The Uniform Monday Holiday Act (Public Law 90-363) adopted by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (1968) mandates that Columbus Day be celebrated annually on the second Monday in October. But in 1955 the explorer’s memory was commemorated on the date of his arrival in the Americas in 1492. So on Wednesday, 12 October 1955 I sat in my fifth grade classroom in Speedway, Indiana and listened to praises for the man who “discovered” what is today called the United States.
For the record, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas as well as the island later called Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti). From there he went on to explore the Central and South American coasts.
Why does the United States still have an officially designated “Columbus Day” to remember a cad who never set foot in North America? The man committed atrocities against native peoples on the islands and decimated their populations while also terrorizing Spanish colonists. His quest for gold, which was readily available, set into motion a relentless wave of murder, rape, pillaging, and slavery that reduced the indigenous populations from millions to about 60,000. Much of this is chronicled by Bartolomé de las Casas who transcribed Columbus’ journals and wrote about the violence he had witnessed.
Much history (any history, any country) is written not to convey truth, but to cover it up. Robert Westbrook writes in a review of These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lapore: “From the outset, the American experiment has been haunted by the manner in which an often eloquent commitment in principle to liberty for all has been hedged and repeatedly, sometimes flagrantly, contradicted in practice.” Authors like Lapore and Alan Eckert exercised due diligence in their research and present facts rather than wishful thinking.
Much of the history of the United States includes a multitude of things for which we can be proud and thankful. But that does not preclude recognizing, learning from, and expressing repentance for the horrible mistakes of the past. Historians do us all a service when they record the past accurately and completely. Columbus included.
Note: some U.S. communities have changed the second Monday in October to Indigenous Peoples Day vs Columbus Day. Hurrah!