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Celebrating Columbus Day

  • Maggie S. Hogan Contributing Writer
  • 2006 7 Oct
Celebrating Columbus Day

Why did Columbus set sail in 1492?

a.      to prove the earth was round

b.      to discover a sea route to the Spice Islands East Indies

c.      to spread the Gospel

d.      to acquire riches & power

If you answered "B, C, and D" you are correct. If you are like me though, you may remember from grade school being taught that Christopher Columbus also wanted to prove the earth was round. We were told that people back then thought you could "fall off the edge of the earth" if you sailed too far in any direction. However, the truth is that most educated Europeans during that time period already believed it was round. Columbus wanted to sail west to reach the East Indies. The disagreement centered not on the shape but rather on the size of the world. Although Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) had already fairly accurately calculated the Earth's circumference, Columbus (using different measurements) believed it was smaller.

Columbus finally found sponsorship for his expedition from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand from Spain. He asked for and was granted three requests:

1.      one tenth of all the riches he brought back

2.      governorship of all the lands that he visited

3.      the title "Admiral of the Sea"

The Spanish monarchs desired the potential riches and new lands from this voyage. But Queen Isabella, like Columbus, was a devout Catholic and she, too, wanted to see the Gospel spread to other lands. So on April 17, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella signed a contract with Christopher Columbus. They hoped he would return with gold, silver, silk, gems and spices. (Instead, he just brought back a new spice, later named "allspice," as well as chile peppers, corn, and tomatoes.)

So Columbus and his crew began their daring expedition to the Spice Islands. The Moluccas were the original "Spice Islands." They are but a small chain of islands in the north central part of E Indonesia, between Sulawesi (Celebes) and New Guinea. The Moluccas are mountainous, fertile, and humid and are home to nutmeg and cloves.

Use an atlas (a historical atlas will show Columbus's route) and find Spain. Next, find New Guinea. The Moluccas are the group of islands directly west of New Guinea. Columbus set sail from Spain and headed west. Most scholars of the time were certain that Columbus' estimate of the circumference of the earth was much too small. They were right. Columbus would have been in serious trouble had he not hit landfill in the Americas. He and his crew could not possibly have survived a trip all the way to the east coast of Asia!

After his voyages, Columbus wrote a summary account of his voyages as a report for Ferdinand and Isabella which clearly reveals his Christian motivation. The following quotes are from this 1letter:

"The great success of this enterprise is not to be ascribed to my own merits, but to the holy Catholic faith and the piety of our Sovereigns, the Lord often granting to men what they never imagine themselves capable of effecting, as he is accustomed to hear the prayers of his servants and those who love his commandments, even in that which appears impossible; in this manner has it happened to me who have succeeded in an undertaking never before accomplished by man. For although some persons have written or spoken of the existence of these islands, they have all rested their assertions upon conjecture, no one having ever affirmed that he saw them, on which account their existence has been deemed fabulous."

"And now ought the King, Queen, Princes, and all their dominions, as well as the whole of Christians, to give thanks to our Saviour Jesus Christ who has granted us such a victory and great success. Let processions be ordered, let solemn festivals be celebrated, let the temples be filled with boughs and flowers. Let Christ rejoice upon earth as he does in heaven, to witness the coming salvation of so many people, heretofore given over to perdition. Let us rejoice for the exaltation of our faith, as well as for the augmentation of our temporal prosperity, in which not only Spain but all Christendom shall participate. Such are the events which I have described to you with brevity. Adieu."

What is Columbus Day? The first organized recognition to mark the 300th year anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing was in 1792. One hundred years later, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation to mark Columbus Day as an official holiday. President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12 as Columbus Day but in 1971 Congress declared this a federal holiday and set it to fall on the second Monday in October, where it remains today.

The Knights of Columbus (a Catholic men's fraternal benefit society) and Italian-Americans were instrumental in promoting Columbus Day. Over the years, Americans have celebrated this day with school programs, plays, and parades.

More recently, debate has stirred over whether or not this is a day to celebrate. Some people oppose Columbus Day, claiming his achievements are not worthy of a holiday. They view it as a celebration of conquest and genocide by the Spaniards. Historically, we no longer believe that Columbus was the first to discover America although he was the first European to successfully bring European culture and to the Americas.

Discussion Questions

1. Why were spices so important during the 1400s?

2. How is Columbus Day observed in your town?

3. What do you think about the debate over Columbus Day? Do you think it should be observed? Why or why not?

4. How did Columbus differ from a missionary?

Hands-On Time

  • On an outline map of the world draw Columbus' three voyages on it. Use a different color and draw the route Columbus thought he was taking to get to the Spice Islands.
  • Pick 5 or 10 spices from your cabinet. Take off the tops. Close your eyes. Can you identify each spice by smell alone?
  • Use a clay dough to make items representing what Columbus was looking for: spices, gold, converts, glory.
  • Research Columbus's three ships: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Build a replica of one out of Legos™
  • Research the food eaten on the voyages. Then make a meal for your family using a similar menu. (Food on board might include: olive oil, molasses, cheese, honey, raisins, rice, garlic, almonds, hardtack, dried beans, sardines, anchovies, salted meats, flour.)


Useful Websites


1These excerpts and quotes of Columbus are from the work of Las Casas, printed by Albert and Charles Boni, New York, 1924 and were taken from


Maggie and Bob Hogan live in a (formerly) Amish farmhouse in Dover, DE where they began homeschooling their two (now grown) sons in 1991. She is a regular contributor to homeschooling internet sites as well as print magazines like Homeschooling Today and The Old Schoolhouse. They're also owners of Bright Ideas Press. When not reading or writing, Maggie can be found drooling over scrapbooking supplies and book catalogs.


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