Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America was celebrated and condemned as scholars, educators, ethnic groups, and the public attempted to interpret the world-altering events of 1492 with historical objectivity and multicultural sensitivity.

Summary of Event

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus stepped off his ship and onto an island in the Caribbean. This encounter between Europe and the Americas launched a chain of events that literally remade the world. October 12, 1992, marked the five hundredth anniversary, or quincentennial, of Columbus’s landing, and the event was commemorated with speeches, parades, protests, and mourning. Columbus was both praised and vilified. Columbus Day (1992) [kw]Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity (Oct. 12, 1992) [kw]Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity, Columbus Day (Oct. 12, 1992) [kw]Cultural Diversity, Columbus Day Debates Reflect (Oct. 12, 1992) [kw]Diversity, Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural (Oct. 12, 1992) Columbus Day (1992) [g]North America;Oct. 12, 1992: Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity[08420] [g]United States;Oct. 12, 1992: Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity[08420] [c]Arts;Oct. 12, 1992: Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity[08420] [c]Literature;Oct. 12, 1992: Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity[08420] [c]Publishing and journalism;Oct. 12, 1992: Columbus Day Debates Reflect Cultural Diversity[08420] Columbus, Christopher Fuentes, Carlos Levenson, Jay Sale, Kirkpatrick Balaguer, Joaquín

Continuing tradition, many cities in the United States held parades, mock ship landings, and fireworks displays to mark the Columbus quincentennial. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution;National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., sponsored an exhibition titled Seeds of Change, Seeds of Change (museum exhibition) which focused on five “seeds” that had been critical to the evolution of the New World: sugar, corn, the potato, the horse, and disease. In New York City, the New-York Historical Society held an exhibit of European art depicting the New World as seen by the Old World. The Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum told the story of Columbus and other early explorers through displays and reenactments.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the Columbus-related exhibitions was Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (art exhibition) a mammoth show mounted by the National Gallery of Art National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show’s chief curator, Jay Levenson, had spent more than three years assembling a massive collection of art from around the world, including works from fifteenth century Japan, China, India, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Some critics alleged that the vast scope of the show revealed an ill-conceived effort to avoid charges of Eurocentrism; in broadening the exhibit’s focus to include art from so many cultures, it was argued, the National had lost sight of the reason for mounting a 1492-centered show in the first place. The renowned Harvard University historian Simon Schama, Schama, Simon for example, criticized Circa 1492 for its “refusal to consider head-on the phenomenon of Columbus himself and the historical experience of his four voyages.” Schama characterized the exhibit as “the blockbuster that lost its nerve” in choosing to act with “a sense of preemptive prudence.”

Other exhibits unequivocally adopted the viewpoint of the conquered. The Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City sponsored events highlighting pre-Columbian cultures. In Virginia, an exhibition at the historic Jamestown settlement portrayed the many “discoverers” of America, including the Paleo-Indians who crossed the Bering Strait.

Many Native Americans Native Americans;Columbus Day mourn on Columbus Day, as contact between Europe and the American continent spelled disaster for their cultures. Diseases such as smallpox decimated Indian populations, and European invaders killed, enslaved, or dispossessed countless indigenous Americans. American Indians thus used the Columbus quincentennial to call attention to past crimes and present inequalities. A group of Choctaws hiked the five-hundred-mile Trail of Tears first walked by the tribe during its forced resettlement from Mississippi to Oklahoma in the 1830’s. In California, the International Indian Treaty Council held a “Five Hundred Years of Indigenous Resistance” concert in San Francisco, and the neighboring city of Berkeley officially changed the holiday’s name to Indigenous Peoples Day. Indigenous Peoples Day In Pasadena, California, the naming of a Columbus descendant as grand marshal of the city’s famous New Year’s Day Rose Parade touched off a dispute that was settled only when an American Indian was named as a co-grand marshal.

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Columbus Day, 1992, was marked by official silence and increased security around Spanish embassies. Many peaceful protests took place, but demonstrators in Mexico City, San Salvador, and Santo Domingo attacked statues, burned tires, and clashed with police. The Pan-American Highway in Ecuador and Colombia was blocked in some places by sit-ins and was closed at one location by a dynamite blast.

Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, had intended to hold an elaborate celebration, including a worldwide television extravaganza hosted by Bob Hope. The plans fizzled, however, in the wake of the controversy caused by President Joaquín Balaguer’s white elephant of a Columbus memorial. The Faro a Colón Faro a Colón (Columbus’s Lighthouse) Columbus’s Lighthouse is ten stories tall and nearly half a mile long. Fifty thousand people were evicted from their homes to make way for the structure, which cost about $70 million to build. A high wall surrounds the Faro, shielding visitors from the sight of an adjacent slum. The lighthouse is designed to project 138 laser beams into the sky in the shape of a cross—in a city that suffers frequent blackouts.

Numerous other Columbus-centered projects were received with varying degrees of controversy. Two major Hollywood films, 1492: Conquest of Paradise 1492: Conquest of Paradise (film)[Fourteen ninety two] and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (film) received generally poor reviews; despite the fact that neither was idolatrous, the works were decried by anti-Columbians. (Marlon Brando, Brando, Marlon who portrayed the notorious inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada in the latter film, insisted that his name be removed from the credits because the finished picture did not depict Columbus as “the true villain he was.”) A public television special narrated by author Carlos Fuentes also stirred controversy; a revival of Cristoforo Colombo, an opera composed for the 1892 anniversary, proved less inflammatory.

The Columbus issue had become such a hot potato that the explorer was, ironically, largely ignored at the 1992 World’s Fair held in Seville, Spain. In concert with the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, the fair was the centerpiece of the “Year of Spain,” a celebration of the country and its history planned to coincide with the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. October 12 had even been chosen as the fair’s closing date, but by then nervous organizers decided to downplay the Columbus connection. One reviewer wrote, “In the end he was an unwanted guest. . . . Whatever his merits, Spain concluded, Columbus should not be allowed to spoil the party.”


The commemoration of a historic event often tells more about the people doing the commemorating than it does about the event itself. The Columbus quincentennial was characterized by increased historical awareness and multicultural sensitivity. What about Columbus Day celebrations of the past? How did Columbus attain the hero status that is now widely believed to be so undeserved?

In the United States, patriotic businessmen were largely responsible for Columbus’s traditional image as a praiseworthy American hero. On October 12, 1792, the Tammany Society, a New York fraternal organization, held the first Columbian commemorative dinner. A symbolic monument representing Columbus’s achievements was placed in the society’s museum. Inspired by the festivities in New York, the Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston honored Columbus with a procession and a poem on October 23. The press praised these events, encouraging other towns to organize celebrations.

Enthusiasm for Columbus as a symbol of progress reached a peak in 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago. Bigger than any previous World’s Fair, the exposition honored American technology, resources, power, and general superiority. Reigning over it all was a noble statue of Columbus, armored and bearing an upraised sword.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed October 12 the official Columbus Day and called on the public to observe the day with ceremonies in schools and churches. Columbus Day, the anniversary of the “discovery” of America, had become a symbol of nationalism and progress and a firmly entrenched American tradition.

The Columbus quincentennial countercelebrations and pluralistic exhibits reflected a changing sensibility in the United States. As the twentieth century drew to a close, ethnic pride and multicultural awareness began to gain ground on Eurocentric domination of U.S. culture. As scholars attempted to paint a more realistic picture of the past, many educators fought to implement programs designed to support, rather than conflict with, minority students’ sense of self. Debate raged between advocates of multicultural curricula and defenders of educational orthodoxy. Hollywood, too, produced a number of high-profile projects about minority groups, including such films as Dances with Wolves (1990) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992). African American filmmakers such as Spike Lee Lee, Spike and John Singleton Singleton, John emerged as among the film industry’s most popular.

When did American society begin to heed the ethnic voice? Columbus’s portrayal over the past century is a benchmark of popular opinion, evidence of a notable shift in attitude over the years. In 1892, Columbus was popularly believed to have been a great hero who had brought civilization to a virgin land. The indigenous people he “discovered” were alternately thought to have been immoral cannibals or noble savages, with childlike minds suitable for Christian conversion. This viewpoint had been espoused by Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, A (Irving) a romanticized version of the explorer’s life that was the first full-length biography of Columbus published in English. Irving portrayed the explorer as courageous, wise, and enterprising, the archetype of an early American hero. This image endured and was accepted even by Native Americans and African Americans.

