In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Columbus Day has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1937 but was celebrated by the Italian-American community in San Francisco as far back as 1869. Seventy-six years later, the controversy, which has been discussed, protested, satirized, and eternalized in a classic Sopranos scene outside Satriale’s Pork Store (NSFW), continues.
Anyone who has studied American history beyond grade school cannot question the death and destruction that Christopher Columbus brought upon the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola. Nonetheless, the 28-line poem taught to schoolchildren across the United States paints a vastly different picture of a man who is responsible for the near-extermination of an entire population.
This leads to the first of many myths about Christopher Columbus.
1. Columbus discovered America.
This is wrong on many levels.
The indigenous peoples of the Americas inhabited the land well before any European explorer claimed discovery. While many indigenous people hold on to the belief that they rose from the earth, the New World migration model implies that the migration of Paleo-Indians occurred across what is now the Bering Strait. In South America, there is evidence of ancient Polynesian migration across the Pacific. These migrations took place approximately 14,000 years before Columbus laid eyes on a map.
The first explorer of European descent to reach North America was Norse Viking Leif Eriksson, who landed in modern-day Newfoundland around 1000 A.D. Newfoundland was “discovered” once again around 1497 by John Cabot. The English laid claim to the land, paving the way for colonization of the rest of North America. Christopher Columbus never actually set foot on the North American mainland.
When Columbus set sail for Asia, he landed on a Caribbean island, which was later named Hispaniola (currently Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Columbus returned to the “New World” on four separate occasions, taking him further south to parts of Central and South America.
Even though other navigators pointed to Columbus’s now well-known mistake, he continued to hold on to the belief that he landed in Asia and not America until his death.
2. Columbus returned to fanfare in Spain.
The Arawak welcomed Christopher Columbus and his crew to their land. Columbus was impressed by the natives’ peaceful demeanor and strong work ethic. Instead of seeing their humanity, he saw the potential for exploitation and enslaved the Arawak in his gold mines. The Arawak either worked themselves to their death or were mutilated by Columbus’s soldiers. Furthermore, Columbus oversaw the sex trade of young Arawak girls. One of Columbus’s own men, Bartolome De Las Casas, noted, “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.” The depth of his brutality is outlined well in history books, but the 1492 poem glosses over this period with the following lines:
Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.
He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.
In 1500, Columbus was arrested and brought back to Spain where his governorship of Hispaniola was revoked. Nonetheless, the Spanish monarchy provided the funds for a fourth voyage. Gold is gold.
3. Columbus was insignificant.
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.
Columbus set sail for Asia and landed in the Bahamas. This mistake may disqualify him for induction in the Geographers Hall of Fame, but Columbus did contribute to knowledge about trade winds and for better or for worse, initiated a permanent presence of Europeans on the American continent.
Given the facts, should the rest of the United States join South Dakota and Berkeley, California by re-thinking Columbus Day and celebrating Native Americans' Day, or should tradition prevail? Sound off in the comments.
This video is from 2009 and the URL "www.reconsidercolumbusday.org" has now expired.