that we become less and less aware of just how long the Americas were populated. The contributions of native populations are often overlooked and this October is the perfect time to appreciate them.
If you must celebrate a European coming to the Americas, consider that Columbus doesn’t even come close to the first. 500 years before Columbus (that is, longer than the U.S. has been a country), the Vikings established a settlement in modern-day Canada where they explored the area without decimating the local populations. In 1964, President Johnson established Leif Erikson Day to recognize the Viking discovery, but it is not a federal holiday. That said, there are plenty of good reasons to not designate a federal holiday to celebrate the Vikings, mostly because they never came to this country — something that also applies to Columbus.
If the objection to giving up the holiday relates to the pride felt by Italian Americans, the list of notable Italian Americans is much longer than a single murderous, lost man. So many amazing contributions by Italian Americans have greatly benefited the United States.
How about Mother Cabrini, who moved to the United States in the late 1800s to serve the Italian immigrants that were being abused? Their suffering is what led to Columbus Day, but why not celebrate someone who actually helped them? Mother Cabrini established 67 schools, orphanages and hospitals that directly benefited the American people.
There’s Antonin Scalia, the first Italian confirmed to the United State Supreme Court. Scalia left behind a legacy that altered the Supreme Court and the way we approach current American politics. There’s also Anthony Fauci, who recently led us through the COVID-19 pandemic but, before that, investigated and cured many unknown diseases and paved the path for how we treat HIV/AIDS in this country. He’s been America’s public health expert through SARS, Ebola, anthrax and many other scary public health scenarios.
And if you’re just a huge fan of exploration in general, why not celebrate the Greeks? They knew the Earth was round millennia before Columbus was born; the myth that Columbus proved the Earth was round is wholly false — everyone knew. While many ancient Greeks had proposed a globe-shaped Earth, it was Eratosthenes that first calculated the circumference of the planet, and he was incredibly close for a guy with no planes or satellites. Using a bit of math would have told Columbus he was nowhere near his goal of the East Indies, but they also didn’t celebrate Eratosthenes.
There are plenty of ways to honor the contributions that humans have made all over the planet without celebrating a man that was intent on exploiting the native populations of the Americas. He’s not an American hero, he’s not an Italian hero, he really shouldn’t be anyone’s hero. This Columbus Day, take the time to honor and acknowledge people that have contributed to the planet in amazing ways that have pushed society forward. Columbus just isn’t one of them.