Christopher Columbus: A Cause for “Celebration”.

11 10 2010

In 1492, an Italian explorer (with some financial ties to Spain) was attempting to find his way to Asia. Inspired by the thought of trading with this fabled culture and the desire to convert heathens to Christianity, he had set sail with three ships in the hope of making his way across the ocean without having to navigate around annoying pieces of already discovered land.

The mission was a failure.

Are we there yet? I was looking for Asia!

Instead of the vast open sea that he imagined lay between Spain and Asia, he actually managed to find himself in a situation where he discovered not only land but a population of friendly and trusting natives who, unaware of the fact that they were heathens, were curious about this visitor from afar and approached him with open hearts and minds.

The explorer repaid this trust in the only way he knew how. By enslaving them, pillaging their land for precious metals and shipping them back to the Spanish monarchs who were providing the financial security that was needed to ensure the success of the venture.

On the plus side, Christopher Columbus (for it was he), had managed to discover the continent and islands that were to become the Americas. Irrespective of his methods, he should be congratulated for realising that he was not in Asia and making the most of the opportunity that had fallen into his lap.

In America, his combination of business acumen and indigenous population control is celebrated every year on the second monday of October. Although not a public holiday as such – and one that is not celebrated at all in Hawaii (Discoverers Day), South Dakota (Native American Day) and Nevada – there are parades and general hoopla marking the accidental discovery of the Americas. Virginia takes it one step further by not only honouring Chris but by also marking the victory at Yorktown in the Revolutionary War (against the mean-spirited and malicious British) in the aptly named Yorktown Victory Day.

Today, therefore, is Columbus Day in America. In keeping with the many days of celebration that exist in this country, it is worth noting that many of the shops are still open, bars and restaurants don’t seem to be shut and although the banks and the US Postal Service are closed for business, the average celebrant can still draw out money from trusting and open ATM machines.

Of course, not everybody believes that CC should have a day dedicated to him.

Alternative Tentacles, the record label set up by Jello Biafra (former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys), prefer to refer to this as Indigenous People’s Day which has been part of the Californian landscape since 1992. Howard Zinn (who sadly passed away in January of this year), the noted historian and possible Socialist, was scathing of a day dedicated to Columbus and stated in Chapter 1 of his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ that “when we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure – there is no bloodshed,” before quoting from Samuel Morison (Harvard writer) who wrote in 1954 that “the cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulting in complete genocide.”

Genocide is a word that we associate with events further down the timeline – the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia to name but three – and it is hard to imagine that millions of people were wiped out by an explorer who was seeking to discover new lands for his financial backer. Columbus’s name has passed into folklore, he is seen as a hero who defied the odds to forge a path from being born into poverty to becoming a respected (and wealthy) navigator with strong connections to the ruling elite of Europe.

But the fact remains that Columbus didn’t land on an uninhabited piece of land. He arrived as a curiosity and left as a conqueror. Whether this element of American history should be celebrated is open to debate, but from the humble beginnings of a navigator who found himself in the wrong place at the right time, this country has risen to be (arguably) the foremost influence on how the world operates. Millions still chase the American Dream, millions have lived it and millions have been let down by it.

A nation should always look to its origins to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not carried into its future. By learning from possible lapses of judgement, we become stronger. By allocating credit to those who have shaped the destiny of the nation, we can be certain that we can never forget the sacrifices that have been made to allow us to live in the here and now.

Errors have been made, others will be blamed.

Not long now until Thanksgiving. Another holiday that may have a slightly murky origin – but still a time to celebrate!

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