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Kamala Sarup: Columbus Day Historical Perspectives

Columbus Day from Historical Perspectives

Kamala Sarup

Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered the Western Hemisphere for Europeans on October 12, 1492, although he continued to believe he had reached Asia until his death in 1506, even though his contemporaries knew that this land was not Asia. Before his famous trip, Europeans believed no land existed between Europe and Asia.

The first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States took place on October 12, 1792. Organized by The Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Colombian Order, it commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus's landing.

The 400th anniversary of the event, however, inspired the first official Columbus Day holiday in the United States. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging Americans to mark the day. The public responded enthusiastically, organizing school programs, plays, and community festivities across the country.

Columbus and the Discovery of America, Imre Kiralfy's "grand dramatic, operatic, and ballet spectacle," is among the more elaborate tributes created for this commemoration. The World's Colombian Exposition, by far the most ambitious event planned for the celebration, opened in Chicago the summer of 1893.

Over the following decades, the Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society, lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. Colorado was the first state to do so on April 1, 1907. New York declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1909 and on October 12, 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes led a parade that included the crews of two Italian ships, several Italian-American societies, and legions of the Knights of Columbus.

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Since 1971 Columbus Day, designated as the second Monday in October, has been celebrated as a federal holiday. In many locations across the country Americans parade in commemoration of the day.

There are various versions of Columbus's origins and life before 1476. The account that has traditionally been supported by most historians is as follows:

Columbus was born between August 26 and October 31 in the year 1451, in the Italian port city of Genoa. His father was Domenico Colombo, a woollens merchant, and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a woollens merchant. Christopher had three younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta.

Columbus monument in GenoaIn 1470, the family moved to Savona, where Christopher worked for his father in wool processing. During this period he studied cartography with his brother Bartolomeo. Christopher received almost no formal education; a voracious reader, he was largely self-taught.

In 1474, Columbus joined a ship of the Spinola Financiers, who were Genoese patrons of his father. He spent a year on a ship bound towards Khios (an island in the Aegean Sea) and, after a brief visit home, spent a year in Khios. It is believed that this is where he recruited some of his sailors.

A 1476, commercial expedition gave Columbus his first opportunity to sail into the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet came under attack by French privateers off the Cape of St. Vincent, Portugal. Columbus's ship was burned and he swam six miles to shore.

By 1477, Columbus was living in Lisbon. Portugal had become a center for maritime activity with ships sailing for England, Ireland, Iceland, Madeira, the Azores, and Africa. Columbus's brother Bartolomeo worked as a mapmaker in Lisbon. At times, the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors.

He became a merchant sailor with the Portuguese fleet, and sailed to Iceland via Ireland in 1477. He sailed to Madeira in 1478 to purchase sugar, and along the coasts of West Africa between 1482 and 1485, reaching the Portuguese trade post of Elmina Castle in the Gulf of Guinea coast.

Columbus married Felipa Perestrello Moniz, a daughter from a noble Portuguese family with some Italian ancestry, in 1479. Felipa's father, Bartolomeu Perestrelo, had partaken in finding the Madeira Islands and owned one of them (Porto Santo Island), but died when Felipa was a baby, leaving his second wife a wealthy widow. As part of his dowry, the mariner received all of Perestello's charts of the winds and currents of the Portuguese possessions of the Atlantic. Columbus and Felipa had a son, Diego Colón in 1480. Felipa died in January of 1485.

Columbus later found a lifelong partner in Spain, an orphan named Beatriz Enriquez. She was living with a cousin in the weaving industry of Córdoba. They never married, but Columbus left Beatriz a rich woman and directed Diego to treat her as his own mother. The two had a son, Ferdinand in 1488. Both boys served as pages to Prince Juan, son of Ferdinand and Isabella, and each later contributed, with fabulous success, to the rehabilitation of their father's reputation.

On this first voyage, Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba (landed on October 28) and the northern coast of Hispaniola, by December 5. He believed the peaks of Cuba to be the Himalayas, which gives one a sense of just how lost he was and how long it took the peoples of the world to map the Earth. (The vast interior of the North and South American mainlands would of course be largely mapped with the leadership of native guides and interpreters.) Here the Santa Maria ran aground and had to be abandoned. He was received by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his men behind. Columbus founded the settlement La Navidad and left 39 men.

