Today was Columbus Day?

October 9, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

Boy, am I out of the loop. I don’t work in an office, have no kids in school, don’t watch TV or pay to have ads delivered to my house in a daily paper. I didn’t know it was Columbus Day until I noticed that my outgoing mail failed to go out, and then asked around.

So, today we celebrate the discovery of San Salvador by an Italian leading a small Spanish fleet looking for India. Why would I pick this to write about?

columbus voyages map
Because of the way the whole “Discovery of America” thing is covered in elementary schools. I’m not talking about the earlier settlements of the Vikings, nor the obviously much earlier travelers from Asia.

Columbus didn’t argue that the world was round to an establishment that thought it was flat! Anyone with an education knew that the world was round. He argued that is was only 15,000 miles around, and therefore a trip of only a few weeks to reach “the Indies” (India, Ceylon). The prevaling wisdom came from a conclusion reached around 250 B.C.E. when Eratosthenes figured the circumference of the world to be about 26,400 miles. (The current measurement is 24,900 miles around the equator.)The various 15th century guilds involved with the sea all knew this. The progressive uncertainties in available maps was also a problem.

Even the known distance eastward to the far Indies was a rough estimate, good to within a few thousand miles. Anything farther than India was mostly guesswork based on foreign traveler’s tales. So they figured that a trip of 3 to 5 months across this uncharted water that may well be full of deadly shoals, severe weather, and even ferocious sea creatures to get to an unknown point on the other side was a bad bet. Columbus just got lucky that he found habitable land well before reaching his stated goal.

Columbus was using the latest in high-tech navigation aids: A chronometer. See here for an idea of how rough cartography was at the time when latitude was just starting to be measurable.

Anyway, Columbus did discover the New World, landing eventually all over the Caribbean and the Bahamas. Yet every school kid learns that before Columbus, the world was flat, and that he discovered our continent. Actually, the closest he came to hitting either North or South America was Panama and the Yucatan Peninsula. You can get there from here on foot.


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Category: American Culture, Current Events, Education, History

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    At this website we have often spoken about religious dogma. Equally puzzling and equally pervasive is civic dogma. The lore of Christopher Columbus is a terrific example of how wacky things can get, especially among people who are not evidence-based. Most of the people we honor as heroes are people that we want to believe in, whether of not they deserve it.  Dan covers many often-overlooked aspects of the Columbus voyage. 

    I'd like to share a few things about the accomplishments of Columbus after he arrived in the New World.  When I finally bothered to read beyond the history text books I used in grade school and high school (I finally did this in college), I was horrified to learn of these lesser known accomplishments of Columbus.

    In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen (1995), I learned that "almost everything in the traditional account is either wrong or unverifiable." The story of Christopher Columbus, as usually taught in high school, is "an outrageous concoction of lies, half-truths, proves and omissions."

    For starters, there is good evidence that the Vikings explored North America, from Greenland as far south as North Carolina starting in 1005.

    Next, American history books have perpetuated the idea that Columbus forged ahead while everyone else (even members of his own crew) thought the world was flat. As Dan writes in his post, by 1492, most people knew that the world was round, because it casts a circular shadow on the moon. Sailors also knew quite well that ships disappeared over the horizon, "hull first, then sails." Good convincing evidence.

    The evidence is also clear, though, that one of the main motivations for Columbus was a search for gold. Not gold that he would find in the ground–rather, it he was looking for gold he could take from other people. When textbooks celebrate this process, they imply that stealing from and "dominating the Indians was inevitable if not natural."

    Loewen argues that Columbus introduced to phenomena that

    Revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the tongue is a clinic slave trade, which created a racial underclass. In his own of October 1492 journal, Columbus wrote [of the Arawaks, who inhabited much of the Caribbean]: I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold. Seeing some of them with little bits of metal hanging at their noses I gathered from them by signs that by going southward or steering around the island in that direction, there would be a king who possessed great cups full of gold. . . . I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and governed them as I pleased.

    Not stressed in the history books is that Columbus kidnapped 10 to 25 native Americans on his first trip and forced them to return to Spain (only eight of them survived the trip.) As a result, Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus 17 ships, more than 1200 men, and lots of weapons for his second voyage. To ensure that the natives of Haiti cooperated in 1493, Columbus punished them by cutting off their ears, noses and hands. When the natives rebelled, this gave Columbus an excuse to declare war on them, which he did with 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry armed with crossbows canons lances and swords. He also had 20 hunting dogs which were turned loose and which tore the Indians apart. Having found little gold, Columbus initiated the slave trade in 1495 by rounding up 1500 Arawaks, selecting the best 500 and forcing them to travel to Spain (200 died en route).

