Is Columbus a hero? It is a fascinating question and viewpoints are likely impacted by the respondent’s age and geography. Americans under 30 are likely to harbor a far different perspective than their parents, and students in progressive states are more likely exposed to a different narrative than the rest of the country. Despite the positive direction in many classrooms surrounding the debate, there are still more educators and students who need to learn the historical facts in order to oppose colorblindness and legitimized racism against Indigenous people.
In 1492, Columbus searched for a western sea route to India and China in order to trade for gold and spices. He did not discover a new route but landed on Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic). After three voyages across the Atlantic, Columbus never stepped onto the Americas. In the 11th Century, Leif Erickson, a Viking explorer, became the first European to discover North America. He landed in eastern Canada, which is most likely in the area surrounding the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In 1497, John Cabot, a Venetian, navigated the eastern coast of North America under the English flag. In 1502, Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer, reached Brazil and the new land became known as the Americas. There is no national holiday for any of the other European explorers.
Why Columbus? For some Americans, the holiday is a time to celebrate Italian-American heritage and a symbol of European superiority and dominance. Columbus symbolically represents western civilization: He traversed the Atlantic Ocean and facilitated the spread of Christianity and civilization to the Indigenous people. But facts are a stubborn myth-breaker. The Italian explorer enslaved and tortured people, ignited the slave trade of Africans, forced Indigenous people into the gold mines, chopped off hands to subjugate the tribes and started a genocide.
In 1905, Colorado made Columbus Day a state holiday. It did not become a national celebration until over thirty year later. Former Presidents have romanticized Columbus: In 1892, Benjamin Harrison implored Americans to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ voyage; in 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt launched Columbus Day as a federal holiday; and in the 1980s, Ronald Regan waxed poetically about the magnitude of Columbus and his discovery. The Federal Government, the White House and the power structures in America have promoted legitimized racism and the colorblindness of the Columbus Day holiday.