October 8 2007

Columbus Day – Year 3

Columbus Day - Year 3Welcome to the third annual posting of this entry! I will probably post this every Columbus Day for as long as I blog. Couple of small revisions this year (spelling), but otherwise, it’s the same as the past two years.

Ah, Columbus Day, the day we set aside each year to celebrate a lie. It always warms my heart.

People tend to forget that Christopher Columbus wasn’t looking for North America when he landed here, he was looking for the West Indies. Quite the navigator there. He also believed, until his death, that the entire time he was in this area that he was exploring the Eastern coast of Asia.

Never mind the fact that he also took the indigenous people as slaves and shipped them back to Spain, against the Crowns wishes. Never mind that colonists he brought over here rebelled against him when the New World didn’t come close to what he described. No, no, all those things are just a-ok for a man we should honor with a governmental and banking holiday.

The biggest offense to me is that he was far from the first person to “discover” the Americas. (how does one “discover” a place that is already inhabited?) The Siberians crossed the land bridge with Alaska as early as 70,000 BC, and it was those crossings that gave us the Native Americans. There were numerous other occurrences of people coming to the Americas, but one of the most well documented was Leifur Eircksson in 1005 when he sailed from Iceland to North America and traveled down the coast. Gee… does that come before 1492?

Yet, history textbooks still hail him as the man who “discovered” America. Why is beyond me, but a friend pointed me to a wonderful book called “Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong“that spends an entire chapter delving into this very matter. Fascinating stuff.

If you want to credit Columbus with something, just say that he brought the America’s to the attention of Europe, but leave it at that.

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General Rants


  • The world was a very different place during Columbus’s time. I daresay the fact that his crew found land at all was a miracle and modern people would be hard-pressed to do any better without their instruments and modern understanding of the way the world is mapped. What he accomplished is not to be undermined by revisionists intent on placing a nasty spin one every bit of history. His actions need to be viewed through the zeitgeist of the time and the behavior and values of people of that era, not through the eyes of the 21st century person sitting behind his computer with Google maps and access to GPS (and a PC attitude).

    Also, discovery isn’t always about who got there first. It’s about who spread the word about it first. There were likely primitive peoples who traveled between ice floes who got to the U.S. first and “discovered” it but Columbus spread the word among the people of Europe (the people most of us are descended from). He was the first prominent person in Europe to tell other Europeans of its existence. It’s about civilizations learning of something, not random people stepping foot on the soil..

    By your logic, you shouldn’t bother to blog since you’re almost certainly not telling anyone anything that hasn’t been revealed elsewhere. The point isn’t who got there first. The point is who told the most people who then in tern regarded that person as the original source of that news for their geographic location. If Columbus hadn’t landed in America, it’s hard to say what the shape of the U.S. might have been as Europeans wouldn’t have settled it. That’s the point of the holiday – celebrating what became of us as a result of that discovery. Now, we enlightened white folks may scoff and say he trampled the indigenous peoples (which he did and it was wrong but we modern people are hardly doing right by native Americans either) but we wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t.

  • Shari – Okay, remove the 21st century viewpoint. What about the fact that he sent slaves back to Spain AGAINST the specific wishes of the Crown? There is documented proof he did this of his own accord, people died in the crossing, and then even more died when they were sent back because he screwed up in the first place? That’s not revisionist, that’s just plain stupid.

    If there is any revising of history going on, it’s making him out to be a hero. We honor the man with a federal holiday and parades when he was no more than an idiot that HAPPENED to run in to land, nothing more. The Vikings actually established a colony here for awhile, but that’s ignored because someone, somewhere, decided Columbus was “an alright guy”.

    And the point truly is who got there first because every text book in America says he did. (hence why I don’t agree with your comment about my blogging isn’t logical because I’ve never gone around saying I did it first) The point very much is about who got there first in this particular case because people continue to perpetuate the idea he was first when he wasn’t. Teach about him all you want in text books, at least be honest about it. As for the holiday and parades, I don’t agree with those in the least.

  • Sean, you’re actually right on. Columbus is a “hero” only insofar as he is seen Anglo-centrically. View him a bit more objectively and he was just a lucky guy with too much privilege. America seriously needs to review its history, and the teaching of it, in a number of ways. Columbus is just one example.

