Columbus Day is famously celebrated as the day Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, with his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He was known to have discovered new land, bringing the old world and the new world together, and proved that the world isn’t flat.
However, not only did he not really do any of these things, his conquest was filled with violence and unspeakable acts, and what he did accomplish wasn’t all that remarkable. “As for Columbus himself, he mapped the coasts of Central America and South America but never set foot on North America, and died thinking he had discovered Asia.” Even if this means he still could have technically “discovered” America, there is a mountain of evidence that Columbus wasn’t actually the first to do this. He just happened to do it for Europe, “which was one of the first explicitly expansionist forces at the time.”
To put it simply, Columbus didn’t discover America. In fact, he wound up here completely by mistake. He didn’t settle in America, instead ruling the Caribbean Islands for a time, which was where he first hit land on his journey. His subsequent trips led him to Central America as well as South America, but he never stepped foot in North America a single time. Although this fact is disputed as well, Columbus is believed to be from Italy. The first celebration of Columbus Day in 1792 was, in fact, to honor Italian American heritage, not the discovery of America itself.
Columbus somehow gets all the credit for discovering something that was already discovered, getting the name wrong in the process. He didn’t prove the Earth was round, this was already known. It’s widely believed that Leif Erikson “discovered” America 500 years before Columbus was even born, as well as China. “We know now that Columbus was among the last explorers to reach the Americas, not the first,” says Russell Freedman in his book Who Was First? Even the name of his ships is thought to be incorrect.
And the most common dispute regarding Columbus’ “discovery” is that there were millions of people here already, Native Americans. Columbus brought disease that wiped out the vast majority of the people who already lived here through an unintentional transfer of diseases, is a story we are told. But as A People’s History by Howard Zinn reminds us, the historical record is explicit in its recalling the atrocities committed personally by Columbus, not just the white people to follow who would commit both intentional and unintentional genocides against native peoples.
If anyone should be credited with “discovering” America, it should be China, the Vikings, or someone who actually stayed here like the Separatists on the Mayflower. Although, that too is a sore subject not worthy of being celebrated.
But again, even if “discovery” here merely means for those in Europe, then sure, let Columbus day be an Italian or Spanish holiday. Our founders from the Mayflower, our Founding Fathers, and our own native population has no positive permanent association with Columbus’s expansion. It is a bizarre anachronism again to state holidays in the south that let kids off for General Lee’s birthday. It made sense… a while ago.