Does Columbus deserve a federal holiday?

| Staff Columnist

A week ago, Oct. 12, was Columbus Day—a fact that probably went by unnoticed by most, unless they happened to glance at a calendar that noted federal American holidays. Since I have become more aware of the historical inaccuracy and deletions of key facts present in my elementary school’s history curriculum, which continued in various degrees at subsequent levels of my education until recently, every 12th of October I have been a little miffed about why we recognize Columbus and his “discovery” of the “New World.” I’ll be honest, I have never really thought too long about the matter, in part because until now I have always attended schools in districts that chose to recognize most federal holidays with days off, but this past Monday, as I flipped through my assignment notebook, I must say that my usual eye roll evolved into a definite huff of annoyance.

I recall the song I learned in elementary school: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” While I am sure that there are many variations taught in schools across the country, I am also certain that most continue with sickly sweet honey-glossed lyrics that drip with rotten, glazed-over historical half-truths, to be generous. Some of the verses I learned are as follows:

“Indians! Indians! Columbus cried; his heart was filled with joyful pride.”

“He made the trip again and again, trading gold to bring to Spain.”

“The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”

It would be more apt if these lyrics were changed to:

“Indians! Indians! Columbus cried; let’s sell them into slavery and begin a genocide.”

“He made the trip again and again, seizing many innocents to bring to Spain.”

“The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus thought the land of others was his right.”

As more historical truths about Columbus’s journeys to the Americas continue to be uncovered, it has become all too clear that the explorer wasn’t as “brave and bright” as a generic version of the history taught at American schools and the federal holiday named in his honor might make him out to be. I wonder: Is it right to continue to venerate this 15th-century Italian whose explorations of the West Indies led to the enslavement and decimation of indigenous populations through brutality, violence and disease? To me, it is not, especially when we examine those American heroes who are also honored with national days of remembrance: veterans, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over 500 years later, we as a society can no longer continue to glaze over the wildfire of negative ramifications spurned by Columbus’ exploration of the West Indies (and subsequent European forays into the western hemisphere). It seems odd that the government recognizes Columbus as a hero when history testifies otherwise. Why does America, whose history is rich with dozens of heroes who have advocated for freedom, justice and equality, still choose to honor the memory of a lost 15th-century explorer whose journey resulted in ideas and actions that were anything but free, just and equal?

Kemi is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at

  • Just for fun, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel, “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus.” If you had access to temporal engineering technology, how would you plan a kinder, gentler conquest of the Americas? Or would you make another plan?

  • Things are never so simple. Offical Columbus Day celebrations came about largely through the efforts of 19th century Italian-Americas who were battling the entrenched and strong anti-immigrant anti-Catholic forces of the time. Columbus was a partiularly compelling figure for thier cause. It is easy to forget the decades of discrimination and violence that Irish and Italians endured in this country.

    Further, it is a bit simplistic to lay the blame for centuries of oppresion and exploitation of native peoples at his feet. He only made 4 trips, never landed on the mainland, and died within a couple of decades of his first “discovery”. Did he forsee and intend all of the horrors that were come? It seems unlikely.

    I think heros are important, But what history suggests to me is that we learn not to blindly vererate anyone. Use these celebrations as a time to examine our heros warts and all. Columbus’s actions within the context of his world were transformative and heroic. Rather than push him off the stage, let’s learn to see the fuller picture.

  • Anonymous

    Sure we know about the horrors of what Columbus did, but we can’t go around telling 6 year olds that Columbus enslaved a race of indigenous people in the name of greed and Western Imperialism. Columbus was a very important and influential person in the formation of the USA, his horrific acts notwithstanding. If a Columbus Day didn’t exist, I would (in my naivete) maybe ask my 1st grade teacher why such a famous person doesn’t have his own day, and there’s no good answer for that. I just don’t think we should be teaching genocide to children until they’re old enough to actually comprehend what genocide implies.