With the growing unpopularity of Columbus Day (the second Monday of October in the US), this might be the perfect opportunity to review why we celebrate. This statue of Columbus in Barcelona was erected for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 to commemorate his first voyage to America. His statue points seaward from the harbor in Barcelona.
Columbus was Italian, but he sailed under the flag of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They represented the crowns of Castile and Aragon, lands which today make up the northern part of Spain. Modern Barcelona was part of Aragon. Spain itself wouldn’t become a unified country until 1512.
Columbus was seeking a sea route to the East Indies (China and India and the spice islands). Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was charging European traders high fees for those making the dangerous passage to cross by land though the modern day Middle East and Russia or across Egypt to the Red Sea. It was possible but also very treacherous to sail around the horn of Africa. Another sea route would benefit the growing amount of trade between Europe and the East Indies.
At the time of Columbus’s voyage, many educated Europeans thought that the world was round, but they greatly underestimated its size. Columbus believed it was possible to reach the East Indies by sailing west. He first landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, and later would make expeditions to modern day Cuba, Hispaniola Island (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti), parts of Central and South America and other islands in the Antilles. Europeans named this part of the world the West Indies, since it obviously wasn’t the East Indies.
Columbus never realized his goal of finding another route to the East Indies, though his efforts and subsequent European exploration conferred great wealth upon Spain, brought French, English, and Dutch explorers to America, and left a lasting impact on the continents of North and South America, which we celebrate by a day named in his honor. The process of European exploration and colonization, which also involved slavery and subjugation of the indigenous peoples, produced many negative effects that continue to be addressed in national and world politics. Thus this heroic icon is taking on a new and fuller meaning of the process by which our world has developed.