LXVII: Mythbust Monday — The Columbus Special

If you’re from the delightful continent of North America like me, you probably grew up revering a fellow named Christopher Columbus, who has an entire holiday dedicated to him one week from today.  There’s even a little song that goes something like this, although most of us only know the chorus: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”.

Unfortunately, most of what primary schools teach us about Christopher Columbus is utter rubbish; therefore, in celebration of the most undeserved holiday ever celebrated, I present to you, in no particular order, all the myths I was ever taught about Christopher Columbus.

1) His name was Christopher Columbus. In the language of the region of his birth, his name is Christoffa Corombo. It was italicized, spanishized, latinized, and anglicized into the name we recognize.

2) He was Spanish. Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa, now part of Italy. Spain as we know it did not exist until 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs reconquered Granada. These same Spanish rulers funded Columbus’ expedition even though he was foreign, leading to confusion about what country Columbus was from.

3) He discovered the Americas. First of all, there were already about 90 million people living in the Americas by the time Columbus got there. And even then, the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas were the Vikings nearly 500 years earlier. Columbus simply began the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

4) Columbus was trying to prove that the world was round, or he was looking for an undiscovered continent. By the 15th century, it was common knowledge among the educated citizens of Europe that the Earth was round. The Greeks had proved it mathematically in the 4th century B.C. In fact, the circumference of the Earth had been calculated correctly in the 3rd century B.C. What Western Europeans didn’t know was that there was an entire continent on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. They thought it was just a massive expanse of water that eventually reached Asia. Columbus believed the “Ocean Sea” was about 7,000 miles narrower than it actually is, and literally every educated person in Europe new he was wrong and thought he was nuts. The Spanish royalty tossed a relatively small amount of money his way just for the heck of it to let him try to prove that it was easier to sail due west to China than to sail around Africa. The Americas just happened to get in his way.

5) Upon landing in the Bahamas, Columbus thought he was in India, hence the terms “Indies” and “Indians”. Columbus was not interested in India in the slightest. He was looking for an easier trade route to China, which he called Cathay. He was also hoping to find Japan (he called it Cipangu) which he believed was a very large, pear-shaped island located roughly where the Yucatan Peninsula actually lies. He initially believed he had reached some islands off the coast of Japan, but very quickly realized he was in a completely unknown land. “The Indies” was the European term used for the collection of hundreds of islands in Southeast Asia, so that name got attached to this newly discovered collection of islands as well, becoming the West Indies to distinguish from the East Indies.

6) His ships were called the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. It was traditional for Spanish ships of the day to bear the names of female saints and be given shorter nicknames. La Pinta was the nickname of one of Columbus’ ships, a caravel, probably because it was painted in a unique way (La Pinta means “The Painted One”), but its original name is unknown. He had a second caravel called Santa Clara but nicknamed La Niña after its owner, Juan Niño de Moguer. The third ship, a large carrack that functioned as the flagship, was called Gallega but was renamed La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción for Columbus’ expedition — Santa María for short. During the first voyage, the Santa María ran aground and had to be abandoned. Columbus used a variety of ships for his other expeditions, taking 17 ships for his second voyage, 6 for his third, and 4 for his fourth.

7) Columbus never set foot on the mainland. A lot of people like to bounce around the “fun fact” that Columbus never actually reached America. However, those people are assuming that the term “America” refers to the United States of America rather than the mainlands of North and South America. Columbus did in fact reach the mainland, exploring Venezuela during his third voyage and Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama for most of his fourth voyage before spending an entire year hopelessly lost in Jamaica.

8) Columbus was a hero back in Europe. Turns out most of Europe thought Columbus was a jerk. The people back home (or at least the king and queen of Spain) were enjoying all the gold and new converts to Christianity, but they soon found out that he was doing nasty and tyrannical things like cutting off people’s noses, feeding living and dead natives to dogs, turning 9- and 10-year-old native girls into sex slaves, forcing the natives to provide unattainable quantities of gold every three months on pain of having their hands up off and tied around their necks while they bled to death from their severed wrists, and decreasing the native population of Hispaniola from 3.1 million to only 60,000 in just 14 years. Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well, and Columbus had his governorship stripped and was dragged back to Spain in chains. Suffering from a variety of medical conditions as a result of his travels, he rotted in jail with his brothers for a few weeks before being allowed to beg forgiveness from King Ferdinand, who eventually pardoned him and, after much persuasion, agreed to finance one last voyage on the condition that Columbus would never hold any political power or receive any profits from the New World ever again.

So there you have it, the truth about everything you thought you knew about Christopher Columbus (or should I say Christoffa Colombo?). His record got pretty decently scrubbed after his death, partly by his son, the new governor of Hispaniola, and partly by the rulers of Spain, who did have to give credit to Columbus for helping them get crazy rich. Personally, I think the whole concept of Columbus Day is hogwash. He was kind of a nasty gent, and nasty gents just shouldn’t get holidays.

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