During the 1892 celebration of Columbus in New York, Indian students marched in the parade and were praised for their “civilized” regimentation. Others rode on horseback wearing war paint and feathers. The prevailing attitude was that Indians had benefited from their “discovery.” The value of indigenous cultures was measured by the contributions of those cultures to the society of their European conquerors.

At the time of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, moreover, legal slavery had been abolished for less than thirty years. Even so, black citizens were enthusiastic about the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Their efforts to be included, to portray African American accomplishments as part of the greatness of the United States, were, however, dismissed at every turn.

By 1992, ethnic groups in the United States had completely rejected the idea that they were entitled to recognition only by riding on Euro-Caucasian coattails. Newspapers and magazines of the day were filled with protestations condemning both Columbus’s cruelties toward the indigenous population and the continued crimes and inequalities perpetrated against American minorities in succeeding centuries. Columbus was charged with everything from genocide to ecological devastation.

The public mudslinging was aided and abetted by revisionist historians who rewrote the past to suit the modern environment. The quincentennial evoked a flood of books that historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., claimed reflected the “end of European domination of the planet . . . the bad conscience of the West and the consequent reexamination of the Western impact on the rest of humanity.” Among the most celebrated—and controversial—of these publications was Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise (1990). Conquest of Paradise, The (Sale) Sale portrayed the pre-Columbian continent as an “Eden of astonishing plenitude” where people lived in “balanced and fruitful harmony” with nature and with one another. Other scholars criticized Sale’s and similar books as exercises in mythmaking that ignored historical realities of pre-Columbian America, such as the institutionalized slavery and ritual murder practiced by the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples.

Although Christopher Columbus did not “discover” the American continent, his arrival there certainly spurred monumental changes. Controversy concerning the impact of Columbus’s landings will doubtless persist far beyond their five hundredth anniversary. The Columbus quincentennial reinvigorated debates concerning the rights and contributions of indigenous peoples and minority groups, both on the American continent and elsewhere. As the twentieth century drew to a close, the renewed interest in non-European cultures seemed likely to bring greater diversity into popular culture for years to come. Columbus Day (1992)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bushman, Claudia L. America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1992. History of American commemoration of Columbus emphasizes the effect that a popular image can have on the shaping of public consciousness. Includes reproductions of many paintings of Columbus, none of which resembles any other.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Miles H. Columbus Then and Now: A Life Reexamined. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. Biography of the explorer also examines the changes in perceptions of Columbus over the last decades of the twentieth century. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Presents a wide-ranging discourse on the significance of Columbus’s journey and its implications for the New World. Published as an outgrowth of the author’s public television series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harjo, Suzan Shown. “I Won’t Be Celebrating Columbus Day.” Newsweek (special issue), Fall/Winter, 1991, 32. A call to arms by the national coordinator of the 1992 Alliance, a coalition of Native American groups. Demands that both church and state act to make restitution for the past and resolutions for the future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krauthammer, Charles. “Hail Columbus, Dead White Male.” Time, May 27, 1991, 74. Presents a cool-headed attack on the politically correct opinions that Columbus was a villain and the indigenous people were noble savages. Briefly describes the totalitarian Incan civilization and justifies its destruction by stating that humankind is better off in the late twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levenson, Jay A., ed. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Scholarly, impressive catalog produced for the massive exhibit of Columbus-era art presented at the National Gallery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schama, Simon. “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus: Circus 1492—Who the Admiral Was, and Who He Wasn’t.” The New Republic, January 6, 1992, 30-40. Penetrating review of the National Gallery’s massive exhibit of Columbus-era art provides a masterful overview of the cultural and artistic debates inspired by the quincentennial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. “Was America a Mistake? Reflections on the Long History of Efforts to Debunk Columbus and His Discovery.” The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1992, 16-30. Comprehensive article by a noted historian debunks the nineteenth century Columbus myth and criticizes twentieth century revisionist overkill. Describes the cruelties of pre-Columbian America and concludes that the Mexican and European civilizations of 1492 were not essentially different in moral terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summerhill, Stephen J., and John Alexander Williams. Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural Politics, and Mythmaking During the Quincentenary. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Two of the organizers of an intended quincentennial celebration of Columbus examine the failure of that effort and discuss the critique of the explorer’s legacy that took place, especially in the United States, Latin America, Spain, and Italy. Includes bibliography and index.

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Categories: History