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This Week In History

The Columbus Day. October 12, 1492.

Columbus Day is a national holiday in many countries of the Americas and elsewhere which officially celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus‘s arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492. Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer on behalf of Spain, who set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a faster route to the Far East only to land at the New World. His first voyage to the New World on the Spanish ships Santa María, Niña, and La Pinta took approximately three months. Columbus and his crew’s arrival to the New World initiated the Columbian Exchange, also known as the Columbian interchange, named after Christopher Columbus. It was the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the Americas, West Africa, and the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries. It also relates to European colonization and trade following Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage. The changes in agriculture significantly altered global populations. The most significant immediate impact of the Columbian exchange was the cultural exchanges and the transfer of people (both free and enslaved) between continents.

The new contacts among the global population circulated a wide variety of crops and livestock, which supported increases in population in both hemispheres, although diseases initially caused precipitous declines in the numbers of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Traders returned to Europe with maizepotatoes, and tomatoes, which became very important crops in Europe by the 18th century.

One of the results of the movement of people between New and Old Worlds were cultural exchanges. For example, in the article “The Myth of Early Globalization: The Atlantic Economy, 1500–1800” Pieter Emmer makes the point that “from 1500 onward, a ‘clash of cultures‘ had begun in the Atlantic“. This clash of culture involved the transfer of European values to indigenous cultures. As an example, the emergence of the concept of private property in regions where property was often viewed as communal, concepts of monogamy (although many indigenous peoples were already monogamous,) the role of women and children in the social system, and the “superiority of free labor,” although slavery was already a well-established practice among many indigenous people. Another example included the European deprecation of human sacrifice, an established religious practice among some indigenous populations.

When European colonizers first entered North America, they encountered fence-less lands. Seeking economic opportunity and homesteads, this indicated to them that the land was unimproved and available for the taking. When the English entered Virginia they encountered a fully established culture of people called the Powhatan. As the Europeans viewed fences as hallmarks of civilization they set about transforming “the land into something more suitable for themselves”.

One of the most clearly notable areas of cultural clash and exchange was that of religion, often the lead point of cultural conversion. In the Spanish and Portuguese dominions, the spread of Catholicism, steeped in a European value system, was a major objective of colonization, and was often pursued via explicit policies of suppression of indigenous languages, cultures and religions. In English North America missionaries converted many tribes and peoples to Protestant faiths, while the French colonies had a more outright religious mandate, as some of the early explorers were Catholic priests.

The ”Columbus Day” term was first used in 1972 by American historian Alfred W. Crosby in his environmental history book The Columbian Exchange. It was rapidly adopted by other historians and journalists and has become widely known.

The landing is celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States but the name varies on the international spectrum. In some Latin American countries, October 12 is known as Día de la Raza. This is the case for Mexico, which inspired Jose Vasconcelos‘s book celebrating the Day of the Iberoamerican Race. Some countries such as Spain refer the holiday as Día de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional de España where it is also the religious festivity of la Virgen del Pilar. Since 2009, Peru has celebrated Día de los pueblos originarios y el diálogo intercultural (Indigenous Peoples and Intercultural Dialogue Day). Belize and Uruguay celebrate it as Día de las Américas (Day of the Americas). Giornata Nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo or Festa Nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo is the formal name of Italy‘s celebration as well as in Little Italys around the world.

Celebration of Christopher Columbus’ voyage in the early United States is recorded from as early as 1792. In that year, the Tammany Society in New York City (for whom it became an annual tradition) and the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World.

Many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage, and the first such celebration had already been held in New York City on October 12, 1866. The day was first enshrined as a legal holiday in the United States through the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian, in Denver. The first statewide holiday was proclaimed by Colorado governor Jesse F. McDonald in 1905, and it was made a statutory holiday in 1907.

In 1934, as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, Congress passed a statute stating: “The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation (1) designating October 12 as Columbus Day; (2) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Columbus Day; and (3) inviting the people of the United States to observe Columbus Day, in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies that express the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by making such a proclamation.

The date Columbus arrived in the Americas is celebrated also in some countries of Latin America. The most common name for the celebration in Spanish (including some Latin American communities in the United States) is the Día de la Raza (“day of the race” or the “day of the [Hispanic] people”), commemorating the first encounters of Europeans and the Native Americans. The day was first celebrated in Argentina in 1917, in Venezuela and Colombia in 1921, in Chile in 1922 and in Mexico it was first celebrated in 1928. The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Día de la Hispanidad (“Hispanicity Day”).

In the United States, Día de la Raza has served as a time of mobilization for pan-ethnic Latino activists, particularly since the 1960s. Since then, La Raza has served as a periodic rallying cry for Hispanic activists. The first Hispanic March on Washington occurred on Columbus Day in 1996. The name is used by the largest Hispanic social justice organization in the nation, the National Council of La Raza.

 

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