Columbus Day has come and gone, and once again I’m reminded of how strange we Americans behave with our holidays. Namely, forgetting the original intent of the day, and doing whatever the hell we want.
No holiday is safe from our misuse. We have one day a year off from our “labors” on Labor Day, which we choose to use for camping or drinking purposes. We have Memorial Day, ostensibly for remembering those that have fallen to protect our freedom (the afterlife version of Veteran’s Day, celebrated thorugh retail savings), which we use for camping, BBQing and drinking purposes. Then there’s the red, white, and blue in the face orgy that is the Fourth of July, a day for recalling our independence from tyranny while firmly devoting ourselves to excess and consumption of small, short term pleasures.
On second thought, perhaps that’s about as American as you can get.
But a day celebrating Columbus? At the risk of getting all Howard Zinn on everybody, why should we celebrate such a failure? “Failure?” you may ask.
Every October, 49 states in the USA (Alaska, for its own anti-social reasons, opts out) band together in observance of a man who didn’t actually accomplish anything, much less what he set out to do.
Everyone knows that Columbus was tasked with the mission of finding a shorter pass to the “Indies”, and wound up in Cuba. This failure can be forgiven since no one save the Vikings had any knowledge of a vast continent in the way, and the Vikings never bothered to mention their discovery to anyone of importance. No, Columbus’s real failure is never actually setting foot on the continent.
Columbus and his crew, after weeks of hard sailing (mostly his crew), discovered several islands in the Caribbean, the first of which was so poorly documented that the identity has never been discovered. He then went on to briefly pillage other islands, Cuba and Hispaniola among others, but never quite made the short trek north, a mere 90 miles, to claim discovery of the mainland.
One thing we do know about the initial landing, is that Columbus stole credit for the first sighting of land. You see, the King and Queen of Spain set a bounty for the person who first sighted land. They probably figured this was a safe bet since everyone would fall of the edge of the earth and die anyway. The reward, a lifetime pension, would have made Juan Rodríguez Bermeo a very wealthy and comfortable man, but Columbus would have none of that. As soon as the sighting was made by Bermeo, and confirmed by the First Mate, Chris emerged from his suite, learned of the commotion, and immediately said the whole thing was his idea.
Of course not one sailor challenged him.
Not only a cheat, he was also a jerk. This is from Columbus’s journal: “[The Indigenous People] ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them… I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart…I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
If you were traveling with your friend and you both came upon a group of nice, fairly simple folk, and your friend said, “I bet we could make these people our slaves.” You would laugh until he said he was serious. Then hopefully you would kick him in the balls for being an idiot. Unfortunately, as we have seen, Columbus’s friends were made of a more timid stock.
So, why, you may ask yourself, do we celebrate Columbus for discovering America? Why not choose someone more wholesome and less of a school yard bully? Why celebrate a liar and a cheat as a national hero? In a word, phonetics. Chris Columbus just sounds like a very American name. It’s easy to say, rolls off the tongue in a very pleasing way. Could you imagine saying Vespucci Day? That would look all too silly on a calendar.
Instead, we celebrate Columbus, in all his glory and faults. Most Americans, I believe are none the wiser as to why