Sunday, October 07, 2012


Were you aware that there is a movement to rename Columbus Day "Exploration Day"? It's true: a general celebration of exploration, rather than the glorification of just one man.
First celebrated nationally in 1937, Columbus Day pays homage to Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas. It is, needless to say, viewed very differently by different groups of Americans. Some people forget it's a holiday at all. Some Italian Americans see it as a point of cultural pride. Other people — especially Native Americans — point out that Columbus personally oversaw the murder and enslavement of thousands and see the holiday as an intrinsically cruel celebration of the beginning of a massive genocide and generations of oppression.
Christopher Columbus, much like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson after him, is a widely mythologized figure, remembered in song and story for having discovered America, thereby proving once and for all that the world was round.

Thanks to the miracle of the American educational system, that's pretty much all most Americans know about the story. It also happens to be complete crap.

First of all (and this argument is actually known by most Americans), how could he have "discovered" America when the Native Americans were already there? Or when the Vikings were in Greenland, and possibly points south, from the tenth century through the mid-fifteenth century?

(There's also the theory that Chinese Admiral Zheng He discovered America in 1421, but that's been mostly debunked - Zheng He [a.k.a. "Cheng Ho"] stuck primarily to known trade routes, and visited India, the Middle East and Africa, the islands around them, and some various stops in Asia.)

On top of which, the people of Europe were well aware that the world was round: Aristotle had proven that in the 4th Century BC.

You might also think that Queen Isabella of Spain gave him her jewels to fund the trip: actually, she turned him down. It was King Ferdinand who overruled her and paid for half the expedition; the other half was financed by Italian investors who Columbus had lined up.

What were the names of his ships? The Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, right? Well, that's not even entirely accurate: the Santa Clara was nicknamed Niña ("Girl") because her owner was named Juan Nino of Moguer.

A lot of the mythology comes from Washington Irving, who, in 1828, wrote "A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which actual scholars have called "fanciful and sentimental." (Really? The guy who wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" might have an active imagination?)

Columbus never set foot in North America: after his first voyage (he had four), he was named Viceroy and Governor of the Indies (which as far as he was concerned, was mostly Hispaniola), and he poked around in the adjoining islands, which included Cuba; his third voyage touched down briefly on the north-east corner of South America, and on his fourth voyage, he actually explored part of the Central American coast.

But he wasn't a particularly good or moral man. He tortured, killed and enslaved the local people; when the native Taino people of Hispaniola revolted at their treatment and killed the men left there as a colony from the first expedition, Columbus demanded a quarterly tribute in gold and cotton. Anyone over the age of 14 who didn't deliver had their hands cut off and was left to bleed to death.

He and his men frequently kidnapped and raped the native women. One of Columbus' childhood friends, Michele da Cuneo, wrote about one such incident this way:
While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked - as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But - to cut a long story short - I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.
After his third voyage, some of his sailors revolted, claiming he'd lied to them about the wealth they'd be able to find in the New World (which, by the way, Columbus was still saying was the Orient); that, plus continued reports of his treatment of the natives, caused the Spanish Crown to order his arrest and return to Spain.

He only spent six weeks in prison before the crown ordered his release; after all, he'd paid back his debt, and more, in gold and slaves. He was allowed to make one more expedition, with the Santa Maria and three smaller ships. All four were destroyed, and Columbus and his men were stranded on Jamaica for a year before they were rescued. (The new governor on Hispaniola hated Columbus, and refused to allow any of his ships to rescue them.)

He returned to Spain, where he lived out his last two years of life. He tried to get the Spanish Crown to pay him 10% of all profits from the New World, as they'd agreed before his first voyage, but since he'd been relieved of his duties as governor, Spain didn't feel they needed to pay him. (The lawsuits filed by his heirs because of this lasted through the end of the 18th century.)

So Columbus opened the Americas to European settlement, and made Spain the preeminent power in the area for many years; he also managed to bring one other thing back, along with gold and slaves: he introduced syphilis to Europe. The initial outbreak is thought to have killed more than five million Europeans.

1 comment:

Murr Brewster said...

I'd just say that even though it had been proven over and over that the world was round (the Phoenicians and other seagoing sorts knew it well), it doesn't mean it was known in Europe in 1492. I do believe we are seeing it demonstrated here and now that we can re-ignorant ourselves almost indefinitely.