WASHINGTON, October 12, 2014 — In 1492, Christopher Columbus turned out to be one of the luckiest men in history.
School kids have been told for generations that Columbus sailed west to go to the Indies, the “spice islands,” believing that the world was round, not flat. The superstitious Catholic clergy were convinced that he’d sail off the edge of the world and into an unimaginable abyss, because the Bible said the world was flat.
School kids have been fed a line of male bovine fecal material. Everyone who mattered knew the world was round, including the Catholic clergy. What they didn’t believe was that Columbus could sail west to the Indies. They didn’t believe it because ships in those days were small, they believed the world was about 24,000 miles in circumference, and there was no way Columbus could carry enough food and water for a voyage that they believed would be across an ocean almost twice as wide as we know the Pacific is today.
They were absolutely right. But Columbus believed the world was only half as large as it is, so he stubbornly – and let’s admit it, bravely – set off in three ships that most of us wouldn’t want to sail across a large lake. Had there not been two continents and a lot of little islands between him and the Indies, Columbus would have died at sea.
So, as every school kid knows, Columbus got lucky. For the indigenous people of the Americas, though, Columbus’s luck was their disaster.
We’re a nation of egotists and extremists, inclined to see ourselves as either the best place on earth, the shining “city on a hill,” or to see ourselves as the worst people ever. We aren’t content to be merely sort of good or sometimes bad; if we can’t be the best, we’re the worst.
If we decide that our European ancestors were some of the worst people in the world, what they did in the Indies would be good evidence of it. On his later voyages, Columbus enslaved some of the very gentle and helpful people he found in the West Indies. He and his men tortured others in their attempts to find out where they got their gold.
And then the Spaniards came in force, and proceeded to torture, slaughter and annihilate those people, the American “Indians.”
The Indians of the Caribbean were, by all accounts, remarkably gentle and kind. Some of them committed mass suicide rather than be enslaved by the Spanish. Many of them refused to fight, allowing themselves to be tortured by men who didn’t see them as human.
Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the Spaniards who came to the New World to seek his fortune, witnessed the cruelties inflicted on the Caribbean Indians. His account of it, “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” is horrifically vivid. Sickened by what he saw there, he experienced a profound conversion, becoming a Franciscan friar, a voice for the Caribbean people, and eventually an enemy of slavery of all people.
The ultimate destruction of most of the people who lived in the Americas is laid, with some justification, at the feet of Columbus. But we aren’t content to stop there; we don’t even wish to give him credit for discovering the Americas.
That argument is two-pronged. The first prong is that Europeans couldn’t “discover” America. There were already people here. That would be like an Aztec sailing off to London and “discovering” it. The second prong is that Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit the New World, and that he didn’t actually land on North America, but only on some islands.
To hear it from some people, North America was almost a Grand Central Station of explorers, with everyone from Vikings to the Irish to Japanese and Chinese explorers landing here. Some recently discovered maps, not yet confirmed to be genuine, suggest that Columbus wasn’t even the first Italian in the New World; that honor may go to Marco Polo. If the maps turn out to be genuine, Marco Polo might have been in Alaska 200 years before Columbus landed in the Caribbean.
That may all be true, but it’s also true that before Columbus, Europeans, having perhaps misplaced the North American travelogues of Marco Polo and Leif Erikson, didn’t know the New World existed. Within a generation of Columbus’s voyage, they’d built cities here. Columbus’s voyage changed the world; Erikson’s, if it happened, changed nothing.
Nothing can excuse what Europeans did to the natives once they got to America, but some of the civilizations here, especially those of the Aztecs and the Mayas, are probably best seen in history’s rear-view mirror. Their neighbors had no reason to regret their annihilation by the Conquistadores, as the Aztecs were at constant war with them to get enough prisoners to sacrifice to their gods, who expected the blood to flow non-stop.
Italian Americans feel some pride in Columbus Day, and would not be happy to see it replaced, but that’s a lobby that most politicians feel they can safely ignore. There may be fewer American Indians than Italian Americans, but their ranks are swollen with the Elizabeth Warrens of America, people whose great-great grandmothers once smiled at an Indian, thus conferring a tribal name and a recipe for pemmican and pesto on toast tips to their descendants. Columbus Day may be on its way out.
Seattle has replaced it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” a name that evokes images of young Berkeley commissars and indignant, middle-aged white people. “Bartolomé Day” has a nicer ring, and it could be popular with Hispanics and Franciscans. If it turns out those maps are authentic, “Marco Polo Day” might be a winner.
But love him or hate him, Christopher Columbus changed the world because he was wrong and lucky. There’s a lesson in that, if not a federal non-holiday.