Columbus Day Controversy

In many places in Europe enforced conversion was standard practice. In essence, Columbus was exporting European custom and tradition.
on Oct 14, 2019 · 20 comments

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.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. Never really payed much attention to this holiday growing up, honestly, and I generally didn’t see anyone paying attention to it either. The perspective I did see from people was interesting, though. Part of it seemed to be a gratitude to live where we are now(and at it’s core, that seemed to be why anyone would be motivated to celebrate the holiday at all, aside from wanting a day off), but at the same time, in history class, a lot of things that happened back then were still (rightly) shown as evil. Like, Columbus wasn’t depicted as a perfect dude, and the Europeans encroaching further and further into the Americas was depicted as the theft it was.

    And it’s sad to look throughout history as see that no society was anywhere near perfect. Taking over other people groups was standard for many many cultures. It doesn’t justify the bad things, but they’re something we do need to understand and learn from. And even though we still have a lot of work to do, as far as social improvement, we should take some time to appreciate how far we’ve come. As many things as we have to complain about, overall existence is a lot less hellish than it used to be in many cases.

  2. Lauren Beauchamp says:

    That is interesting about the Knights of Columbus lobbying for Columbus Day. I hadn’t heard that before, even though the connection should havr been a little obvious.

    I don’t get Columbus Day (MLK Jr Day) off at this job, so I no longer have a vested interest in keeping the holiday. I think Columbus, though a man of his time, is a problematic national hero. Indigenous Peoples Day is a nice thought, but it’s a bit of mouthful, and a pretty broad category to make a holiday. I would be more in favor with switching to a Leif Erickson Day — a Viking themed holiday would be fun!

  3. Hans Erdman says:

    Before Leif Erickson, a thousand years before Columbus, 15 Irish monks are believed to have set foot on the “Land of Paradise,” Newfoundland. Blessed Brendan the Navigator and his band set sail from Ireland in in a leather coracle, in answer to what Brendan believed was a call from God. They came as neither conquerors or traders, staying only 40 days, learning from the “beautiful people .” Then they sailed back the way they came. Brendan died shortly after his return to Clonfert, but not before writing about his journey, a document Columbus used in preparation for his own journey.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I was just reading about claims the Phoenicians landed in the Americas circa 1000 B.C. There is no proof of such claims, but a replica Phoenican ship was just recently set on the mission of crossing the Atlantic. And it did well.

      • I tend to think there was some sort of interaction between people groups, if nothing more than people leaving the East and going west, or vice versa. There are some similarities in culture and traditions that are hard to believe belong to coincidence, such as the pyramids in Egypt and in Latin America.


  4. Travis Perry says:

    The thing about Columbus was he had an idea that proved to be false–that Asia was only a bit West of Europe. But he followed that idea wholeheartedly and it produced some unexpected results. Finding lands previously unknown in Europe.

    The reason Columbus is important to history is he was the first to make that crossing in a way that would make the connection between the Old and New Worlds permanent. That he did it for Spain changed the destiny of over a dozen nations today (imagine, if the Portuguese had decided to fund his voyage instead–or the French).

    He was a terrible person in some ways–and it wasn’t just that his faith was medieval. Some people in the Middle Ages were nominated for sainthood. Columbus was not–not even by the standards of his own day was he the holiest man around.

    You are entirely right to point out that those who write the stories after the fact influence how we see historical figures. Popular history used to be kind to Columbus, but that’s ending. We are in a period of history in which many historical figures are being re-written. Not just Columbus, but many, many important people of the past…including those in our Bibles…

  5. notleia says:

    Relevant The Oatmeal comic:

    But it’s not revising history to report that Columbus was a exploitative toolbag. It’s not libel if it’s true.

    Focusing on indigenous people is a better use of our energy, anyway.

    • Revising history can be good or bad. It’s actually just a re-examination of the facts and a look at what went before with a perspective that does not automatically accept the traditional view.

