Today we celebrate Columbus Day to honor the achievements of Christopher Columbus and commemorate him landing in the Americas in 1492. As many Americans learned as young children, Columbus was an Italian explorer who “sailed the ocean blue,” navigating across the Atlantic from Spain in three ships named the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria in hopes of finding a new route to India.
History of the “New World”
Columbus, who was born in 1451 and died in 1506, was backed by the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and hoped to find gold and spice in the islands of Asia. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas and became the first European to explore the Americas since the 10th century Vikings, led by Leif Eriksson, established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland.
In October 1492, Columbus sighted Cuba, which he believed to be mainland China, and by December, the expedition arrived in Hispaniola — near present-day Cap Haitien, Haiti (which Columbus thought might be Japan) — after the Santa Maria was wrecked. It was there that he established Spain’s first colony in the Americas with 39 crewmembers. Columbus returned to Spain aboard the Nina, and when he returned to the settlement in the fall of 1493, none of the men were found alive.
In total, Columbus made four voyages to the New World, traveling to Caribbean islands, South America and Central America. And it wasn’t until his third journey that Columbus finally realized he hadn’t reached Asia, but instead had stumbled upon a previously unknown continent. Columbus had radically underestimated the earth’s circumference and the size of the oceans.
Contrary to popular belief, most educated Europeans at the time understood that the world was round. The ancient Greeks had already proved this in the sixth century B.C., when mathematician Pythagoras first surmised the world was round, and Aristotle used astronomical observations to back up this claim two centuries later. However, Europeans did not realized the Pacific Ocean existed and assumed only the Atlantic lay between Europe and the East Indies.
Celebration and Controversy
The first celebration took place in 1792 in New York to commemorate the historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Because of Columbus’ birthplace and faith, many Italian and Catholic communities began organizing events in his honor.
President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary with patriotic festivities. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1937, largely due to intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization.
In more recent years, Native Americans and other groups have protested the holiday, saying it celebrates an event that marked the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade and the deaths of millions indigenous people from murder and disease.
While Columbus served as the governor of Hispaniola, he allegedly imposed very cruel forms of punishment, including torture, and forced native people into slavery. Later, during the colonization years, European settlers brought a plethora of infectious diseases, including smallpox and influenza, and war broke out between the colonist and Native Americans.
Because of this, the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota — as well as cities including Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles — have officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.