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Columbus Day is a necessary holiday despite the actions of Columbus himself

October 11, 2021

At first glance, the fight to change Columbus Day makes sense. The brave, heroic, adventurous man we all learned about in history class ended up being a murderous inhumane conquistador, whose brutality was extreme even for the time period. His victims, the indigenous people, bore the brunt of his bloodlust. So why not change the name of the holiday to honor his victims and remember the suffering they had to endure? Why not leave Columbus in the dustbin of history, where so many say he belongs?

For one, Columbus Day is observed as a federal holiday in the United States. It is also celebrated to various degrees elsewhere, but for our intensive purposes, we only care about his impact here in the U.S.

According to the Washington Post and contemporary historical analysis, Christopher Columbus never set foot in the current continental United States. In fact, he never set foot in any of North America”

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Columbus and his crew first landed on the island the Indian’s called Guanahani, but the Europeans renamed it San Salvador. That island is now a part of the archipelago nation of the Bahamas. Columbus then investigated the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, the northern coast of South America, and bits of Central America before being renounced and deposed from his position by the Crown of Castile. This is relevant, as while his brutality greatly decimated several natives in the New World, not a drop of blood was directly spilled by him on the soil of the land that would eventually become the United States.

There is no beating around the bush, however. Columbus was first and foremost a conquistador. His mission was to discover, colonize, and profit off the New World resources and people via subjugation and slavery for the Spanish Crown. The nature of his position meant that he would have to resort to inhumane and callous methods to benefit his crew and the Kingdom of Spain, all at the cost of the natives. This, in and of itself, may be a reason to dismiss Columbus as anything more than a murderer. Certainly not a hero. After all, what kind of hero could possibly do such treacherous and disgusting things? 

The fact of the matter is that all historical heroes have major flaws. Even the greats of history have committed major blunders in our modern ethical worldview that would seem universally irredeemable. According to NPR Illinois, Abraham Lincoln – one of the most beloved presidents of all time – was not exempt from the racist and bigoted views of his time. While he was firmly and fundamentally against slavery in the United States, he did not necessarily believe in true equality between the races, nor that Black people should hold office. It took four bloody years of civil war for Lincoln to even consider the idea of allowing Black people to hold citizenship and vote. Martin Luther (the Protestant Reformer, not the American Civil Rights activist) advocated for massive social change against the Roman Catholic Church. He declared that the Church was stealing from the common people and scamming them through the sale of indulgences. (Indulgences were contracts between the Church and ordinary Catholics that promised swift access to heaven upon death in exchange for a hefty fee). His actions weakened the Church that had dominated and tyrannized Europe for centuries. Eventually the ripple effect of his ideas gave way to religious pluralism and the slow acceptance of most religious identities within Europe. Even so, Luther was a raging anti-Semite, declaring in his book titled “On the Jews and Their Lies” that Jewish people were a rejected and condemned people, and that true good Christians should burn down their places of worship and harass them incessantly. The man who had advocated for a change from religious tyranny had himself called for fundamentalist terrorism against those he disagreed with.

These heroes of history, these champions of the past, had all done or believed despicable and downright dejectable things. Their views today, at the very least, are considered incredibly problematic and controversial. Have these ‘heroes’ ceased being heroes? Has their profound benevolent impact on history and our current world failed to matter anymore because of some of the inexcusable things they have propagated?

Human beings are incredibly complicated creatures. They are contradictory, complex, and hypocritical. Especially concerning figures of the past, they appear to do so much good for the world until it is revealed that they are a product of their past, and have made mistake after mistake after mistake. The question remains: does this warrant a refusal to celebrate the achievements they made, the accomplishments they have done, and the impact on history they have left?

Columbus was not an angel. He was not even close. But perhaps Columbus Day is less about Columbus himself and more about what he represents. The drive in humanity to seek out answers, to take a shot in the dark and discover something new, to change the course of history simply by being foolish enough to believe that you can. While the Indigenous people undoubtedly deserve their own holiday and respected day on our calendars, it would not be entirely fair to have that be at the expense of Columbus. His savagery and cruelty were undeniable, but so was his impact on history. So was his boldness to attempt to circumvent the Earth with just three ships and less than one hundred men. For that reason, even if it is uncomfortable to call Columbus a hero, it should at least be recognized that his impact on history is unprecedented, and should continue to be recognized despite the many horrific blunders of his life.

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