I’ve gotten into the accidental habit of critically reflecting on American holidays. That can be an alienating habit, and one in bad taste, when we’re rewarded so handsomely by the economic machine for unreflectively participating as consumers in the one-day sales and holiday discounts. But it turns out I’m not the only one critically reflecting on Columbus Day lately.
Columbus Day got the Colbert treatment the other night, and John Oliver spotlighted it in a “How Is This Still A Thing?” segment. The media have been calling attention to the fact that several states have already chosen not to observe the day, even though it’s a federal holiday, and many states and cities are instead observing Native American Day or Indigenous People’s Day. The reason, of course, is that Christopher Columbus and his legacy are controversial because of the destructive impact he left on the native people he encountered in the “new world.” I say “of course” because this nastier legacy of Columbus as the pillaging seeker of riches and the bringer of disease and subjugation to an unsuspecting native people gets all the press these days. But these days are fairly recent, and the old “In 14 hundred 92” story once so ubiquitously chanted throughout the nation’s schoolhouses is still echoing in some of them, and there is still a strong living memory of Columbus The Heroic Explorer among the current population.
The anniversary of Columbus’ landfall has been observed regularly since the 19th century in some cities, often as a celebration of Italian-American heritage (Columbus, though financed by Spain, was Italian). The popularity of the day as a more broadly American celebration grew, and in 1937 it was made a federal holiday. It seems odd to contemplate the day’s growth in popularity while it’s currently swinging the opposite direction on the popularity pendulum, but maybe we should contemplate it.
The traditional Columbus story is an adventure tale. Everyone loves a good adventure tale. Especially one where a bright-eyed hero is sent out from a kingly court to seek out glory across the vast unexplored horizon; where leagues of crashing billows and crushing depths are traversed with naught but the stars for guidance and the capricious winds for fuel; where the journey’s end is a new beginning, a New World full of possibility and opportunity. Though the native peoples had been there for millennia and the Norse had likely reached North America five centuries earlier, Columbus’ journey truly did profoundly change the game for Western Europe (and ultimately the whole world), and the “discovery of the new world” lives on in the collective memory of Western civilization as a golden moment. Every subsequent story of pioneering Europeans in the New World, of frontier fortitude and grace under pressure, followed in history through the sandy footprints of Columbus on that virgin shore. The 1492 voyage has always been the origin story of the American Spirit.
Now, however, what was once known only to Columbus and his crew, then to a few privileged historians, is known to the general public: the 1492 voyage was a messy affair. Columbus himself, it seems from documents of the era, was morally unscrupulous in his pursuit of wealth and self-advancement. Upon first encountering the Caribbean natives, he realized how easy they would be to enslave, and after returning to Spain to secure more men and guns, he returned to do just that. Columbus and his men raped, tortured, murdered, and enslaved the indigenous people who had initially greeted them with hospitality and then had no means to defend themselves. Here in the internet age, the newly disseminated information from the privileged historians is melting away the wax facade sculpted by the American Spirit to reveal an uglier face on Christopher Columbus. The hero is a scoundrel, his bright-eyes are just greedy eyes, the new world is already inhabited, and the new opportunities are in exploitation of human life.
The horrors of Columbus’ expeditions and the European expeditions to follow should be made widely known in our time. It’s high time that narrative saw the cold light of day, because it’s true. The death toll among native populations in the Americas as a result of both European hostility and European diseases has been estimated to be as high as 85%. With this in mind, some areas are celebrating “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of Columbus Day. I worry that such an observance doesn’t actually give full respect to the sundry native peoples on their own, noble terms, but by lumping all indigenous peoples together for expedience in order to eclipse the newly disavowed Columbus Day, it becomes a cheap reparation, still on the white man’s terms. From the perspective of the colonialists’ progeny today though, some collective way to repent is perhaps needed.
There’s another problem with the wholesale jettisoning of Columbus Day: the fact that it would be leaving empty a space now created to reflect on and relish not just the pioneering spirit of one generation of explorers, but of the spirit of exploration in general. The virtue of adventuring, the deeply human desire to explore, the sublimity of uncrossed horizons, and the possibility of new worlds — these ought to be celebrated. The Columbus namesake really doesn’t deserve that honor. And indigenous peoples, though their histories are now forever intertwined with European colonialism, nevertheless at least need a day which wasn’t conceived of to cover the sins of the archetype of the evils of colonialism. And we all need a national holiday which celebrates the spirit of adventure, lauding virtuous adventures of old and looking forward to adventures ahead, but chastened with the hard-learned lessons from the errors of past explorers, and respect for whatever may lie ahead. Adventurers’ Day? Explorers’ Day? It’s something to think about.