    Loewen reports that Columbus was excited to be part of this human commerce, writing to Ferdinand and Isabella as follows: "in the name of the holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and Brazilwood we wish could be sold." Columbus and his crew then began a reign of terror in Hispaniola.  Loewen writes

    Spaniards hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food . . . all of these gruesome facts are available in primary source material– letters by Columbus and by other members of his expeditions . .. on Haiti the colonists made the Indians mine gold for them, raise a Spanish food and even carry them everywhere they went. The Indians couldn't stand it. Pedro de Cordoba wrote in a letter to King Ferdinand and 1517, "as a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide.

    Prior to the arrival of Columbus, the native population of Haiti was as high as 8 million people. By 1516, only about 12,000 natives remained. By 1555 they were all gone.

    Loewen wrote his book in 1995. At that time, he analyzed 12 high school history textbooks. Only six of those commonly used books mentioned that the Spanish enslaved or exploited the Indians anywhere in America. Only four of those six mentioned that Columbus himself was involved.

    Howard Zinn describes the story of Columbus similarly in his 1980 work, A People's history of the United States. Zinn refers to the works of Bartolome de las Casas who, as a young priest who assisted with the conquest of Cuba. He later gave up his own plantation on (which Indian slaves worked), becoming a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Zinn quotes an extensive passage from Las Casas' history of the Indies:

    Endless testimonies . . . prove that mild and Pacific temperament of the natives . . . but our work was to exasperate, ravaged, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then . . . the Admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.

    It seems like an obvious call, then, that Columbus, though talented as an explorer, should not be honored with unskeptical praise and a major holiday. Such are many of our civic and religious heroes, however. We rally around them unthinkingly, as we rally around colored flags. We stive hard to keep from considering their sometimes horrific deficiencies, and we get angry when others bring remind us that things aren't what we want them to be.

    We love parades, holidays, happy times and group bonding too much to be bothered with facts. Columbus certainly provides a great excuse for holiday festivities, as long as we only consider him uncritically.

    Once again, false (and even oxymoronic) claims can nonetheless be important.

  2. [Columbus certainly provides a great excuse for holiday festivities, as long as we only consider him uncritically.]

    IMO that tends to be the modis operandi for Americans in general in regards to public holidays. Any public holiday is welcomed as what is supposed to be a day off the job and cause for physical and social indulgence….in many cases to the point of negative recreation, destruction, and violence. To many the historical reality of these public holidays do not matter; many ignore such historical realities or aid in perpetuating alternate fantasy realities instead.

    Lies and absurdities all around us are often rather important and valuable, even though many of us have been taught (or have otherwise learned) to ignore them or simply go along with them politely in speech and deed….and learn to believe in them and honor them as "good people" and "good citizens". Some lies and absurdities are supposedly "for our own good".


  3. Deb says:

    I discovered England in 1982, and in fact, discovered Europe in 1953, at least by the same standards Columbus discovered the ‘new world.’ It wasn’t lost, we knew where we were all along. I sometimes refer to the need to have a comparable holiday celebrating Hitler. The only difference is the number of people doing the anihilation and the speed in which it was done. Both thought of a group of people as lesser, and nonhuman.

    Given how little the Europeans thought of natives, it is interesting that just after Columbus returned with his captives, syphyllis started showing up for the first time in Europe. Wonder how those pious Christians got the disease?

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Columbus Day (observed), Again. The Italian who first declared the Caribbean to be India must have his due.

    <img src="; alt="Gaah!">Meanwhile, our streets don't get cleaned this month because of it. The one month that fills the street with litter is exempt from the one day of cleaning available.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    If there were no Columbus Day and we were considering whether to celebrate a Columbus Day, it would never get off the ground, based on undeniable facts recited in this post and its comments.

    The question, then, is why do we keep celebrating Columbus Day? That we still celebrate Columbus Day illustrates the great power of path dependence.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Annually we celebrate Columbus failing to reach India, but finding local people to be a good source of dog food.

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