October 12, 1492: Christopher Columbus arrives in the Americas.

In early 1492, as the Reconquista came to an end, Christopher Columbus (a native of Genoa, in present-day Italy) was promised by Ferdinand and Isabella the titles of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and governor of any lands he acquired for Spain. He was also promised 10% of any revenue made during his voyage, which was originally an attempt to establish a westward route to the the Indies. Most educated Europeans understood by the 15th century that the Earth was spherical, not flat, but Columbus severely miscalculated the size of the Eurasian landmass and the distance from Europe to Asia. He and his three ships, the Santa Maria, the Niña, and the Pinta, set sail in August of 1492. On October 12, the expedition arrived on an island they called San Salvador, known to the natives as Guanahani; it is still disputed today which exact Bahamian island Columbus first arrived on when he reached the Americas, which he believed were the Indies.

The indigenous people, mostly Arawak, Taíno, and Lucayan, were generally peaceful and engaged in some trade with the Europeans. Of the Taíno, Columbus wrote that they were “very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal… in all the world there can be no better people”. By the early 1500s, the population of Taíno people on Hispaniola had dropped from an estimated 600,000 to under 50,000 because of a combination of factors - famine, enslavement, disease, and massacre by the Europeans. By the end of his first encounter with the natives, Columbus had concluded that they could be both easily Christianized and easily conquered (yet he also described them as “of a very acute intelligence” to King Ferdinand in an early letter). When Columbus returned to the New World in 1493 and 1498, he set up a cruel system of tribute and enslaved a great number of natives, despite the Spanish crown’s insistence that he maintain friendly relations with them. 

Columbus Day was officially instituted in the United States in 1937, although the first celebrations were organized by Italian-Americans in the late 1800s as a celebration of their heritage. Because of Columbus’s controversial legacy in the Americas, the holiday is also highly divisive. South Dakota, with its large population of Native Americans, celebrates the day instead as Native American Day. Some Latin American countries observe the Día de la Raza rather than Columbus Day. The holiday is logically opposed by most Native American organizations, but even the American National Council of Churches called in 1992 for its member churches to refrain from celebrating the holiday, saying “what represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation, and genocide for others”.

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    Generalmente se percibe en la cultura universal el descubrimiento de América como algo bueno, que ciertamente lo fue...
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