The image of the explorer as an intrepid hero has been called into question. After arriving in the Bahamas, he and his crew forced the natives into slavery.
On this day in history, October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. The day is celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States.
Backed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the Italian-born explorer had set sail 10 weeks earlier with three ships — the Santa María, the Niña, and the Pinta. He aimed to chart a sea route to China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia.
Instead, he landed in the Bahamas. A sailor aboard the Pinta sighted land early in the morning of October 12. The next day, the 90 crew members of Columbus’s fleet ventured onto the island of Guanahaní.
Spain’s First American Colony
They became the first Europeans to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up a colony in Newfoundland in the 10th century. Later in October, Columbus sighted Cuba and believed it was mainland China.
In December, the expedition found Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan. There, he established San Salvador, Spain’s first colony in the Americas, with 39 of his men, inaugurating a new era of European exploration, exploitation and colonization.
Arawak natives flocked to the shore and made friends with the Spaniards. Believing himself in the East Indies, Columbus called them “Indians,” a name ultimately applied to all the indigenous peoples of the New World.
In 1493, Columbus returned to Spain in triumph, bearing gold, spices and Indian captives, and was named “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” He crossed the Atlantic three more times before his death in 1506. By his third voyage, he realized he had stumbled on a previously unknown continent.
Columbus and the Indians
Columbus’s logbook records this initial description of the Indians: “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They would make fine servants. With 50 men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
In 1495, during the second voyage, Indians were sent to Spain as slaves, many dying en route. “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity,” Columbus wrote, “go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
The multivolume “History of the Indies” by Bartolome de las Casas, a Catholic priest, describes Spaniards driven by “insatiable greed” — “killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty,” and how systematic violence was aimed at preventing “Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings.”
The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades,” las Casas wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.”
Americans have celebrated Columbus’s initial voyage since the colonial era. The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order, or Tammany Hall, held an event to commemorate the 300th anniversary.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison called on Americans to celebrate Columbus Day on its 400th anniversary as a patriotic festival of rituals framed around such themes as citizenship and progress.
Harrison issued a proclamation, stating: “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”
Some Italian-Americans observed Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage, with the first occasion in New York City in 1866. Proud of Columbus’s birthplace and faith, they organized annual religious ceremonies and parades in his honor.
Columbus Day first became an official state holiday in the United States in Denver, Colorado, in 1906 through the lobbying efforts of Angelo Noce, a first-generation Italian.
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely due to the pressure of the Knights of Columbus. Originally observed on October 12, in 1971, it was changed to the second Monday in October.
Opposition to Columbus Day
Widespread opposition to Columbus celebrations dates to the later part of the 20th century, with the growing notion that he was responsible for more destruction and calamity than prosperity and progress.
Many indigenous groups oppose the holiday as celebrating a man who began the cruel treatment of natives, and the fact that the European conquest caused a huge decline in their population. While serving as governor of Hispaniola, Columbus allegedly imposed barbaric forms of punishment, including torture.
Although Columbus was always judged to be ambitious, vain, ruthless, and motivated by wealth, traditional historians viewed his voyages as opening the New World to Western civilization and Christianity. But for revisionist historians, they symbolize the more brutal aspects of European colonization and mark the dawn of the destruction of Native American culture.
International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People
In 1990, 350 representatives from Indian groups met in Quito, Ecuador, at the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People in the Americas, to mobilize against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day.
The following summer, more than 100 Native Americans gathered in Davis, California, for a follow-up meeting. They declared October 12, 1992, “International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.”
In the United States, the National Council of Churches called on Christians to refrain from celebrating the Columbus quincentennial, saying, “What represented newness of freedom, hope and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others.”
Several U.S. cities and states have replaced Columbus Day with alternative days of remembrance, such as South Dakota’s Native American Day, Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples Day, and Hawaii’s Discoverer’s Day, which commemorates the arrival of Polynesian settlers.
Today, local, traditional groups host parades and street fairs featuring colorful costumes, music and food. In cities and towns that use the day to honor indigenous peoples, activities include pow-wows, tribal dances, and lessons about Native American culture.
In any event, all agree that the voyages of Columbus were one of the great turning points of history. “In all parts of the Old World, as well as of the New,” wrote one observer, “it is evident that he kindled a fire in every mariner’s heart. That fire was the harbinger of a new era, for it was not to be extinguished.”