“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.
A compass also helped him know
How to find the way to go…”
(excerpt from teaching poem about Christopher Columbus)
Most elementary school students are familiar with this poem, which is supposed to teach them about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America. The words are attributed to Winifred Sackville Stoner Jr., a 17-year-old “prodigy”, who penned the poem, called “The History of the U.S.”, in 1919. ( There is some controversy as to whether the first line was original, or copied from an earlier text, but that’s irrelevant.)
Columbus Day has been celebrated in the United States since the early 18th century, but did not officially become a federal holiday until 1937. The holiday is supposed to commemorate the discovery of America on October 12th, 1492. Children all over the world have been taught the “facts” about Columbus’s famous voyage. However, most of those facts are fabrications.
For example, here is a Columbus “fact sheet”, used in English as a Second Language curriculum:
Columbus needed money for his trip. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain helped him. They wanted Columbus to find gold and a new way to travel to the Indies. They gave him three ships: the Nina, the Pinta,and the Santa Maria.
The three ships left Spain on August 3, 1492. The sailors did not see land for a month. They wanted to go back to Spain. Finally, on October 12, 1492, they found land. They put a Spanish flag on the land and called it Espanola. Columbus thought he was in India. He called the people Indians. But Columbus was in the Bahamas.
He found a new continent by accident. He found America.
The story is that Columbus wanted to find America, or prove that the world was round, rather than flat. He supposedly convinced Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Spain, to finance his voyage, and Isabella allegedly sold her personal jewelry to give him money. He and his crew headed west into the sunset and discovered America. They made friends with all of the natives, and returned to Spain covered in glory.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Schoolchildren have been taught many things about Columbus that are myth, rather than fact. Here are a few of those:
Myth #1: Columbus was from Spain.
Christopher Columbus is the anglicized version of an Italian name, which was Cristoforo Colombo (Genoese, later changed to Cristobal Colón, when he became a citizen of Spain.) No one is really sure why he changed his name; it may have been that he wanted to sound more Spanish, like those who changed their names when emigrating to the U.S. It has even been speculated that he was actually a Portuguese Jew, and changed his name to appear Italian in order to carry out a covert mission to distract Spain from finding a true route to the Indies. Some scholars believe that he was actually Salvador Fernandes Zarco, which is based on analyzation of Columbus’s sigla, which he used to sign documents instead of his name.
Myth #2: Columbus wanted to prove that the world was round.
The idea that the world was flat had actually been discredited long before the 15th century. In fact, Thales of Miletus (c.a. 624-547 B.C.E.), a great mathematician and thought to be the teacher of Pythagoras, predicted an eclipse of the sun on May 28, 585 B.C.E. Aristotle later credited Thales with the hypothesis of a spherical earth, rather than a flat “disc”, which was what was initially believed.
The Egyptian-Greek scientist Eratosthenes measured the circumference and diameter of the world in the third century B.C.E.
Columbus based his calculations for the journey on incorrect assumptions about the size of the earth, and assumed that Asia could be reached by sailing due west. However, Columbus landed in the Caribbean, incorrectly believing that he was in Hindustan. He was unwilling to acknowledge that his calculations were wrong, and made a laughingstock of himself in Europe by claiming that the world was shaped like a pear, rather than being round.
Myth #3: Columbus was able to get financing for his trip after Isabella sold her personal jewels.
This one is pure nonsense. Isabella didn’t need to pawn her jewels. Ten years before, she and Ferdinand launched a war against the Muslim Moors (Berbers and Arabs) and forced them back to Africa after four centuries of occupation. Granada was taken in January of 1492. Isabella also managed to recover the estates that had been sold off by Henry IV, as well as establishing a monopoly over the mints in the first year her reign.
The Portuguese had already rejected Columbus twice. Allegedly, the first hearing that Columbus requested with Ferdinand and Isabella was in 1485, at which time they were not interested in his proposal. In his arrogance, he demanded that they provide him with ships and crews, and he asked to be governor of whatever lands he found. After many years and several rejections, the couple finally agreed to sponsor Columbus and he was loaned three relatively small ships, crewed by released prisoners.
