Today in the US, being the second Monday of October, we are celebrating the national holiday of Columbus Day. Years ago, when I was young, I learned that the day off from school was to honor the explorer Christopher Columbus who “discovered” America, though he actually didn’t. Some 500 years earlier a Viking named Leif Eriksson had led an expedition to North America.
So why was Columbus honored? I never asked that question. Part of the narrative I learned was that Columbus, believing the earth to be round, had sailed west in order to prove it and to reach the rich-in-spices Asians who already had a trading relationship with Europe.
In the process, Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean, and believing he had reached Asia, named the residents Indians. When he returned to Europe, he publicized his findings, especially the evidence that the earth is round, and established a colonial relationship between the new land and Spain or Italy. Columbus was Italian but Spain had financially backed his exploration.
Apparently that wasn’t the whole story. “Most educated Europeans and mariners already knew that [the earth was round]” (“Columbus and Christianity: Did You Know?”). In addition, as we have come to understand from a deeper look into history, Columbus had made his “discovery” because he made a mistake. He didn’t really know where he was.
He did, however, determine to make the most of his experience. Being indebted to his financiers, he exploited the people he encountered in the new land. Since slavery was on the rise, that exploitation included enforced servitude. Yes, he also opened the door to missionary activity, which often took the form of enforced conversion.
This was, after all, the 16th century and ideas of right and wrong in Europe were largely influenced by the Church. In many places in Europe enforced conversion was standard practice. In essence, Columbus was exporting European custom and tradition.
All this still begs the question: why do we celebrate Columbus? A little research uncovers the fact that Columbus Day only became a national holiday in the 1930s.
Some researchers point to the Italian immigrants who wanted an Italian hero with whom their children could identify. Certainly the group of Italians pouring into “the new world” at that time, makes this idea plausible. Other researchers say the same thing about Catholics, who were a decided minority in the US at the time. Thus, not only Italians honored Columbus with parades and such but so did Irish immigrants.
Although the legacy and discoveries of Columbus had been celebrated unofficially since the 1790’s, the official holiday only happened because of The Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus, an influential male-only Catholic organization, wanted a strong Catholic role model for their children to be dignified by the government. After intense lobbying by the Knights, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress declared Columbus Day a legal and federal holiday in the U.S. (“Columbus and Christianity: Did You Know?”).
Columbus was certainly a religious man, and a part of his motivation to explore the world was tied to his religious beliefs. However his Christianity was very much influenced by the culture of his day:
he and his faith were wholly medieval. He died more than a decade before Martin Luther would post his 95 Theses protesting the abuse of indulgences. In fact, advances on indulgences helped pay for Columbus’s voyage. He read from the Vulgate Bible and the church fathers but, typical for his era, mingled astrology, geography, and prophecy with his theology. Columbus and his faith reflected, to use Alexander von Humboldt’s phrase, “everything sublime and bizarre that the Middle Ages produced.” (“Why Did Columbus Sail?”)
Fast forward 50 years and beyond from the creation of Columbus Day as a holiday, and the flawed explorer has been so discredited that a movement began to spread to change the holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. So instead of celebrating the courage and ingenuity of an explorer who brought the world closer together—albeit, with unexpected and tragic results, in many ways—we are celebrating people who were unaware of the world at large, because, apparently, being unaware made them heroes.
So far we the people have not been asked our opinion. We mostly are glad we get a day off work, that we have a 3-day weekend, although we have to be sure we do our banking on another day and we don’t expect to get any mail.
In short, why does it matter who we honor and what we call the day we are celebrating?
Who we honor and what we name the holiday tells us something about our values. Who do we respect and admire? Apparently the new movement, supported by a lot of people who’s ancestors came from somewhere else, values being “indigenous.”
I could explore that idea a little more, but what I’m interested in here is the way in which the Columbus narrative has changed. It’s essentially an example of the power of persuasion.
Winston Churchill has been reported as saying, “History is written by the victors.” Apparently author Dan Brown did say it in The Da Vinci Code:
History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books—books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”
That statement itself is under revision:
In historiography, the term historical revisionism identifies the re-interpretation of the historical record. It usually means challenging the orthodox (established, accepted or traditional) views held by professional scholars about a historical event, introducing contrary evidence, or reinterpreting the motivations and decisions of the people involved. The revision of the historical record can reflect new discoveries of fact, evidence, and interpretation, which then provokes a revised history. In dramatic cases, revisionism involves a reversal of older moral judgments. (Wikipedia)
Writers have depicted this revision of history, a change of the interpretation of events in order to support a particular narrative, in any number of dystopian fantasies. All a person needs to do is to ignore parts of the story and underline the parts that fit into the preferred way of looking at things. Did the team lose because the opponent was particularly strong or because the offensive line is weak? Did the quarterback fail because he’s injured or because he’s lost some of his skill? Is he average because he’s a “game manager” or “too conservative” or because the defense was not giving him time to throw deep balls?
Storytelling includes perspective, and that’s something to remember when we write and when we read.