Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?

Øystein Fjeldberg, Staff Writer

Christopher Columbus

In the year 1492, a Portuguese ship trying to make its way to India missed its destination by thousands of miles. It arrived on the shores of an island in present-day Bahamas, and established an everlasting link between the people of Europe and the Americas.

The ship’s captain, Christopher Columbus, has become one of history’s most important figures. The date of Columbus’ arrival is today celebrated as Columbus Day, but is this a tradition worth continuing?

The reason for celebrating Christopher Columbus is that he discovered America, an act that had profound effects on the world history. There is one issue with this, however. Can Christopher Columbus truly be called the rightful discoverer of America?

The continent was already inhabited by millions upon his arrival. These were people that had lived there for countless generations, spanning back several millennia. When calling Columbus the discoverer, it is meant that he was the first European to travel to America.

Most people know this, of course. What is not as well-known, however, is that Columbus was not even the first European to find America.

Almost 500 years before Columbus voyage, a Norse viking sailed westward from Greenland. His father had been a successful man, having established a thriving settlement on Greenland, and he had great expectations to live up to.

It is believed that the son arrived at Newfoundland, and was then the first European to ever set foot in America. His name was Leif Eriksson, and he called the land he found Vinland. He established settlements there, but left back home to Greenland some time later.

The descendants of the settlers are believed to still be around today, as there is evidence of a Norse settlement in Northern Newfoundland. Like Christopher Columbus, Leif Eriksson was awarded his own public holiday. Leif Eriksson Day is marked every year on October 9, coincidentally only a few days before Columbus Day.

Would Leif Eriksson Day be a decent replacement for Columbus Day? He was the real discoverer of the continent (from a European perspective), but his visit did not lead to a lasting link between the people of America and Europe.

With Columbus, a permanent bond between the continents was created, and in that way the celebration of Columbus would make more sense. But is Columbus a man worth celebrating?

It is no secret that the discovery of the American continent ushered in an age of exploitation of the indigenous people of the Americas, and Columbus’ expedition was no exception. Under Columbus’ supervision, the American natives suffered violent oppression and enslavement.

In 1494, Columbus sent a ship with captured slaves back to Spain, the first slaves to be sent across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the slave trade. In light of this, Columbus could be seen as the instigator of the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for the next four hundred years.

Celebrating a man responsible for such wrongdoings can leave a poor taste in anyone’s mouth.

The first Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in 1972 as a commemoration event for the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ historic landing. For the following years, Columbus Day kept being celebrated with annual parades and ceremonies in Italian and Catholic communities, until it was granted the status of a federal holiday by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.

Since then, the holiday has declined in popularity. Four US states (Hawaii, South Dakota, Alaska, and Oregon) do not recognize the holiday anymore. Hawaii instead celebrates Discoverers’ Day, not commemorating Columbus but the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands at the same date. South Dakota has replaced the holiday with Native American Day, shifting the focus from the European settlers towards the people that has always been in America.

The city of Berkeley in California has renamed the day Indigenous People’s Day since 1992, a move that has been imitated in other US cities such as Seattle in Washington and Dante County in Wisconsin.

Do you think Columbus is a man worth celebrating?

Edited by: Kyndra Sanden and Meredith Lalor

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