(This appeared on this blog last year. Columbus Day 2016 seems like the right time to bring it back.)
You may have learned in school that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492 in the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and proved for the first time in history that the Earth wasn’t flat. Actually, he didn’t — discover America or prove that the Earth wasn’t flat, and there is some question as to the names of his ships.
His four trips from Spain across the Atlantic — in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502 — did, however, change human history forever, ushering in what is known as the Columbian Exchange — the historic exchange of plants, animals, disease, culture, technology and people between the Old and New Worlds. The Old World, for example, got chocolate (and many other things), and the New World got wheat, along with bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, malaria, measles, typhoid, etc., which decimated the populations of indigenous people Columbus found living on the islands he “discovered.”
As for Columbus himself, he mapped the coasts of Central America and South America but never set foot on land that is now the United States and Canada, and died thinking he had discovered Asia. He ruled the Caribbean islands as viceroy and governor so brutally that, according to US-History.com: “Even his most ardent admirers acknowledge that Columbus was self-centered, ruthless, avaricious and a racist.”
Columbus has long been believed to have been born in Genoa, Italy, although some historians say he was born in Spain’s Catalonia region. He sailed for the Spanish crown, and his remains are in Spain. Italians in the United States have taken great pride in him and sponsor many of the celebrations held in his name each year to honor Italian American heritage.
So how did we get a U.S. federal holiday in his name?
The first Columbus Day celebration recorded in the United States was held in New York in 1792 to honor Italian American heritage and to mark Oct. 12, 1492, the day that Columbus and his ships first made landfall on an island in the Caribbean Sea.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage with patriotic festivities, according to History.com.
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.
During recent decades, the holiday has been the target of protests at Columbus Day celebrations, and some places have changed the name and focus of the holiday. For example, Berkeley, Calif., 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, and Alabama celebrates a combination of Columbus Day and American Indian Heritage Day. Hawaii calls it Discoverers’ Day. In the Bahamas, it is called Discovery Day, and as Dia de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional in Spain.
Here are some things to know about Columbus:
*He didn’t prove that the earth is round.
Kids in school have long been taught that when Columbus set sail in 1492 to find a new route to the East Indies, it was feared that he would fall off the edge of the earth because people thought the planet was flat. Nope. As early as the 6th century B.C., Pythagoras — later followed by Aristotle and Euclid — wrote about Earth as a sphere, and historians say there is no doubt that the educated in Columbus’s day knew quite well that the Earth was round. Columbus, in fact, owned a copy of Ptolemy’s “Geography,” written at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Columbus set sail. 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 later. The big question for Columbus, it turns out, was not the shape of the Earth but the size of the ocean he was planning to cross.
*Columbus didn’t “discover” America.
During four trips that started with the one in 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas, as well as the island later called Hispaniola. He also explored the Central American and South American coasts. But he didn’t reach North America, which, of course, was inhabited by Native Americans, and he never thought he had found a new continent. You may also remember that it is believed that Norse explorer Leif Erikson reached Canada perhaps 500 years before Columbus was born, and there are some who argue that Phoenician sailors crossed the Atlantic much earlier than that.
*The famous names of the ships he took on his 1492 trip across the Atlantic Ocean, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, probably weren’t really named Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria.
The Santa Maria was also known at the time as La Gallega, meaning the Galician. The Niña is now believed to be a nickname for a ship originally called the Santa Clara, and the Pinta also was probably a nickname, although the ship’s real name isn’t clear.
(A previous version said Columbus never reached North America but he did explore the coasts of Central America, which is geographically part of North America. He never set foot on land that today is the United States and Canada. Also Hawaii calls the day Discoverers’ Day, not Discovery Day.)