Historical Perspectives of Columbus

Of course, no one knew until archaeological evidence was unearthed in the 1960s proved the Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries (but based on much earlier oral tradition) that in about 985 Bjarni Herjolfsson, a Norse settler in Greenland, was blown off course and sighted a continent west of Greenland, although he did not go ashore. About 15 years later, Leif Eriksson (son of Erik the Red) explored the new continent and set up a short-lived colony at what is now L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. Therefore, some people consider Columbus to have re discovered the Western Hemisphere.

Unlike the voyage of the Icelanders, Columbus's voyages led to a relatively quick, general and lasting recognition of the existence of the New World by the Old World, the Colombian Exchange of species (both those harmful to humans, such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and beneficial to humans, such as tomatoes, potatoes, maize, and horses), and the first large-scale colonization of the Americas by Europeans.

Christian Europe, long allowed safe passage to India and China, sources of valued trade goods such as silk and spices, under the hegemony of the Mongol Empire (Pax Mongolica, or "Mongol peace"), was now, after the fragmentation of that empire, under a complete economic blockade by Muslim states. In response to Muslim hegemony on land, Portugal sought an eastward sea route to the Indies, and promoted the establishment of trading posts and later colonies along the coast of Africa. Columbus had another idea. By the 1480s, he had developed a plan to travel to the Indies (then roughly meaning all of south and east Asia) by sailing west across the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic Ocean) instead.

The fact that the Earth is round was evident to most people of Columbus's time, especially other sailors and navigators (Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) had in fact accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth). The problem was that the experts did not agree with his estimates of the distance to the Indies. Most scholars accepted Ptolemy's claim that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water.

Columbus accepted the calculations of Pierre d'Ailly, that the land-mass occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that one degree actually covered less space on the earth's surface than commonly believed. Finally, Columbus read maps as if the distances were calculated in Roman miles (1524 meters or 5,000 feet) rather than nautical miles (1853.99 meters or 6,082.66 feet at the equator). The true circumference of the earth is about 40,000 km (24,900 statute miles of 5,280 feet each), whereas the circumference of Columbus's earth was the equivalent of at most 30,600 km (19,000 modern statute miles). Columbus calculated that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was 2,400 nautical miles (about 4,444 km).

In fact, the distance is about 10,600 nautical miles (19,600 km), and most European sailors and navigators concluded that the Indies were too far away to make his plan worth considering. They were right and Columbus was wrong; unless he had unexpectedly encountered a previously uncharted continent in mid-travel, he and his crew would have perished from lack of food and water.

The Portuguese King's experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus thought (the actual distance is even longer than the Portuguese believed), and denied Columbus's request. It is probable that he made the same outrageous demands for himself in Portugal that he later made in Spain, where he went next. He tried to get backing from the monarchs of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who, by marrying, had united the largest kingdoms of Spain and were ruling them together.

After seven years of lobbying at the Spanish court, where he was kept on a salary to prevent him from taking his ideas elsewhere, he was finally successful in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they received Columbus in Córdoba (in the monarchs' Alcázar or castle). Isabella finally turned Columbus down on the advice of her "think tank" and he was leaving town in despair when Ferdinand lost his patience. Isabella sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later rightfully claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were discovered."

About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, which Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke from the Granada campaign, the monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to shift funds among various royal accounts on behalf of the enterprise. Columbus was to be made Admiral of the Ocean Sea and granted an inheritable governorship to the new territories he would reach, as well as a portion of all profits. The terms were absurd, but his own son later wrote that the monarchs really didn't expect him to return.

On August 3, 1492, Columbus left from Palos, Spain with three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta. The ships were property of Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers (Martin and Vicente Yáñez), but the monarchs forced the Palos inhabitants to contribute to the expedition. He first sailed to the Canary Islands, fortunately owned by Castile, where he re provisioned and made repairs, and on September 6 started the five week voyage across the ocean.

Columbus landed in the Bahamas (the exact place is unknown) and later explored much of the Caribbean, including the isles of Juana (Cuba) and Espanola (Hispaniola), as well as the coasts of Central and South America. He never reached the present-day United States where "Columbus Day" is celebrated as a holiday.

Columbus claimed governorship of the new territories (by prior agreement with the Spanish monarchs) and made several more journeys across the Atlantic. While regarded by some as an excellent navigator, he was seen by many contemporaries as a poor administrator and was stripped of his governorship in 1500.


Kamala Sarup is an editor of

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