The year 1492 flows smoothly into “Columbus sailing the ocean blue” but isn’t as easy to rhyme with “He finally got funding because the Spanish had just kicked out all the Jews and Muslims from the Iberian peninsula.” Last week I stood in the throne room where Isabella of Castile, the queen of Spain during this defining time, finalized her deal with Christopher Columbus. This throne room is part of an historic Islamic palace that had recently been conquered by the Spanish army and was just the first step in what would become the global empires of the European nations.
I had never really given much thought to Columbus Day outside of being grateful for the mandatory day off until I started high school and public education finally clued me into the backstory of the holiday. I still hadn’t considered that it would be an international holiday until I realized that I didn’t have class that Wednesday because Spain celebrates “Día de la Hispanidad,” which basically translates to “Day of the Spanishness.” It started off as an unofficial holiday in the 20th century and was called “Day of the Race.” It is actually celebrated in many Latin American countries as well with titles ranging from “The Finding of Two Worlds” to the “Day of Native Resistance”.
The general consensus, in Spain, was that yes, Spain did some bad things but a lot of good came out of it. As is generally the sentiment in Spain, the justification is that at least they were better than the English and the French. This seems to be a fair statement considering the tension that exists between India and Africa and the two countries that colonized them. That tension was not present in the Spanish and South Americans I spoke to. Many of them described “feeling at home” while visiting the other Spanish-speaking part of the world. This could be due to the similar worldview held by Spain and its former colonies while there is a vast disparity in the religion and culture of the other empires.
The negative association Americans have with the arrival of Spain in the New World could be attributed to “La Leyenda Negra” or “The Black Legend.” This is the title the Spanish gave to the defamation of the Spanish Inquisition by the Anglo Saxons. As Spain began to lose its power in the 17th century, the English Empire began to demonize the actions of the Spanish while glorifying their own. The Spanish argue that while atrocities were committed, they weren’t as bad as our English history books would lead us to believe. In their version, some of the first actions of the Spanish were creating dictionaries between the native language and Spanish as well as founding the first university in 1510. There is no feasible way that 300 Spanish men could have conquered the continent without the help and support of at least some of the locals. The Hispanics I have spoken with believe that there were those in power who committed barbarities but that many respected the natives. Queen Isabella was concerned about the wellbeing of the native populations and attempted to enforce the policy that they were Spanish subjects and therefore could not be enslaved.
This brings up two interesting yet unoriginal points. First, history is malleable and can be retold in whichever way is deemed necessary. Second, there is no justification for the U.S. to celebrate Columbus Day. Not only are there an abundance of more worthy causes, but Columbus was neither an ambassador of Great Britain nor instrumental in the discovery of our country. Our nation is a land with a controversial history but we are not alone in that. Every country on Earth has events they would like erased from the books. We cannot change the past but at the very least we can stop glorifying an event that isn’t even relevant to our history. We would be far better off to celebrate like the Argentinians with the “Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity.” We are a diverse nation. Let’s celebrate that.