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Columbus Day: An Incorrect Celebration Research Paper

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Introduction

Every child attending school in America is taught ‘in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ and discovered the New World later to become known as the North and South American Continents.

The impression received by the school child is that a promising age of wealth and discovery was launched by this single explorer, bringing Europe out of the dark ages and into the light of the Renaissance and modern wealth and technology. Reinforcing this concept is the fact that America celebrates Columbus Day as one of its major holidays. Each October 14, banks and businesses close their doors for a usually well-earned three-day weekend, holding festivals and parties to commemorate the first day Christopher Columbus’ foot touched land associated with the North American continent.

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However, there is a significant lie in the ‘facts’ as they have been presented. Christopher Columbus did not actually touch North America during any one of his four voyages, having remained mostly on the Caribbean Islands with some exploration of the South American continent and Central America during his third and fourth voyages (Pickering, 2006). He also wasn’t the first white man to find his way to the new continent as evidenced first by the obvious occupation of indigenous peoples upon Columbus’ arrival, but also within the historical record that Columbus himself referenced before making his journey. Finally, the population of people already living on these continents was almost completely destroyed by the effects Columbus introduced. Because of the inaccuracy of the assumption as well as the vast damage that was perpetrated on entire civilizations as a result of greedy exploitive practices introduced with Columbus, it is wrong to celebrate Columbus Day in America.

The claim that Columbus discovered America is false based on the grounds that there were already vast populations of people living in the Americas prior to his arrival with well-established cities, some measure of technological advancement and architectural achievement, collected and recorded advanced knowledge and complex culture. There are many human artifacts, including tools, containers and even complex architecture which have been found that pre-date Columbus. Archaeological ruins are irrefutable evidence of vast populations of people before the arrival of Columbus. “The largest Maya cities were home to many people. At the major center of Tikal, for example, within a six-square-mile area, there were over 10,000 individual structures ranging from temple-pyramids to thatched-roof huts” (Maya, 1995). These major cities show evidence of having expanded and reduced, shifted borders and build and re-build over a period of centuries before the native populations were decimated by European abuse, disease and warfare. What these finds indicate is that there were once large populations of people who were supported on the land in America prior to Columbus’ arrival, whose cultures, beliefs and lifestyles were as widely varied as the tribes of Eurasia once were. While no definite number will ever be ascertained, “some experts believe that perhaps 10 million people lived above the Rio Grande in 1492 – twice as many as may have inhabited the British Isles at that time. The population of the Western Hemisphere may have exceeded 15th-century Europe’s 70 million” (Lord, 1997). Other estimates conclude as many as 54 million people might have lived in the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’ landing, making it impossible that he alone discovered the land.

Supporting this evidence is evidence that even other white men from the European continent had discovered the Americas before Columbus’ voyage. These white men left records with their own people of their discoveries as well as engendered new legends among the American tribes. There are two Icelandic sagas, Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, which detail “the discovery and attempted colonization of America by Norsemen, five centuries before Christopher Columbus” (Magnusson & Palsson, 1965: 7). Both of these ancient stories indicate that the Norsemen not only discovered the new land following their attempted colonization of Greenland, but that they also attempted to found a colony in North America among the natives.

While estimates have often considered this colony to have been located somewhere in New England, recent archaeological evidence has been found that suggests they might have settled in the area of Newfoundland (Magnusson & Palsson, 1965: 8). The failure of historians and archaeologists to provide hard evidence that the colony undoubtedly existed in a particular place has made it difficult to prove this early claim of discovery, but the fact that the story would be told at all at a time prior to Columbus’ discovery hints that the Norsemen must have discovered something west of Greenland as they were obviously familiar with the Greenland landmass. Because their accounts are not as precise as modern technology would have made possible, some experts have claimed that the Norsemen were not sure of their location at all and might not have been in the Americas at all.

According to Welsh legend, another white man also discovered America well before Columbus. A 15th-century poem details the story of how Madoc, bastard son of Owain Gwynedd, discovered the coast of Alabama and returned to Wales only long enough to gather up several settlers and disappear into the western sea (Discovery of America, 2006). Some speculate that the reason for Madoc’s actions is founded in the family squabbles he had with his brothers and half-brothers regarding who should rule Gwynedd after their father’s death as Madoc sought a means of living in peace. Others have suggested Madoc was a part of the Druidic society of Wales at the time of Owain’s death, a time also characterized by a brutal transition period between the old pagan ways of the land and the new Christian religion.