  • Jack

    I’m always entertained by the way people (like Shari, here) use the word “revisionist” as a slur. History is a story; it is a writing-down of what happened, and like any writing-down it’s a selective process. You can’t encode all of reality into language. Your history can’t include everything. What’s more, any history is going to have a point of view; any history will be told from a frame of reference. So ALL writing of history is revisionist, even the first writing of history, because the first writing is not the event itself. The event is forever lost.

    Some people resist this idea and insist that we should just record the facts, but of course we can’t remove the subjective historian from history. Even if we can imagine a camera filming history “objectively,” well, someone has to point the camera, and eventually someone has to watch it, and then subjectivity comes in again.

    Some people make the mistake of assuming that the history that they learned in school was somehow impartial, or was the least-partial-possible presentation of the facts possible. They can’t see the slant in it–the slant, in the case of the US, toward the white male upper class. On the front end, this slant tends to naturalize some weird assumptions, e.g. that 98% of the great things that ever were accomplished were the actions of people belonging (at least partially) to the white-male-upper-class group. On the back end, this slant tends to limit the scope of vision, so only the actions of white-male-upper-class guys seem to matter in the world. (Go watch the news.)

    Regarding the 21st-century-perspective criticism: I think this is a cheap dodge, and it stinks of the kind of pseudo-multicultural argument that winds up excusing genital mutilation and genocide. “Well, we can’t really judge them, because they see the world differently…” “Well, we can’t really call Columbus a racist monster, because everyone [European] was a racist monster…” I call BS on that. While we must recognize multiplicity of perspectives and cultures (it’s a *fact*), that doesn’t mean that we must accept them all as equally good and right; after all, I have a culture, too. Being aware of multiplicity and valuing variety doesn’t mean that I give up my right to want justice. (Just as being aware that I am myself situated in a cultural milieu doesn’t let me off the hook for assessing the justice of my beliefs and practices.)

    Ultimately, history belongs to the living. There’s no one else for it to belong to! So yes, we damn well can refuse to celebrate Columbus’ errors and his role in the genocide of the Native Americans, esp. since as a culture we seem to have ongoing problems recognizing the humanity (much less the human rights) of non-Europeans. We don’t have to be happy about Columbus’ crimes just because we wouldn’t be here without them. (Does that logic work if, say, your dad is a hit man? “Well, I can’t really disapprove of killing for hire as a job choice–after all, it put me through college!”)

    Sean: Intentionally or unintentionally, Columbus’ voyage was the first stone in the avalanche we refer to as the settlement of the New World. (And we all know who was caught under that avalanche…and still haven’t gotten out.) The Vinland colony lasted only a few years and never re-rooted itself, nor did it incite a similar avalanche, which is why it’s a historical curiosity rather than a basis for a national holiday. (But it’s one of my favorite historical curiosities.)

    Generally national holidays are constructed around people that are at the center of one storm or another, but those people are generally neither as grand nor as monstrous as we make them out to be. I think Columbus was a schmuck, and (based on the historical record) schmucks in the wrong place at the wrong time are uncommonly good at precipitating human rights abuses on an epic scale.


  • A lot of what is objectionable is simply that the story most people tell and were told is just wrong. Columbus is often portrayed as arguing for a round Earth while others claimed it was flat; this is not the case–it was generally agreed at the time that the world was round. The debate was over the Earth’s size, not the shape.

    And here, Columbus was wrong. He calculated the size of the Earth as liberally as he could in favor of finding it to be smaller (one can only guess that he did it to justify a mission other correctly saw as unattainable). The actual correct circumference of the Earth had been worked out correctly 1700 years previously. Had the Americas not been in his way, had Columbus only had his intended objective in his path, he and his ships would have all perished. Columbus miscalculated and was saved only by dumb luck. How is that admirable?

    As for Columbus’ achievement in opening up the Americas to European expansion, there were quite a few navigators who were venturing out far enough that the Americas would have been discovered sooner or later, most likely sooner, by navigators running into the eastern edge of what is now known as Brazil. It’s not as if the “discovery” would have waited another hundred years. Maybe a few decades later, at most. As for how that would have worked out, who knows? Assuming that what Columbus did was better than the alternative is just as faulty as the other way around.

    As for spreading the news about what he had found, Columbus spread the wrong news–he never knew what he had actually found. At best, one could credit him with letting Europeans know about a land mass reachable by sea voyages westward. But really, if I found and spread the word about a great new restaurant in Tachikawa, but it instead turned out to be a great new supermarket in Mitaka, I might get props for accidentally turning people on to it, but I would be laughed at for getting the nature and location of what I’d found so dismally wrong.