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Columbus Day: ‘How is this still a thing?’

A replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria is shown in this circa 1892 photo. (Library of Congress via Reuters)

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO did a segment on Columbus Day that asked this seemingly reasonable question about the federal U.S. holiday: “How is this still a thing?”

How indeed?

The first Columbus Day celebration recorded in the United States was held in New York in 1792. On Oct. 12 — the day in 1492 that Columbus and his ships made landfall not in Asia, as the explorer believed, but on an island in the Caribbean Sea. In 1892, according to, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities.” In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress, bowing to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic group that wanted a Catholic hero to be honored, proclaimed Oct. 12 to be Columbus Day, a national holiday. In 1971, the holiday date was changed to the second Monday in October

Kids in school have long been taught an incorrect and sanitized version of Columbus and his “discovery of America.” As  historians have long noted (and as Oliver’s video explains) Columbus didn’t discover America. He never even set foot on the continent on his first voyage in 1492 or any of the three subsequent trips to the  “New World” (in  1493, 1498 and 1502). Besides, there were already indigenous people living on the island where he landed, as well as on the nearby the continent. As Oliver’s show said:

Columbus became famous for his discoveries, specifically the discovery that you can discover a continent with millions of people already living on it, that has also been visited by Vikings around 500 years earlier.

What many students don’t learn is what Columbus did as viceroy and governor of the Caribbean islands where he landed. As Oliver’s video explains:

“What they tend not to learn are the parts of Columbus’ life where he kidnapped native Americans and sold them into slavery, had his men slash them to pieces and through disease and warfare killed roughly half the population of Haiti. But in fairness none of that rhymes with, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two.” [a reference to the start of the poem In 1492.]

Half of the population amounted to millions of people. As notes: ” Even his most ardent admirers acknowledge that Columbus was self-centered, ruthless, avaricious, and a racist.”

This history helps explain why increasingly there are protests at Columbus Day celebrations. Some places around the country have changed the name of the holiday. Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992 to honor the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands where Columbus made landfall and ruled.  In 1989, South Dakota started calling the holiday Native American Day. Alabama celebrates a combination of Columbus Day and American Indian Heritage Day, and Hawaii calls it Discovery Day.

It should also be noted that despite what some kids are taught, Columbus did not prove the world was round. Many students learned that when Columbus sailed in 1492, Europeans believed the Earth was flat and feared he would fall off the planet’s edge. Nope. Historians say educated people in Columbus’s day knew quite well that the Earth was round, as had Pythagoras as early as the sixth century B.C., and Aristotle and Euclid after him. Columbus, in fact, himself owned a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography — written at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before his first voyage — which considered as fact a round Earth. Several books published in Europe between 1200 and 1500 discussed the Earth’s shape, including “The Sphere,” written in the early 1200s, which was required reading in European universities in the 1300s and beyond.

There’s more. Columbus didn’t find a short cut to Asia, as he set out to do. And, incidentally, U.N. experts have rejected a claim by an American explorer that he found the wreck of Santa Maria, Columbus’ flagship from his 1492 voyage, in the waters off northern Haiti. (It should also be noted that the Santa Maria was also known in Columbus’ day as La Gallega, meaning The Galician.”

Still, Columbus Day remains a federal holiday here, and is celebrated in other countries as well but with different names; in the Bahamas, it is called Discovery Day, and as Día de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional in Spain.

This year, according to, the Columbus Day parade in Washington D.C. will be held on Oct. 13 at Union Station. It says:

Washington, DC honors and celebrates the achievements of Christopher Columbus each year with a national wreath laying ceremony on Columbus Day. Embassies of Italy and Spain and the general public lay wreaths at the base of the Columbus Memorial Statue located at Union Station. The memorial is a large fountain with carvings of a native American, an elderly European, the figure of “Discovery” on the prow of a ship, and a globe.

In New York, a parade to honor Italian-Americans will be held on Oct. 13, according to, which says:

Secure a spot along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue for a family-friendly celebration filled with colorful floats and rousing musical performances. The parade honors Italian Americans’ contributions to New York City and draws around million spectators and 35,000 marchers.