This story is supported by evidence found in America, such as the existence of a particular tribe of Indians that is surprisingly Welsh in general character. “In the 18th century an Indian tribe was discovered that seemed different to all the others that had been encountered before. Called the Mandans this tribe were described as white men with forts, towns and permanent villages laid out in streets and squares. They claimed ancestry with the Welsh and spoke a language remarkably similar to it. They fished with coracles, a type of boat still used in Wales today” (Discovery of America, 2006). Although there are numerous reports regarding this tribe, including its many similarities to the early Welsh culture, “the tribe was virtually wiped out by a smallpox epidemic introduced by traders in 1837” (Discovery of America, 2006). As a result, there is no way the modern world can verify this data, either.

In rebuttal to the argument that America should not celebrate a day dedicated to Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America, it can be argued that Columbus was the first person to bring ‘civilization’ to America by discovering the means by which Europeans could begin settling there and thus ‘discovering’ America.

What Columbus discovered was not necessarily the new world, but was instead the possibility of such a world.

“Columbus inaugurated permanent large scale two-way commerce between the Old World and the New” (Pickering, 2006). He is celebrated because he brought progress and commercial opportunity to the world on a grand scale just when society’s technology had brought them to a point where such possibilities were feasible. However, this progress and material gain were only experienced by that part of the population that was not truly American. The real Americans, the Indians, were destroyed.

Although the legends and stories of the Indians provide a vague concept of earlier explorations by white men, their stories about the coming of Columbus are unique in that they are always associated with great evil. As the story of how Columbus came to America is told in one recent retelling of legend, the tricky and respected coyote tells his audience of Indian friends, “Big trouble is coming, I can tell you that” (King, 294). At the end of the story, the narrator comforts the sadness of the coyote regarding the selfish and materialistic grabbing nature of his new friends and the loss of the Indian spirit in the same way that the dominant culture of the Americas has comforted itself regarding the treatment of the people who were on the continent first. Armstrong’s “History Lesson” is more explicit about how Columbus brought nothing but evil to the new continent. “Out of the belly of Christopher’s ship / a mob bursts” (Armstrong, 1-2). The sense that the image is being presented metaphorically is conveyed as this mob goes “Running in all directions / Pulling furs off animals / Shooting buffalo / Shooting each other / left and right” (Armstrong, 3-7). There were not enough men on Columbus’ ships to have accomplished this, nor did they spend enough time in the new world to have participated in much of this, but through Columbus’ ships the Europeans determined to conquer and claim this pristine paradise rather than, like earlier explorers, determining to settle down and mix in with the local culture.

Conclusion

The continent that was nearly destroyed completely by the influences brought to it by the commercial intentions and encouragement of Christopher Columbus should not celebrate the day he landed on its shores. This is particularly true as he was not the man who ‘discovered’ the land at all. By the time he arrived, entire metropolis’ had risen and fallen in some areas of the hemisphere; civilizations had developed, matured, grew old and died out under the strain of new civilizations encroaching. The simple fact that so many people already lived in this vast land when Columbus arrived refutes the presumption that they ‘discovered’ it. This idea is further supported by evidence that Columbus was not even the first white man to have landed in America.

Icelandic sagas, Welsh legends and native tribal legends corroborate the idea that at least some of the native tribes had had contact with the white man before Columbus arrived. While others may argue that Columbus should still be hailed as the ‘discoverer’ of America because of the prosperity he brought to both sides of the Atlantic, evidenced by the birth of a new nation on one side and economic prosperity sufficient to bring an entire continent out of the dark ages, this is also not true. Because of the way in which Columbus presented the new world, as an empty land ripe for plunder and the source of immeasurable wealth, Europeans who followed in his footsteps cared nothing about understanding or respecting the rights of those individuals already utilizing those resources. True Americans continue to be subjugated in their own land, a mere shadow of the once great nations they were, as is testified in their stories and legends.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Jeannette.

“History Lesson.” Literature: A Pocket Anthology. (2nd Canadian Ed.). R.S. Gwynn & Wanda Campbell (Eds.). Toronto, Ontario: Penguin Academics, (1991) 2008.

Historic UK. (2006). Web.

King, Thomas. “A Coyote Columbus Story.” Literature: A Pocket Anthology. (2nd Canadian Ed.). R.S. Gwynn & Wanda Campbell (Eds.). Toronto, Ontario: Penguin Academics, (1996) 2008.

Lord, Lewis. “How Many People Were Here Before Columbus?” US News and World Report. 1997.

Magnusson, Magnus & Palsson, Hermann. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. New York: Penguin Classics, 1965.

“Maya Civilization.” Civilization Canada. Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995. Web.

Pickering, Keith A. The Columbus Navigation Homepage: Examining the History, Navigation and Landfall of Christopher Columbus.

(2006). Web.

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