Last Monday, the Seattle City Council voted to redesignate the federal Columbus Day holiday as Indigenous People’s Day in recognition that native people numbering more than 100 million were already in the New World when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, arrived in 1492.
The Seattle School Board took a similar vote the week before, and Portland Public Schools celebrated its first Indigenous People’s Day on Monday, the official Columbus Day federal holiday.
Chalk up more victories for the Columbus-the-villian camp, and more defeats for the Columbus-the-hero crew.
So which was he? The indefatigable, courageous navigator who dared to sail where others before him feared to go? The inept administrator who alienated the colonists in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola; enslaved native people; and was deposed as governor and viceroy of Hispaniola, arrested and returned to Spain in 1500 in chains?
With the passage of time, he has become a bit of both, suggests British historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.
“The real Columbus was a mixture of vices and virtues like the rest of us,” Fernandez-Armesto wrote in his essay “Columbus: Hero or Villain?”
“Columbus-the-hero and Columbus-the-villain live on, mutually sustained by the passion which controversy imparts to their supporters,” he said.
Fernandez-Armesto suggested that the mythic notion of Columbus as heroic and iconic grew out of the War of Independence when the Founding Fathers of the United States were casting about for an American hero. They latched on to the son of a Genovese weaver who believed he was an agent of God, destined to take four voyages to the New World over the course of 12 years in a futile search for a westward passage to Asia.
There is high irony in the selection of Columbus as an American icon, the historian noted.
“The values which define the American ideal — personal liberty, individualism, freedom of conscience, equality of opportunity and representative democracy — would have meant nothing to him,” Fernandez-Armesto said.
The rebranding of Columbus has taken centuries. In 1792, three centuries after Christopher Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag with the financial backing of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, a New York political organization called the Columbian Order — also known as Tammany Hall — hosted a celebration in recognition of the Italian explorer.
That same year, there was even some talk of renaming the country Columbia, even though Columbus never set foot on what was to become United States soil. The closest he came were the future U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
In 1866, Italian-Americans launched a campaign to have Columbus canonized by the Catholic Church, but his insistence on enslaving Indians for personal gain squelched the notion of saintliness.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison set aside Oct. 21 as a day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering America. Never mind all the people who already occupied the land at the time. Never mind that he wasn’t the first explorer to reach the New World.
“The Irish, Vikings, and perhaps even the English and Chinese, got to the New World first,” said Martin Dugard in his nonfiction history book “The Last Voyage of Columbus.” “But his claim to fame is that he stayed.”
In 1907, the first official, annual Columbus Day holiday — Oct. 12 — was declared by Gov. Jesse F. McDonald of Colorado. By 1910, 14 other states had officially adopted the holiday, and over time many more states followed suit, including Washington in 1927. But in more recent years, 26 states have dropped the official Columbus Day holiday, according to the Council of State Government. That includes Washington in 1976.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, in part due to intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal benefits organization. It was observed every Oct. 12 until President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 used a presidential proclamation to change it to the second Monday of October.
Hero or villain, holiday or not: There’s even more divisiveness over the tall, freckle-faced explorer whose red hair turned gray with time and whose blue eyes dimmed from the glare of the sun at sea.
After Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, at age 54, his bones embarked on a journey not unlike the one he logged while alive. They were reportedly moved as many as four times, with two final resting places in dispute — a cathedral in Seville, Spain, and a cathedral in Santo Domingo in today’s Dominican Republic.
Spanish researchers in 2006 conducted DNA tests of the Seville remains, which they said confirmed they belonged to Columbus. Officials in Santo Domingo have refused to disturb and test the remains there. It’s possible bones of Columbus are in both the New World and the Old World.
There’s at least one area where historians tend to agree: Christopher Columbus launched a world of trade and transfer of people, plants, animals, diseases and cultures that touched almost every society around the globe.
“The explorer will always remain somewhat of an enigma,” Dugard wrote. “The only certainty about Columbus is that, for better or for worse, he chose to live a bold life, rather than settle for mediocrity.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444