Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day - A Farce of History

It's long overdue that I reveal some thoughts about Christopher Columbus, a hack of a sailor, a lucky man and a brutal taskmaster in his "new" discovery.

Just for background. Before I was an English nerd, I was and still am a history buff. I love history because not only it is cool/important to know about the past, we must know how it affects the present. Let's discuss the fine Italian and his worth, shall we?

"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1493, Columbus stole all he could see."

By now, there's enough info to show that Columbus didn't discover the USA or even North America. He accidentally saw his ships run into Latin America and discovered something that natives had settled on long ago. He only discovered something unknown to the modern world while he was trying to find India. Who knew there'd be some land in between Europe and Asia??

From "Lies My Teacher Told Me" - a sample of what Columbus actually discovered and shared with the modern world upon meeting the Arawaks.
See Christopher was at first pleased to see such a civilized country full of "well-built" folks called Arawaks who were "of quick intelligence" with very good customs (his exact words in quotes). The late Howard Zinn writes that he was amazed at their willingness to share and made the Europeans salivate with dreams of gold. Of course, when he decided to rape, pillage and enslave those areas - those kind natives became "cruel" and "stupid" and radically different from the good Spanish folks he represented.

Get Rich and Kill Anyone In Your Way. That philosophy sound familiar? Arawak Indians versus some of the best trained soldiers in the world. You do the math.

Of course, this would show a generation of European explorers how to deal with natives in the future. Cortes and Pizarro owe Columbus a debt of gratitude for giving them the blueprint on destroying the Aztec and Inca empires respectively. Jamestown and Plymouth followed suit in 1607 and 1620. And this is a man worth celebrating?
(The First Italian and the First Latin American Gangster - Westside!!!!!)

It's no surprise Columbus and others are not celebrated in the lands they discovered. All through school we heard how heroic these men were when in fact, they were lionized to cover up their shameful dirt. Only recently through research like a "People's History of the United States" and "Lies My Teacher Told Me" have we learned about these tribes who saw their lives uprooted and forgotten.

And there is that small matter of this guy named Leif Ericson. You know that character we barely heard about as a prelude to get to the eventual Columbus story. There's more evidence he actually landed in North America and if you live in a lucky state, you actually celebrate his day on October 9. Tough break, Leif - you were just born in an era with no technology besides oral stories, even if its more relevant than Columbus' myth.

(Sorry Leif, no cool paintings of you exist. But you look pretty mad here and that proves my point. I'd be mad too forgotten if history made me a footnote for reaching Canada.)

By the way, there's also some cool theories of others seeing North America before Ericson or Columbus. Instead of just retelling what Columbus didn't do, how about we explore the possible theories of who got to America - oh that's right, it's not neat and pretty.

So what did Columbus do? He came at the right time (a.k.a. getting lucky) and exposed Europe to the New World at the height of European exploration, technological advances like bookkeeping and the printing press and the European Renaissance. Shakespeare's "The Tempest" also captures this New World fascination with the character of Caliban - a native who says some of the most heartfelt lines in the play.

He also indirectly initiated the slave trade and paved the way for legions of natives to be enslaved, stripped of their wealth and sent to a foreign country. Europe would follow this strategy in Africa 150 years later. Thank you Christopher, you're a real pioneer with foresight. A regular Willie Lynch if you will (another myth by the way).

(What? You really thought I was a hero? Y'all can't even get the right picture of me so how surprised can I be that y'all got my stories wrong. )

Who do we blame for this myth? Why it's that's fine storyteller himself Washington Irving. The same man behind Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle wrote a biography on Columbus in 1828 - it became the most popular story of the man for 100 years and shaped legions of history books.

Give Irving credit for his skill and his prose - lies usually are appealing because of how they're dressed up. Besides we see how long "Sleepy Hollow" has been fascinating us. Why shouldn't his myth last just as long?

Shout out to the REAL explorers who discovered something worthwhile. Leif Ericson and his Vikings. Amerigo Vespucci. Vasco Nunez de Balboa (the first European to cross America and see the Pacific Ocean). Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (the 1st to navigate the California coast). Also shouts to Bartolome de las Casas who saw the error of his ways and became a staunch defender of the natives in literature as actual people and informed many of the cruel treatment of his contemporaries.

Men like Columbus and Cortes chased a dream and ended up ruining reality for those already there as well as people today who glorify their names like they were noble.

(The Pride of Genoa - looking meatier than their famed salami)

So today, we celebrate Columbus Day - a chance to destroy another American myth and bring in some reality. Make today one of re-education, not continuing mis-education. Read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "A People's History of the United States." History's job isn't to just destroy mythology, it's to add facts to make it reality instead of fiction.


  1. Great post about Columbus Man! Interesting that we celebrate a man who fraudulently stole the customs & traditions of native people already on the land. Also, we do not highlight or celebrate in any way the people who settled the land first, the way they invented ways of agriculture, how they lived their daily lives. These are the people we should be celebrating not a sailor who fell into North & South America.

  2. Funny story. I was off to retrieve a package at the university post office yesterday when I found the door locked with a "Out on Columbus Day" poster stuck on. Who does that?

    I feel like the day should just inaugurate the arrival of europeans in North America instead and not mention any names. It's important historically, but wrong to glorify only one man, and such a ruthless one at that. A farce of history is a good expression of the custom.