Columbus Day: Celebrating discovery

by Dr. Robert B. Kane
Air University Director of History

10/7/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Monday, Americans will observe Columbus Day, marking the 519th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the Bahamas, and the winding down of Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated this year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

Americans have celebrated the anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of the Western Hemisphere since colonial days. In 1792, Americans celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus's landing, and, in 1883, the United States hosted the World's Columbian Exposition on the 400th anniversary. In 1905, Colorado Gov. Jesse F. McDonald proclaimed the first, official Columbus Day. In April 1934, the U.S. made Oct. 12 a federal holiday and in 1971 fixed the holiday to the second Monday in October.

By the early 1400s, the growing demand in Europe for the luxuries of the Far East spurred Europeans to search for an all-water route to the east to reduce the problems of the long overland route across Central Asia. In the 1430s, Prince Henry of Portugal outfitted expeditions that began the race to the Far East by sailing down the Atlantic coast of Africa.

In the early 1480s, Columbus developed his plan to sail west across the Atlantic Ocean to reach the east. He had calculated that Japan lay only 2,300 miles west of the Canary Islands, when, in fact, it was more than six times that distance. Ironically, a Greek scientist, Eratosthenes, around 240 BC, had calculated the earth's circumference at about 25,000 miles, an error of about five percent.

In early 1492, Columbus convinced Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to finance his expedition. On the evening of Aug. 3, 1492, Columbus left Spain with three small ships, the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria, for the Canary Islands. Four weeks later, the expedition left the Canary Islands and didn't see land until a lookout on the "Pinta" sighted an island in the Bahamas on the evening of Oct. 12, 1492.

Interestingly, Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the Western Hemisphere. Around 1002, Leif Erikson and a group of Vikings (or Norsemen) from Greenland established a short-lived colony in what is now Newfoundland. This achievement was lost to history until the 1950s, and, thus, Columbus received the credit for discovering this New World for many centuries.

After four more voyages to the Caribbean, Columbus died a broken, disgraced man on May 20, 1506, still convinced he had reached the Far East. His discovery set off an age of discovery and exploration during which expeditions from various European countries sailed the world's oceans. These voyages led to the emigration of millions of Europeans to the New World; the large-scale transfer of plants, animals, people, culture and diseases between the Old and the New World, called the Columbian Exchange; the start of a global economy and a commercial revolution; and the growing domination of the West of much of the nonwestern world.

Over time, some people came to oppose the celebration of Columbus Day. Since the 1960s, much of the opposition originated from the adverse effects of the Columbus's discovery and subsequent actions by Europeans toward the native populations of the New World. Europeans enslaved and exploited the labor of hundreds of thousands of natives. Hundreds of thousands died from European diseases for which they did not have immunities. Europeans also brought several million Africans to the New World as slaves on plantations throughout the Western Hemisphere.