Yesterday was one of those days that the historian in me did a lot of cringing as I saw a lot of posts, articles, etc., mostly from sources I usually agree with, either trolling a virtue signaling over a key date in the history of humanity. It was 529 years ago today, though observed as many holidays are on the Monday preceding, that a man by the name of CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS first landed on this side of the planet. October 12, 1492 is one of those dates right up their with July 4, 1776 which everyone should know and be acknowledged for its contributions as to why history has progressed the way it has. Columbus is the very reason it is a holiday at all and it should remain such.
Columbus was no saint and we don’t have to like everything he did, though it should be cautioned that some of the worst accusations against him were at least exaggerated if not made up out of whole cloth by contemporary detractors. Also, nobody says he “discovered” America with a straight face anymore. He was probably not even the first European nor did he land in the future US unless you count Puerto Rico on a later voyage. As I once read one wag put it – “Columbus was not the first to come to America, just the first to call a press conference!”
However, he WAS the person who ushered in an age of exploration, which led to conquest, colonization, and ultimately modern American nations which speak European languages. There is a direct line that can be drawn from him to our current state which cannot be said for others who may have visited these shores. October 12th is not a date that anything specifically happened to the Native population, most of whom were not immediately present and had no idea at the time that anything happened that day. The landing was what John Adams probably would have called an “epoch of history”, and THAT is what is being honored. If we were celebrating his birthday it might feel like hero worship, but this date does not mark his birth, but rather a particular action. We of course are not celebrating genocide and I don’t even mind if we use the day to reflect on some less glorious actions, but the date belongs to Columbus.
I don’t have any problem with the concept of an Indigenous People’s Day, but I do not like it pushing aside Columbus which just feels like a holier than thou contest in the political correctness department. I have long said it should actually be a month like February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month. Turns out November has that covered, though I think it could use more publicity like February and March have. At least in the US, if you want a single day of mourning the treatment of the Native population we could go with December 29th, the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre; or if you prefer something more celebratory of Native resistance and resilience we could use June 26th, the anniversary of Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn (which has been ahistorically romanticized as his “Last Stand” – seems to me Custer was an arrogant SOB who got what he deserved).
I do think how early United States history is taught should be shifted a bit. I’ve always found it odd that US history texts and courses make a relatively passing mention of the Native population but then open with Columbus who as I mentioned above never got closer to the modern US than Puerto Rico. Then we move on to the conquistadores, but they were mostly in Central and South America. The next thing you know the English are colonizing the Atlantic seaboard of North America and even other Europeans are relegated to passing mention. IMO, Columbus and those who followed after him should be moved to World History or Western Civilization classes. While we’re at it, let’s make sure to point out that this is not about Italian heritage. Being Italian wasn’t a thing back then. Columbus would have identified as Genovese and he represented Spain on his voyages. United States History should begin with a full unit on the Native peoples living in the future US and THEIR lives, societal structure, migrations, etc. before there was any European contact. When we get to the time that Europeans start arriving we can begin to incorporate them into the larger narrative.
With Columbus Day behind us we can now look forward to Thanksgiving, and yet more ahistorical and unnuanced guilt tripping about the supposed horrors of European migration and settlement. Never mind that England itself was home to Celts, then Saxons, then Normans who don’t wring their hands all these centuries later over displacement. Never mind that treaties made by Pilgrims with the Wampanoag held for 50 years. I’m not Italian, but I am a Mayflower descended Massachusetts Congregationalist, so that hits closer to home. We should strive to treat all fairly in the present and future rather than trying to undo or flagellate ourselves over the past.