Columbus Day and why historians revise

Columbus Day and why historians revise

All history is nuanced, and therefore, all history is revisionism. For many Americans, though, particularly those whose livings aren’t made researching, studying, and teaching about the past, updates to the understanding of an existing historical narrative is often seen as less-than-legitimate. Take, for example, the contemporary wave of scrapping Columbus Day for the honoring of indigenous peoples. Isn’t this cultural phenomenon just another example of political correctness and historical revisionism?

Yes. On both accounts.

Defining terms

Let’s start by understanding that knowledge of the past grows as new information is uncovered, or in the case of Christopher Columbus, his Spanish crews, settlers, soldiers, and those who’d already discovered the Bahamas and Hispaniola, given a voice.

While what’s known about Columbus’ most famous of his four voyages to the New World has been available to researchers for most of the past five centuries, several reasons hindered its distribution throughout those years. I’ll comment only on those most relative to what some still call a controversy.

While nativism likely played some role in Columbus Day only becoming an official federal-holiday in 1934, (there were celebrations in the U.S., usually during centennial years, and including one world’s exposition), the account was almost entirely a celebration of European conquest. That the explorers were Eastern European as well as Catholic was not honorific except in certain immigrant enclaves. Still, public accounts of how the Tainos who resided in the Carribean region explored by Columbus was, at best, overlooked, and most often what I’d call Disneyfied. Again, records attesting to Columbus’ policies of lopping off hands of 14-year-old Tainos who failed to fetch a specified amount of gold for Ferdinand and Isabella existed and were well enough known in academic circles, but these didn’t fit into the hero mythology of Christopher Columbus.

As for the boorishly trite label of political correctness leveled at teaching the past through multiple perspectives of those involved, we need to understand the term political correctness. A Thought Company article attempts this challenge.


The term political correctness describes written or spoken language that’s intentionally phrased to avoid offending or marginalizing groups identified by certain social characteristics, such as race, gendersexual orientation, or ability. Beyond the obvious avoidance of overt slurs, political correctness also includes the avoidance of terms that reinforce preconceived negative stereotypes. The elimination of verbal discrimination is often considered one of the main goals of political correctness.

It’s hard to argue that honoring a man who rewarded other Europeans with Tainos women for the purpose of becoming rape victims is offensive to marginalized groups; you know, indigenous peoples, women, men, decent human beings. By no longer omitting material facts about Columbus’ overt cruelty certainly qualifies as politically correct.

Why historians revise

The nature of the discipline history, the systematic study and scholarly interpretation of past events demands that each generation revisit the account of historic events. It is foolish to accept that each generation is free from its own blind spots, or more accurately, biases and prejudices. For that reason, the study of history must include a healthy dose of revision as these predispositions favoring power are recognized and mitigated.

When teaching new generations about the past, especially generations whose makeup is increasingly more diverse than that of the current and past generations, having a good explanation for why historians revise is essential. Students need to understand that historic revision doesn’t mean changing facts, but rather including once omitted details and perspectives while weeding out even cherished myths.

One of my personal favorites among the many new ways of teaching about the past is the Zinn Education Project. Specific to teaching about Columbus is the activity that puts Columbus and associated practices and persons on trial. The People vs. Columbus, et al has been one of the most engaging lessons I’ve used to tell the full story of European contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

If you happen to have today off from work, (or even if you don’t), I hope you’ll take the time to think about what this day means for more than just Europeans. More to the point, I hope you’ll take the time to think if Columbus’ record really reflects your values.

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