In Colombia and other Latin American countries October 12th is Dia De La Raza, literally ‘day of the races’ or the day of ethnicities. It’s a remembrance of the heritage, colonization, and cultural diversity of Latin America. For the indigenous peoples of Colombia the term ‘Columbus’ refers not to a man but to an event, the brutal conquest of the land and the people by the Spanish conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Cristoforo Colombo (Cristóbal Colón as he was known when sailing for Spain) never set foot on the continent of North America, nor did he set foot on land in Colombia, the country that would be named after him. His four voyages took him mostly to the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. He only touched the American continent in what are now Venezuela, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. The name Colombia was originally a broad geographical term referring to all of the so-called New World, then in the early 1800s applied more specifically to the original Republic of Colombia, a confederation of Spanish territories that included modern-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and northwest Brazil, and which at one time was named the United States of Colombia!

The original Republic of Colombia won its independence from Spain in 1819 and adopted their first constitution in 1821, making Colombia the first constitutional government in South America. Venezuela split off from the republic in 1829, followed by Ecuador in 1830. Panama became a separate nation in 1906 when the United States bought it from Colombia as a future site for the canal. After a two-year civil war in 1863, the “United States of Colombia” was created, lasting until 1886, when the country finally became known as the Republic of Colombia.

Illustration:  “Columbus Landing at Guanahani” by American artist John Vanderlyn (1837-47), which was commissioned by the United States Congress in June 1836 for the Capitol Rotunda.