In a recent Herald poll, more than two-thirds of undergraduates supported the changing the name of Columbus Day. Heeding students’ interests, Brown faculty voted to ensure that next year’s holiday will indeed be called “Fall Weekend,” killing Columbus Day for good.
By denying Christopher Columbus’ historical significance, the University appeared fundamentally un-American.
I am not arguing that Columbus was a saint, or the first explorer to arrive in the Americas. Columbus’ significance derives from the series of events that transpired after his arrival that ultimately led to the creation of our country.
Columbus’ arrival in the “New World,” preceded the importation to Europe of diet-changing items such as corn, chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes and various peppers and spices. Tobacco also became a significant import.
The trade patterns that developed after Columbus’ arrival changed the West forever. The Americas received new imports from Europe including chickens, goats, horses, oxen, cattle, donkeys, sheep, coffee, rice, bananas, sugarcane, wheat and barley.
Columbus’ voyage paved the way for Europeans to establish permanent settlements and trade routes linking Europe to the New World. He is important because of the course of events following his arrival that led to the creation of our own country — by renaming the holiday, the University denied his historical significance.
I can understand why Native American activists still shun Columbus. In addition to tomatoes and corn, Europeans brought smallpox along with a host of other lethal, infectious diseases, albeit unintentionally.
While Columbus’ interactions with Native Americans do not reflect well on him, they also do not justify ending his holiday.
Native American advocacy groups claim to support increased awareness of past tragedies. With Columbus Day replaced by the rather neutral “Fall Weekend,” Native American advocates eliminated all possibility of spreading awareness about Columbus’ regrettable actions.
This may mark the last year of vibrant intellectual debate about Columbus’ accomplishments and misdeeds. Next year, students will have little reason to engage in discussion about Columbus.
The University would have done better to observe Columbus Day without celebrating Columbus. By preserving the holiday’s name, Native American groups could have furthered their cause by passing out literature detailing Columbus’ voyage, spreading information, bringing speakers and stimulating campus discussion.
We wouldn’t stop celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day if the allegations about his marital infidelity were established as true. Various religious wars throughout history do not justify renaming Christmas either. And if veterans have killed enemy combatants in war, I hope that Brown’s activist population does not protest to rename Veteran’s Day.
The bottom line is that most holidays do not have to be celebratory in nature; they can be bittersweet (as most popular ones tend to be). If we disregarded significant historical figures over their flaws, we couldn’t recognize the achievements of Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves, or even Mahatma Gandhi, who abused his family. By eliminating Columbus Day, Native American relinquished their most valuable opportunity to spread awareness for their cause. Good luck next year.
Anish Mitra ’10 is an economics concentrator from New York City.