      As far as Indigenous People’s Day, I don’t like it. I mean some of the people groups that lived here were friendly and helpful (like those the Pilgrims encountered when they were in dire straits). Others were brutal and savage, not in response to any ill treatment, but just because violence was their culture. I don’t see the advantage of all the splintering of Americans. After all, the “indigenous people” came from somewhere at some time. As far as I’m concerned, I’m indigenous. I don’t want to see a German-American Day. Or a French-American Day or an Irish-American Day. I agree that Columbus has been accepted as someone to honor, not because we had an accurate idea of who he was or how he treated people, but for the effects which his misguided exploration brought. I like the idea of a Leif Erickson day, but maybe that’s because I don’t know enough about HIM.


  6. Jay DiNitto says:

    Good point on historical revisionism. One of the great modern historical revionisms was the campy “noble savage” propaganda from the 1950s through the 70s. Considering how brutal indigenous groups were to each other, is it a moral success to honor one savage over another?

    Either way, I like Jesus’ invitation to “rest” (Matthew 11) from moral burdens like those. Like those early believers being saddled with the demands of the Judaizers of their time, weary Christians don’t have to answer for generational sins placed on television by political agitators.

    • notleia says:

      The “noble savage” trope was already present in Fenimore Cooper’s Last Mohican (Mark Twain was right about what a pile of romantic absurdity it is, but part of me still likes it).
      It can be easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing American Indians, but they were no more savage with each other than, say, Protestants versus Catholics. People are people.
      Back about a month ago before my attention span burnt out, I checked out a book about Native American architecture. I only got a little ways into it, but it was interesting. The majority of Native American tribes were semi-nomadic not just out of practicality for food-gathering, but also because they liked the freedom to pick up and travel. They definitely had lifestyle ideas worth studying and copying, ‘specially nowadays with ideas about sustainable living and slow returning to more communal living among us millennial poors. (I have lots of thoughts about the possibilities of communal living, anyone want to go frolic in the conversational weeds?)

      • As a general thing I don’t entirely mind communal living being more of a thing depending how it’s done, how prevalent it is in the culture and whether everyone is expected or forced into it.

        • notleia says:

          Yeah, I recommend having some sort of quiz to sort out the good uns. With pics and social media stalking to gauge their usual level and type of mess. I can deal with dusty clutter. I cannot deal with people who leave wet towels on the bathroom floor. Or rather, I deal with them with passive aggression. And since I am spending my day off doing housewifery, I am in favor of more hands to take rotations scrubbing the bathtub and loading the dishwasher.

          In some ways, having an extrovert as a roommate is pretty nice, because they’re never home except to sleep.

          • I kind of learned a lot about how I’d feel about communal living by living in the dorms at college. It was kind of nice to have acquaintances around me that I could have fun chatting with now and then, and it felt safer in a way. But I got lucky and pretty much never had a roommate at all and loved it. And communal areas (like the dorm kitchen) were on a ‘you make the mess, you clean it’ basis, which was fair and definitely good since I didn’t use it much. Even if I did regularly use the kitchen, though…I dunno.

            I’d rather take responsibility for my own mess(especially since I have some control over how big that mess actually gets). If it was where everybody took turns cleaning instead, I wouldn’t like it, because there’s nothing to stop someone else from making a huge mess the day before and then it being my job to clean it even though I didn’t deserve it. It would also put a lot of specific demands on my schedule. Like, if I was just responsible for my own area I could easily shift around cleaning days as needed. That would be less likely in a situation where everyone has to take turns cleaning.

            I also wouldn’t like letting non family members in my living space to clean it, or letting other people mess with my stuff, even if it’s just to clean it.

            Statistically, though, the majority of the population is Affiliative, or even when people are Pragmatic, many aren’t so Pragmatic that a communal situation immediately bugs them(everyone is both Affiliative and Pragmatic, but if they’re MORE Pragmatic due to their personality type, then they’re considered Pragmatic.) It’s not that Pragmatic people will automatically hate communal situations and Affiliative people will love them, but they have more of a bias toward that. It would be easier to get them used to certain lifestyles based on whether they’re Affiliative or Pragmatic.

            INTJs are actually triple Pragmatic and a communal situation has a lot of potentiality for bugging the living hell out of them. It’s not to say they would automatically be bad roommates, it’s more a matter of whether they’d actually love the communal lifestyle or not.

