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Today is Columbus Day

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Today is a federal and state holiday honoring Christopher Columbus who discovered “the new world.” Columbus was born on Oct. 31, 1451.

On Oct. 12, 1492, the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, landed on a small island in the Caribbean. Columbus was on a mission for the new unified kingdom of Spain to reach India by sailing west.

Most astronomers at the time already understood that the world was round, and by that time, both European and Muslim mathematicians had correctly calculated the circumference of the globe. On such a large Earth, there was no way that one could sail west across such a vast expanse of ocean and get to India and China. A Florentine astronomer, Paolo Dal Pozzo Tusconelli, rejected the large earth theory and believed the world was small enough that by sailing due west, one could reach India and the profitable spice trade there. In 1470, he proposed the westward route to the Portugese monarch Henry ‘the Navigator,’ who rejected that mission. Tusconelli, however, did convince Columbus that his theory was correct.

The Portugese were then in the process of exploring and navigating the African coast to find a sea route to India. Columbus proposed that they send three ships west to India. Shortly after that, the Portugese discovered that indeed Africa could be rounded and that a sea route existed to Asia by rounding Africa, while Columbus was at the Portugese Court. Vasco De Gama would accomplish this mission in 1498. The Portugese rejected the Columbus proposal. Columbus then took his proposal to the two Spanish monarchs.

Ferdinand was King of Aragon and Isabella, the Queen of Castile. Their marriage established the basis for Spain becoming one kingdom for the first time in centuries.  The duo successfully conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada in a ten year war ending in victory in 1492, with the fall of the City of Granada. Christian Spaniards had been fighting the Reconquista on and off for centuries following the Muslim conquest of most of Visigoth Spain in 711.

Three months after the fall of Granada, the Spanish monarchs agreed to fund the Columbus mission. Columbus set sail with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Ferdinand and Isabella promised to make Columbus an admiral if he succeeded, as well as governor and viceroy of the new territories he discovered. The flagship, Santa Maria, had 52 men on board, while the two smaller ships only had 18 each.

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Columbus was wrong about the size of the Earth. If there was just one super ocean between China and Europe, Columbus and his crew would have run out of food and water long before sighting Asia; but what they likely didn’t know – Leif Erickson actually landed in North American in 999; but that knowledge had faded into Norse legend by the fifteenth century – was that there were two continents much closer to Europe than anyone suspected. Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas. He named it San Salvador and claimed it for Spain.

Columbus erroneously thought that he was in Asia, so he called the Native Americans that he found, Indians, and the islands that he explored, the West Indies.

Columbus voyaged back and forth between his “Indies” and Spain four times between 1492 and 1503. He landed on the coast of South America, explored the coast of central America, discovered Santo Domingo and Cuba. He always rejected the argument that he had discovered something other than the west coast of Asia. Columbus and the men under his command did enslave, murder and abuse the “Indians” in their newly conquered territories. How much of this was actually Columbus’s doing, and how much was the responsibility of the men he entrusted to govern his conquests, is still debated by historians; but it proved to be his undoing. Horrified by the excesses and reports of brutality, and perhaps eager to sever contracts that had promised Columbus ten percent of all the revenue of the new territories, Columbus was arrested and stripped of his titles by the crown.

The lands that he discovered were named for navigator America Vespucci, who charted the new continents, rather than for Columbus. Columbus has traditionally been celebrated in the United States as the “discoverer” of the Americas.

The first Columbus Day celebration took place on the 300th anniversary of his arrival, in 1792. Columbus Day celebrations grew in popularity over the decades that followed, especially in Italian American and other Catholic immigrant communities, where Columbus was regarded as a symbol of what it meant to be both Catholic and American. A federal holiday was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) in 1937.

(World Books and Wikipedia were referenced in the writing of this article.)

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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