Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Columbus Day Lie

Many Americans learned in school that October 12 is 'Columbus Day.' That day has long been celebrated as the day Christopher Columbus discovered America, when in reality, he did no such thing. October 12 is more accurately known as the day Columbus and his men landed on an island in the Caribbean Sea, mistakenly believing he was in the East Indies, and Asia.

Our teachers taught us a lie all those years ago. Renaming this holiday to something like 'Indigenous People's Day' would go a long way toward acknowledging a series of historical wrongs.

Columbus spent several years lobbying Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish monarchs to fund an expedition westward to Asia. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain finally agreed in January 1492 to give him money, three fine ships, and eighty-some men. Cristoforo Colombo, aka Christopher Columbus, soon to be famous Italian explorer for the wrong reasons, set off westward across the Atlantic, bound for the East Indies and Asia.

After a short layover in the Canary Islands they set sail again, and five weeks later spotted land – as mentioned, Asia. Okay, well, not exactly Asia. In fact, they weren't even close to Asia. But Columbus and his men didn't know that, at least right away. No, by the navigational and geographical means and knowledge available at the time, (which is to say, pretty much guess and check compared to modern 21st Century methods) Columbus assumed he had travelled far enough to reach the East Indies.

When he landed and encountered people already living there – the indigenous people – he called them Indians, of course. Because he was in the East Indies. Wrong, but no one in the area could have told him that, so he triumphantly waded ashore, convinced he was right. Had the native people known the trouble these strange men from the sea would cause, they might not have given them so friendly a welcome on their now formerly idyllic island.

Columbus' next action, in typically presumptuous European fashion, was to claim the land in the name God and the King and Queen of Spain. Again, the indigenous people probably had no clue what he was doing, and they were ill-equipped to fend off an armed invasion. They were innocent bystanders, about to be swept up in the latest round of European colonialism.

To be historically accurate, Columbus' first landfall was on the island he named San Salvador, in what is now known as the Bahamas. The record indicates that in later years it became obvious to many familiar with the situation, that Columbus had not landed in Asia, but on a previously unknown group of islands near two previously unknown vast continents (North and South America, of course.) The record further suggests that although many others knew Columbus had failed to reach Asia, the famous explorer himself refused to acknowledge his mistake.

Hundreds of years later, school children all over the United States would be taught the Columbus Day lie. Many of those children would not discover the truth until decades later, and it is possible that many of those people still don't know that what they were taught was wrong. The perpetuation of the Columbus Day myth does not help.

It came as a shock to me when I learned years later that not only had Columbus not touched, nor did he even see any part of the mainland of what is now the U.S., he wasn't even the first European to reach the Americas. The reality is that Norse explorer Leif Erikson visited the mainland of what would later be named North America some 400 years before Columbus took his first steps as a toddler in Genoa. It is possible that others we don't know about made similar voyages and discoveries.

The problem is not so much that Columbus made a mistake - navigating unfamiliar territory more than 500 years ago was not for the faint of heart, nor was it an exact science. It's that he apparently refused to admit the mistake in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

Further clouding the so-called legend of Columbus, and again, something that many of us did not learn until years after being lied to in school, concerns his behavior as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies - the West Indies, of course. According to accounts of the time, his methods of governing proved disastrous. Allegations by European witnesses of torture, mass killings, slavery, mutilation, and generally cruel treatment of native people led eventually to Columbus' replacement, arrest and imprisonment upon his return to Spain. Although he was later released and his fortunes returned to him, his reputation took a severe hit, not only for his failure to admit the navigational and geographical errors, but his criminal ineptitude as Governor.

Columbus' name should be removed from the American holiday celebrated on October 12. It is time to acknowledge the mistake, and stop perpetuating the Columbus Day lie. Rename this holiday 'Indigenous People's Day', and celebrate something worth remembering - the legacy of the New World's native peoples, who were here long before any European stumbled on these shores.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'Twisted Logic: 50 Edgy Flash Fiction Stories', 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'. His books are available in paperback and e-book.

He also writes about sports for Season Tickets, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

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