“He had three ships and left from Spain/ He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.”
– Source Unknown
Time was when sailor Christopher Columbus unequivocally “discovered” America, but that was before the debate about his legacy recast him in school history books as the Italian explorer who, more accurately, raised and solidified European awareness of the Americas after arriving Oct. 12, 1492, in what would become known as the Bahamas.
In short, Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas. But he made the most of it, for better or worse. And that’s where the Columbus Day debate continues, including periodic calls to dump the holiday, or modify it to something like “Exploration Day.”
The United States is hardly alone in celebrating Columbus Day, but even here it’s not unanimous.
South Dakota, for instance, clearly falls on the other side of the debate, after 23 years ago changing the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Native American Day in honor of the indigenous people who suffered near-annihilation after Columbus opened doors to the New World.
Many Italian-Americans defend Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage and the generations of Italians who’ve contributed mightily to U.S. prominence through their work and philanthropy. Of that there’s no doubt, although critics, including some Italian-Americans, have pointed out that the Oct. 12, 1492, arrival itself is no representation of the Italian experience. Supporters claim him as a source of pride, however, not unlike other cultures that honor their sons and daughters as pioneers.
Columbus is an obvious target of scorn and resentment for Native Americans whose fortunes declined precipitously in the aftermath of his journey to the New World. He and his men also brutalized people of the West Indies and enslaved others. Columbus supporters don’t deny the mixed legacy, but some of them point out that the national holiday is rooted in the notion that it serve as an opportunity to bring Italian-Americans, Native-Americans and others together.
There are 30-plus U.S. cities and townships named Columbus, and apparently little push to rename any of them, suggesting that the debate has long been settled for some people with the closest association to the explorer.