Myth #4: Columbus discovered America.
Columbus and his crew made landfall on October 12, 1492, not in North America, but in the islands in the Bahamas. In his subsequent trips to the New World, four in all, Columbus never set foot on the mainland.
On that first trip, Columbus traveled back and forth among the islands in the Caribbean, searching for gold, precious jewels,silver, spices, and anything else that he could take back to Spain to prove his worth. He didn’t find much. In March, 1493, he left 40 men behind in a makeshift settlement and returned to Spain.
He thought that he could go just a little farther and reach the markets of Japan. Columbus believed that he had found the eastern fringes of Asia, and maintained that notion for the rest of his life.
Myth #5: Columbus and his men made friends with the natives.
The Arawak people of South America started migrating north about 1500 years ago, and populated the islands known as the Bahamas. The main group of natives that Columbus encountered were the Taino, a very well established people who hunted and fished, and cultivated crops as well as hunting and gathering. They were a spiritual people who recognized a divine presence, which they referred to as Yocahu, and they had special reverence for the earth mother. They had rituals and ceremonies, and their young were considered eligible for marriage around puberty. They were a civilized culture that had endured in the area for a thousand years.
The Taino had not seen white men before, so Columbus and his men were a shock. The Taino may have believed that the white men were a form of the divine and came from heaven, and they went out to greet Columbus and his men with food and gifts. On his first night in the New World, Columbus described that the islands were populated by strong, well-built, and handsome people, and that with 50 of his men and weapons he could easily overcome them.
“They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery,” he noted upon meeting them in 1492. “They were very well-built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces….They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.”
Columbus impressed some of the Taino to help him search for gold and other riches. When very little was found, he decided that he would take back something just as valuable for trade: human lives. He sent some 500 Taino slaves to Isabella, who was horrified, and returned his “gift.” He had initially captured 1000 Taino to be sold as slaves, and over 250 died en route to Spain.
In 1494, Columbus established a colony at La Isabela, on the north coast of what he had named Hispaniola. The Spanish and the Taino coexisted peacefully for a while, but things began to deteriorate. The Spanish began to force the Taino men and boys to work in gold mines. Those that refused were tortured and killed.
According to the biography, The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man,the Myth, the Legacy,”written by John Noble Wilford, Columbus had sent five hundred men into the hills on an expedition for gold. Upon hearing that the Indians were planning to attack the group, Columbus sent four hundred soldiers to terrorize them in order to show them how strong the Christians were. He believed that as Christians his men had supreme authority over the Taino. One of the Spaniards went through the hills, terrorizing the Indians and stealing their food. Columbus punished the Taino victims instead of the Spaniard. War erupted between the Taino and the Spaniards. Due to their inferior weaponry, thousands of the Taino were killed, while those that were not were captured and enslaved.
Another incident, reported by Michele de Cueno, a Spaniard in Columbus’ traveling party, was especially graphic.Cueno tells of how the group came upon Taino men in a canoe and attacked them. They thought they had killed one of the men and threw him into the water. Upon seeing him begin to swim, they caught him and cut off his head with an axe.
Columbus also felt it was his right to pass out women that he had captured to his men, and they would take turns raping the women, sometimes killing them afterwards. One of his favorite ways to send a “message” to the other Taino was to take one of the men, cut his hands off, and tie them around the man’s neck.
Without men to work the fields, the Taino were unable to plant the crops that sustained their people, and they began to starve. The food shortages were so severe that the Spaniards took Taino babies to feed to their dogs, and many people died from lack of food as well as suicide. Many Taino also succumbed to the measles and smallpox, which were diseases that had come from Europe. The Taino had no natural immunity, having never encountered these diseases before. Many others were killed fighting against the Spaniards, and in time, many of the women were starting to marry the “invaders” due to a lack of their own men.
