A short history of Columbus Day for teachers

The name Christopher Columbus always brings the sense of discovery and adventure. After all, he discovered America in 1492. Or did he?

Who was Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer, navigator, and colonizer. He is most well known for completing four voyages across the Atlantic, which led to permanent European colonization of this "New World." 

The voyages came at a time when European kingdoms were competing for discovering new trade routes and colonies all over the world. Although Italian, Columbus used the support of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain to try to reach the East Indies by sailing west. Spain was motivated to do this because of the lucrative spice trade with Asia.

Columbus took his first voyage in 1492. Instead of Japan, he arrived at the island of Bahamas archipelago that he named San Salvador. On subsequent voyages, he visited Greater and the Lesser Antilles, the Caribbean coasts of Central America and Venezuela, and claimed them for the Crown of Castile.

Columbus - the Myth and the Facts

Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Columbus didn't discover America - the continent was already populated for centuries, and even reached by other European explorers such as  Leif Erikson in the 11th century.

Also, it wasn't Columbus who resolved the myth that the Earth was flat - most educated Europeans in Columbus' day already understood that the world was round, but didn't know about the existence of the Pacific Ocean.

Columbus Day in the United States

Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order, or Tammany Hall, wanted to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Columbus' first landing on the American soil. After the initial holiday, Catholic communities in various parts of the country began organising annual ceremonies and parades, taking pride in the Italian and Catholic heritage these communities shared with Columbus.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities, calling Christopher Columbus legacy "great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”

Finally, in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday. Sources say that this happened primarily as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal.

Columbus Day Controversy

Columbus Day has sparked controversy from the 19th century up to this date. It is now known for a fact that Columbus was given a national holiday and such a prominent place in the US history because of the influence of Italian and Catholic communities, so opposition to the holiday existed has a long tradition which stems from historical, ethical and philosophical reasons.

In the 19th century, anti-immigrant groups in the United States rejected Columbus Day because of its association with Catholicism. In recent decades, Native Americans and some other groups have protested the holiday, claiming it symbolically marks (and celebrates) the colonization of the Americas, the slave trade, and the deaths of millions of indigenous people from murder and disease.

Talk to your students about different perspectives and narratives that surround Christopher Columbus, his legacy and his national holiday.


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