On October 8, 2012, Americans solemnly celebrated Columbus Day, marked by parades and pageantry, and mugs of fake red blood splashed on namesake statues.
A few activists consider this day as a “day of celebration of genocide. ” However, most of these protesters are unaware that the customary holiday they are protesting against previously performed an invaluable function in shaping a nation of people capable of being attentive to their issues.
Even today, Christopher Columbus is a compelling icon of American nationalism His name, transposed as Columbia, evolved into a historical and poetic term for the female embodiment of the United States of America. The American people situated their capital in the District of Columbia and adopted “Hail, Columbia!” as their unofficial anthem.
The Italian immigrants who arrived in thousands, in the later part of the nineteenth century, noticed the reverence paid to their celebrated countryman. However, they faced levels of hostility and discrimination based mainly on views that they displayed ignorance, lethargic or adverse to labor interests, and often portrayed as crude, hostile, and inassimilable into the American society, and subjected to abuse on account of their Catholicism. Several American nativists deemed Italians racially mediocre – the disparity being visible by their swarthy skins.
In 1891, New Orleans witnessed a terribly violent occasion, the lynching of 11 Italians – the largest mass lynching in American history. It provoked an international crisis. An editorial in the New York Times declared the Sicilians “a pest without mitigation.” It also asserted, “our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they.”
The animosity towards the Italians prompted many nativists to reject Columbus and search for a racially acceptable discoverer of the New World. They found him in a Viking explorer known as Leif Erikson, believed to be the first recorded Nordic person to have visited the area that is now the United States, Baffin Island and Labrador around 1000 CE. The Norwegian immigrants eager to find acceptance of their own promoted the exploits of the Viking explorer recorded in the Icelandic sagas.
American nativists went crazy. Artifacts purported to be of Viking origin were duly unearthed, and Viking motifs began to ornament architectural structures. The renowned Harvard chemist Eben Norton Horsford in his “Discovery of America by Northmen: Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of Leif Eriksen, Delivered in Faneuil Hall, Oct. 29, 1887” claimed for the Norsemen “the honor of having discovered America, five hundred years before Columbus.” He concluded that Leif Erikson had made landfall in Cambridge.
In 1887, a committee of assorted worthies, comprising Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Charles W. Eliot raised funds to erect a statue of Leif Erikson in the midst of the stately residences of Boston’s Back Bay.
Today, October 9, United States observe Leif Erikson Day, which does not associate with any event in his life. On October 9, 1825, the small Norwegian sloop “Resturasjonen,” often called the “Norwegian Mayflower,” arrived in New York with 52 emigrants from Stavanger, Norway. On this day onward began, the organized immigration from Scandinavia to the United States.
The campaign for Leiff Erikson routinely crossed over into an explicit denigration of Catholics and impugning Columbus. It seemed “necessary for the truth, as to the discovery of America, to be established immediately” an endorser of Norse precedence expressed lest accepting the claims of Columbus would steer Americans to “yield to the foulest tyrant the world has ever had, the Roman Catholic power!”
After all, if America did not acknowledge its existence to an Italian Catholic, then there would be no need to accept his immigrant compatriots.
Historian Joanne Mancini says, “At a moment of increasing fear that the nation was committing race suicide, the thought of Viking ghosts roaming the streets of a city increasingly filled with Irish, Italian, and Jewish hordes must have been comforting to an Anglo-Saxon elite.”
Such attacks certainly enjoyed a support for some time, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the anti-Catholic bigotry waned off. Leaders of the establishment promote a Columbus stripped of his ethnic and religious characteristics, as an icon for patriotic veneration.
Francis Julius Bellamy, Author, editor, and Baptist minister hit upon the idea of a national celebration of Columbus Day in the schools to mark the anniversary, “to assimilate these children to an American standard of life and ideas.”
For the indigenous American Indians, Columbus Day is a “celebration” of survival.
Diana King, a member of the White Earth Indian Nation in northern Minnesota and a teacher in the school system there says, “Columbus Day is a chance to teach about who we once were, what has become of us since Europeans arrived on our shores, and who we are today — a struggling but surviving people… I want teachers to teach more about Indian civilization just like they do with Egyptian or European history,”
“Our history did not begin with Christopher Columbus,” she added.
On October 14, 2013, Americans will celebrate the next Columbus Day.
- How Columbus Day fell victim to its own success… (theatlantic.com)
- Leif Erikson today (ballardnewstribune.com)
- What’s wrong with Columbus Day? (syracuse.com)
- 1891 New Orleans prejudice and discrimination results in lynching of 11 Italians, the largest mass lynching in United States history. (niaf.org)
- The Norwegian Sloop “Restoration” (http://www.wheelerfolk.org/sloop.htm