Today’s the day Columbus did NOT discover America

Portrait_of_a_Man,_Said_to_be_Christopher_Columbus

Today, 12th October, has for many years been dedicated to the memory of Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer who discovered various places and claimed them for the Spanish crown who financed his expeditions.

Of course he is best known as the man who discovered America – except he didn’t.

On this day in 1492, Columbus completed his first voyage across the Atlantic to land on an island in what is today known as the Bahamas. He named the island San Salvador. He actually thought that he had reached India by sailing around the world, which is why he called the native people ‘Indians’.

Subsequent adventures found him landing elsewhere in the Caribbean and South America, leading to colonisation by Spain.

However, contrary to what many believe, he never set foot in North America and that means that he did not discover the land that would eventually become the United States of America. What is strange, though, is that Columbus Day is a national holiday in the USA. The holiday is always the second Monday in October; this year that day just happens to be the 12th.

It was in New York, in 1792, that Columbus Day was first celebrated in honour of the heritage of its Italian-American community. This eventually led to President F D Roosevelt, in 1935, declaring it a national holiday.

Over the many years since then, various states within the US have given the holiday different names, including Indigenous Peoples Day, Native American Day, American Indian Heritage Day and even Discovery Day.

Across the Atlantic from America, Columbus’s exploits in the name of Spain are marked in various ways including a monument in the city of Barcelona.

The date of his first step on land, 12th October, is also a public holiday in Spain.

The celebrations there originated in 1935 when it was known as Dia de la Hispanidad, marking Spain’s involvement in the Hispanic community around the world. The country had to wait until 1981 for a royal decree setting it as a national holiday.

Just six years later, the holiday’s name was changed to Fiesta Nacional. That is one of Spain’s two national days; the other is Constitution Day, on 6th December.

The reason why the Fiesta Nacional, literally national party (in the festive sense of the word), on the day associated with Columbus seems to be a bit of a compromise between those who wanted to emphasize the status of the monarchy and the country’s history, and others who wanted to commemorate Spain’s growing democracy. That is something I can understand in a nation that for some years was controlled by a dictator.

Changing the name from ‘Hispanidad’ also had the politically significant effect of removing any trace of a connection to Spain’s history of empire-building and colonialism.

When Lisa and I arrive in our home in the southern province of Almeria, we will have missed the Fiesta Nacional for this year but there is always Constitution Day to look forward to in December.

 

Pic: Although no authentic portraits of Columbus are known to exist, this work by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519, is thought to be a reasonable likeness of the explorer.

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