By Ely Schosek
Most people first learn of Christopher Columbus in elementary school. I know I was taught the phrase, “In fourteen-hundred-nintety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” along with the names of his ships: the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. According to that, Christopher Columbus was the man who discovered America.
After elementary school, however, the information we learned was less clear cut — there was more to know than that.
In 1937, Columbus Day was announced as a Federal Holiday, but in recent years some groups have led the charge for the name to be changed to Indigenous Peoples Day.
As of this year, the Springville-Griffith Institute district calendar labeled Monday, Oct. 14 as Indigenous Peoples Day for the first time. The SGI Board of Education is responsible for the name change on the calendar.
Only six states have officially made the change, not including New York, along with 130 cities and towns making it official.
Columbus Day is the more traditional name — that’s just what it’s always been. For some people, that’s enough reason to keep it. For others, it’s more complicated. Christopher Columbus’s travels introduced much to the so-called “New World” including cultural ideologies, new technologies, various animals and infectious diseases. Seeing as there were both positive and negative effects of European arrival in the Eastern Hemisphere, it’s not easy to decide if Christopher Columbus was good or evil, hero or menace.
Although we often credit Columbus with discovering the Americas, he never really set foot on North America proper. He landed in the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, and explored Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, along with other parts of Central and South America.
It is believed that the first European to set foot in North America was Leif Eriksson, almost 500 years before Columbus. There’s also the fact that there were native peoples inhabiting North America long before any Europeans “discovered” it, which means that “discovered” isn’t really the correct terminology for the situation.
Prior to Columbus’s departure from Europe, he sought funding from the Portuguese crown, followed by the French and English crowns, all of whom rejected him for one reason or another. Initially, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had turned Columbus away too, but eventually, Isabella reversed her decision for an unknown reason.
The Spanish crown agreed to fund Columbus’s expedition to find a shorter route to India. As part of the deal, Columbus was awarded 10 percent of any and all wealth he found. The rest was to be sent back to Spain.
Realistically, 10 percent is quite a lot for just one man.
At the time, some Europeans thought the Earth was flat and many were completely unaware of the existence of another continent across the Atlantic. The expectation was that Christopher Columbus would find a shorter route to India, so when he landed in the Americas, he assumed he had done it, which explains why he had called the natives “Indians.”
Columbus had written the following in his diary regarding the native peoples: “They do not carry weapons or know them… they should be good servants.” The majority of the natives were kind to the Europeans who had less than righteous intentions.
Within a few decades, much of the native population was wiped out from European diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus, whooping cough, bubonic plague and chickenpox. The natives were especially susceptible to these diseases because they did not have the natural immunization to them and were largely unable to fight them. Many of the natives endured brutal mistreatment from the Europeans.
It is important to note that not every negative thing that happened to the natives is the fault of Columbus directly. He was accompanied by nearly 90 men on his first voyage. Whether Columbus had nefarious intentions or not, he was courageous. He traveled in small wooden ships which were far from being designed for the rough Atlantic ocean.
One thing is certain, Columbus’s voyages were a turning point in history: they opened up the exchange of goods and ideas between two separate halves of the world, new and old. For some, the negatives outweigh the positives and Columbus was a villain. For others, the opposite is true and Columbus was a hero.