During the past year — my first as an American citizen — I have learned about a whole new set of public holidays.
First, a “holiday” in England equates to a “vacation” in America. A “bank holiday” (a day the banks are closed) is known in America as a “public holiday” or just plain “holiday.” Sound confusing? Try explaining that and my sometimes-complicated travel plans to my dear 85-year-old auntie who has lived her whole life in a small town in the north of England.
Columbus Day, which is just around the corner, is uniquely American. As every school child knows, it celebrates the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the new world while searching for a western sea route to Asia.
Of course, Columbus was a great explorer, but let us not forget that his journey, backed by the Spanish monarchs, was motivated by the desire for wealth. Specifically, he was instructed to find a swifter route to access (some would say exploit) the riches of China and India — especially the gold and highly valued spices of the region.
When reading about Columbus — www.history.com is very illuminating — I stumbled across these lesser known facts. Did you know:
• Unlike in earlier generations, by the late 15th century most educated Europeans understood that the world was round rather than flat. However, they did not know about the existence of the Pacific Ocean and assumed that only the Atlantic lay between Europe and the East Indies.
• Columbus and his men first landed in the Bahamas, but then when they saw Cuba, they believed it was mainland China and that Hispaniola (which now is the Dominican Republic and Haiti) was Japan.
• In 1493, Columbus returned to Spain with gold, spices and “Indian” (Native American) captives, but by his third journey to the new world in 1506, he realized that he actually had found a completely different continent — the Americas.
• It is more politically correct to say that Columbus “encountered” the Americas as they already were inhabited by Native Americans. In fact, the Vikings from Scandinavia had landed on American soil five centuries earlier.
• It wasn’t until the American Revolution that Columbus began to assume heroic status. Since British colonization, the North American settlers generally had considered Britain to be their home, and the British tend to focus on the achievements of John Cabot. He was Italian born, settled in England and was supported by the English King, Henry VII, to explore the oceans and discovered what now is Canada. War with the British, however, meant that the Colonists began to search for heroes who downplayed the role of the British and unified Americans. Columbus, a brave and progressive colonizer, appeared to fit the bill.
• The name “Columbia” was bestowed upon a number of towns, cities and geographical landmarks to honor Columbus, including the capital city of South Carolina and the Columbia River. In 1812, the Ohio state legislature named its new capital city Columbus, and many other American towns and villages share this name. Columbia also became the name of NASA’s first space shuttle.
• Columbus actually was Italian, so for many the holiday is a way of honoring both his achievements and the strong Italian-American heritage in the United States. New York and San Francisco both have distinctive festivals that celebrate Italian food, costumes and music.
• Some people have opposed the celebration of Columbus — in the 19th century because of its association with Catholicism, and in recent years because of the decimation brought to Native Americans by European settlers through disease and warfare. Some American cities and states, in a drive towards political correctness, have replaced Columbus Day with alternatives such as South Dakota’s Native American Day and Hawaii’s Discoverer’s Day.
As a history major at university (how that led to a career in public relations and journalism is another story ...), I find Columbus’ journey extremely interesting. What if Columbus had not stumbled onto North America? How different would our country and our world look had a British, French or Dutch explorer found these shores first? Just how scary and difficult was this journey?
To share a personal observation, whenever I had a bad day or wavered or questioned my own journey to emigrate here from London four years ago — which, of course, was very modern and cosseted by comparison to 500 years ago — I always kept in mind my favorite Columbus quote: “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.