Happy (?) Columbus Day

In case you hadn’t heard, today is Columbus Day, which is still a legal federal holiday, although hardly anyone gets the day off. I’m old enough to remember when it was still quite a big deal and the judgment of history was really just starting to turn against the man, who, by the way, called himself by many names over the course of his life but never “Christopher Columbus.” In you at the official proclamation of this year’s Columbus Day, you might be impressed with how Pres. Obama manages to get through the whole thing without saying anything complimentary about its nominal honoree.

Back in my Strib days, I had a great gig, which included the opportunity to look deeply into the Columbus saga in 1992, the quincentennial of the famous first Columbus voyage. I wrote a very long (and, I think, pretty darn interesting) piece that no longer exists anywhere online. But three years ago, just before the launch of MinnPost and when ericblackink was connected to the Minnesota Monitor, I did do a reprise of that piece in which I tried to capture the most interesting stuff.

If you have a few minutes to check it out, I pretty much guarantee that you will see some things you never knew. If you want to say anything about it, please come back here to do it so I can see your thoughts and reactions.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/11/2010 - 11:01 am.

    The question mark seems appropriate.

    As a recent expatriate from Denver, I can say that the Italian-American population of the Queen City of the Plains puts on a fairly lavish Columbus Day parade, which is protested, with varying degrees of hostility and media attention, every year. Nothing similar seems to take place in the Twin Cities, either in terms of celebration or protest, though the Denver event continues to bemuse me for a host of reasons. Among them:

    Columbus was born in Genoa, which was an independent city-state at the time of his birth and his voyage(s). Genoa never attempted to colonize the New World, never made war on the native population. Genoa never took slaves from the New World, nor did it bring slaves to the New World. After 1528, however, Genoa was a “satellite” of Spain for several decades. Genoa didn’t become part of Italy until the various wars of Italian unification, and Italy as a nation didn’t exist until 1860 – that is, until after the founding of Denver in 1859, and only a few years before Minneapolis was incorporated in 1867.

    Columbus himself was employed by Ferdinand and Isabella, then king and queen of Spain, a European state that – with the active cooperation and aid of the Roman Catholic Church – did incalculable damage to native economies, political states, culture and people in the Caribbean, Central and South America, while simultaneously opening the New World to colonization by Spain and its European commercial rivals. Conquest by foreign cultures is almost never a very uplifting story, and the European conquest of the Americas, with finishing touches by the United States, is no exception. In terms of who did the most damage to native Indian societies that existed throughout the New World at the time Columbus arrived, it would be far more appropriate for Indians to protest Cinco de Mayo, or Halloween, or every Catholic “Holy Day,” or even President’s Day.

    The list of outrages committed against native inhabitants by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English and eventually American governments is essentially a depressing chronicle of centuries-long conquest, with appropriate ugliness at every step of the process. Yet none of that, not to mention who Columbus was actually working for, ever gets included in the mix. The Columbus Day protests in Denver are invariably directed toward Italian-Americans, often with help and sympathy from Denver’s Hispanic community.

    Ironies abound…

  2. Submitted by Dan Mondor on 10/11/2010 - 01:02 pm.

    While I knew much of the history surrounding Columbus, I guess I never stopped to consider all of it at one time.
    Not surprisingly, his later life and eccentricities for me simply show that it often requires extreme personalities to accomplish extreme tasks.
    Gives me a small reason for being glad I’m such a common man. Price of greatness is too high for me to contemplate.

  3. Submitted by Joe Schweigert on 10/11/2010 - 02:46 pm.

    Dan, I think the question is what does “greatness” really mean?

    Columbus has not been blindsided by a history that is too quick to judge those who take extreme risks.

    He was simply brought up in an era where church and royalty both considered native people a lesser species. Its almost as though he had Jesus’ stamp of approval to murder and enslave whole nations.

    The controversy surrounding Columbus day is more about this era and its atrocities than it is about one man’s character.

  4. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/12/2010 - 10:14 am.

    Until we advance enough in the development of our social conscience to consider the Columbian conquests an occasion for mourning rather than celebration, let me propose an intermediate step.

    Let October 13th be called Indigenous Survival Day. On this day, let us reflect on how amazing it is that some of the Native American peoples have survived, albeit in greatly reduced numbers, despite the deadly disease, cultural imperialism, and outright genocide perpetrated upon them. Even more amazingly, the survivors have managed to keep alive some aspects of pre-Columbian culture. This is something really worth celebrating.

  5. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/12/2010 - 11:14 am.

    Before accusing our ancestors of genocide by infecting indigenous peoples, it might be appropriate to point out that neither the Europeans nor the Indians understood the nature of “infection” and how disease was transmitted.

    I have heard, however, that the Europeans did have SOME notion that blankets used by those with smallpox could transmit the disease…

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