Yesterday marked the U.S. holiday called Columbus Day which commemorates the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492. School age children are taught about this famous explorer, Italian born Christopher Columbus, who set sail with a fleet of ships – – Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria – – in route for Asia at the behest of Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. His mission was to chart a western sea route to China, India and the gold and spice islands of Asia. The reality that he actually first landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas and not North America has not completely altered the fabled story told in some American schools across this country. In fact, it wasn’t until his third journey that Columbus finally realized he hadn’t reached Asia but had instead stumbled upon a continent previously unknown to Europeans. One can only wonder what he first thought as this new world came into view perhaps shimmering in the moonlight reflecting against the ocean.
Columbus also discovered Cuba believing it was mainland China, founded Hispaniola (Spain’s first colony in the Americas) and explored the Central and South American coasts. He became the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings established colonies in Newfoundland and Greenland during the 10th century. Christopher Columbus is indeed a revered hero for many in the Italian community but there is more to his story.
In spite of his accomplishments, Columbus Day has not been without controversy particularly since it marks a critical point in world his-tory when indigenous peoples in the Americas were systematically subjugated. In recent decades, Native Americans and other groups have protested the celebration of an event that resulted in the colonization of the Americas and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Millions of indigenous populations died via murder and disease (primarily smallpox and influenza) soon following the encounters with the European explorers. Natives also fought in many wars with Europeans claiming lives as well. As the governor of Hispaniola, for example, Christopher Columbus allegedly imposed barbaric forms of punishment, including torture, and committed atrocities against native peoples decimating their populations.
To tell the America’s novella in its entirety is to also tell a story of suffering and sometimes annihilation of native peoples already present with a rich history and culture. School children are not often taught the complete narrative which is why many proposed in the 1970s to rename Columbus Day to honor the “others” long forgotten. It is called the Indigenous Peoples’ Day which is now celebrated in many U.S. states and cities as well.
But why do we forget our lessons? “Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten.”Abe Lincoln – American lawyer, statesman and 16 president of the United States of America
Hopefully, we will one day be able to look at our collective his-tory, including those celebrated figures and holidays, without omitting the complete story that often sheds light on our past. What we teach our children matters immensely. Our his-tory lessons help to explain and provide a context for the past. They also give US the opportunity to create a future, yet to be determined, where we learn from our mistakes and successes. Without a strong teaching foundation based upon absolute trUth, we will end up further mis-educating more and more children who will not understand events (good, bad and ugly) and our collective journey. Learning from the trUthful experiences of “others” is also irreplaceable. Humanities destiny awaits to be be written with perhaps a more comprehensive narrative more profound and even richer for ALL of US to understand and share.