            • notleia says:

              Captain Awkward suggests creating an extra money pool to hire professionals to do the hard cleaning for the communal areas. I don’t want people touching my personal stuff either, so I’m okay with house rules being that people have to clean their private rooms.
              I can’t really live with my parents anymore because they think housepets are unclean and I have these cats, but I could probably live with either of my sisters, if we figure out a cleaning schedule. I would never voluntarily live with my brother again.
              I was once a dorm-dweller, and I once lived with a single mom and her toddler and houseful of pets (and eventually the new boyfriend) for a little bit. I was waaaaay better at co-caring for the pets than the toddler. The cats would come chill with me in my baby gate-guarded room away from the toddler and the not-that-housebroken puppy. I was pretty much the ghost that lived in the spare room, but it was a workable dynamic.

              • Yeah. I guess one thing for me is that I like people, but don’t ever really trust completely and need tons of space and alone time. If I had to live with other people, I probably would pick living with immediate family members as long as there wasn’t a major issue. I actually would be better at sharing chores with family than non family, though I still would prefer to clean my own room.

                The one time I did have roommates I did have reminders of some slightly cruddy aspects of that. There wasn’t ever a direct problem, but I became pretty aware that whatever they did could end up impacting me in ways I had little control over. I don’t know the character of the friends they invite over, for instance. Also, I had to stay very late working on an assignment in the computer lab a couple times, and when I came back in the middle of the night the door to the whole apartment was unlocked. If I recall correctly, I actually locked the door after I came back, but when I left for class in the morning, the apartment door was unlocked again.

                Maybe they did that in case one of the girls forgot her key, but that’s not exactly safe, even if there are locks on the bedrooms themselves. There’s just a lot of things like locking doors that people don’t think about when declaring house rules and such. And I know that insisting on things like that can just make me sound paranoid or overly particular, so that’s fun.

              • notleia says:

                Welp, I’ve done that thing where I cart my own toilet paper roll back and forth to the bathroom in order to passive-aggressive my suitemates into buying some dang toilet paper for once.

              • Hm, yeah, I would probably do something like that. Not so much to force them to buy toilet paper, though. Moreso just to just get around the problem altogether and not have to worry about it. With the door locking thing, I just locked it whenever I went in and out and then made sure my own room was kept locked at all times. I was only there for two weeks (For a short summer course) so it wasn’t really worth talking to them about. But it did make me glad I didn’t have to room with them long term.

              • notleia says:

                Locking the suite didn’t matter to me so much (maybe you would have cared less if you lived there longer and it became more normal, idk), but my first year I had suitemates who apparently didn’t understand the concept of taking out their trash. That type is getting voted off the island with prejudice.

              • Well, I wasn’t in an obsessive panic over it, it was just kind of annoying and not the situation I wanted to live in. I could think of practical reasons for leaving it unlocked, but then those would have been moot if I was living alone.

                When dealing with interpersonal situations with people I’m not close to(such as the toilet paper thing you mentioned), I usually just try and readjust my overall behavioral process so that the problem isn’t relevant to me anymore, and then move on.

      • Travis Perry says:

        Europeans of course suffered from a great deal of cruelty. But there was a notion floating around the Christian religion than maybe torturing people wasn’t a good thing. Which is why, for a time, torture fan and mental sicko Ivan the Terrible restricted some of his worse impulses because of the moralizing of Metropolitan Macarius and Father Sylvester–though he recovered his sicko love of killing and torture after a while. (This is just one example of numerous times Christian clerics restricted cruelty of European rulers to a degree–though at times clerics were cruel, too.)

        Native Americans engaged in some practices though that Europeans found shocking. Human sacrifice on the part of the Aztecs hadn’t been seen in Europe for quite some time, well over 1000 years. Native Americans, some of them, also routinely practiced torturing their enemies and cannibalism of slain enemies wasn’t uncommon. Though it was also common to adopt enemies into a tribe and consider them brothers after doing capturing them–something Europeans rarely did, even though Christianity is a religion that preaches conversion from evil and forgiveness of sins.

        So the “no worse” depends on what you mean. In some ways they really were worse. But in other ways not.

What do you think?