Myth #6: Columbus returned to Spain, where he was revered and glorified.
By 1498, conditions were so terrible that Spain had to send someone else to govern the colony, and Columbus was arrested. He was transported back to Spain in chains, to stand trial for his crimes. He was stripped of his titles and all claims to the lands that he “discovered.” He was later cleared of the most serious charges, but his titles were no longer his to enjoy.
By the early 1500s, it was estimated that 85% of the Taino had vanished.When Columbus made his 4th trip back to the New World in 1502, the Taino had been reduced from 8 million to some 60,000. He got to Panama, where he had to abandon two of his four ships under threat of revolt from hostile natives.
Columbus returned to Spain, where he died in 1506.
So, there you have it: the real “contribution” that Columbus made was to open the Americas up for takeover by Europe and the subsequent displacement and genocide of the native people. In his greed, he almost singlehandedly wiped out an entire civilization.
He didn’t discover anything but a group of islands, which he claimed for Spain, and mismanaged to the point that people were starving and killing themselves. While governor of Santo Domingo on Hispaniola, he kept all of the profits for himself and his brothers, causing the other colonists to loathe him and threaten revolt.
There is evidence that Columbus and his crew were responsible for bringing syphilis back with them, causing an epidemic that would go on to kill five million people in Europe within two years of the 1492 voyage.
His contemporaries despised him. He was a slave trader, taking people from their families to make up for the fact that he was inept at trying to “discover” a new trade route or riches. People tried to assassinate him, and he was returned to Spain in chains and stripped of his nobility and the entitlements that came with that status.
So, why do we, as Americans, praise Columbus and celebrate a day in his honor? It could be theorized that the story we were taught as children caters to our nature as a dysfunctional society of conquerors; a survival of the fittest mentality and a society that reveres avarice. However, the truth is even more ridiculous.
Our modern-day historical renderings of the voyage and discovery have been handed down from a fictional novel written by Washington Irving in 1828, and from other writers who have created an idealized version of the voyages and the life of Columbus. Irving’s Columbus was a figure of heroic stature, incredibly useful to Americans who were attempting to exert their own independence and mold their nation. Irving presented Columbus as a hero and an inspiration, glossing over the truth and ascribing all of the virtues to him that were considered noble and highly prized in society in that time period.
Since then, Americans have molded Columbus into a person that is just as fictional as the works that have been published about him. It has suited our purposes to create in him a powerful symbol for America, when in actuality, he was perhaps a greedy misanthrope that lied his way into the courts of the Spanish and killed and enslaved millions for his own gain.
Barack Obama perpetrated the lie today in his Columbus Day Proclamation:
“As dawn broke over the Atlantic on October 12, 1492, a perilous 10-week journey across an ocean gave way to encounters and events that would dramatically shape the course of history. Today, we recall the courage and the innovative spirit that carried Christopher Columbus and his crew from a Spanish port to North America, and we celebrate our heritage as a people born of many histories and traditions,” said Obama.
Frightening when your POTUS is just as brainwashed as the rest of them, eh?
We have created a hero that did not exist, and we have lied to generations of people about his accomplishments. His contributions to our society are a figment of a collective imagination.
In truth, Columbus really has nothing to do with America at all. Using him as a symbol of liberty and independence is a grave insult to those who have fought for the same. Rather than teaching blatant lies to our children, we should use him as an example of the cruelty and inhumanity of those who torture and kill innocent people under the guise of subduing the enemy. The atrocities committed by Columbus and his men should serve as a lesson that diplomacy is preferable to war.
Today, we honor Christopher Columbus , who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the most massive waves of genocide known in history.
“I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people numerous and warlike, whose manners and religion are very different from ours, who live in sierras and mountains, without fixed settlements, and where by divine will I have placed under the sovereignty of the King and Queen our Lords, an Other World, whereby Spain, which was reckoned poor, is become the richest of countries.”
Christopher Columbus, 1500