Columbus really didn’t discover what we Americans call America. He landed in the Bahamas and later what was called Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). On his return voyages he went further south to Central and South America. So why do we claim that Columbus discovered America?
In May of 1497, another Italian, Giovanni Caboto (or John Cabot) left Bristol, England headed west to find Asia. He, like Columbus before him, had been commissioned by a country that was not his birth country (England in this case).
After 50 days of sailing, on June 24, Cabot landed somewhere on the east coast of North America. Some believe it was Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, or some believe it could have even been Maine. Going on shore, the group claimed that land for England and soon after sailed back to England to report their findings and collect their reward.
John Cabot actually landed on the east coast of North America …. he “discovered” it. So why don’t we celebrate “Cabot Day” or “Caboto Day” in June every year. That’s a good question.
Apparently, the whole idea, or “myth” if you will, of Columbus as the discoverer of America began to percolate in the 18th century after the Revolutionary War. America, of course, had been at war with England in their struggle for freedom. One author suggested that the reason for the hero worship of Columbus was because Cabot had discovered America in England’s name, thus paving the way for immigration across the ocean. They perhaps didn’t want any credit given to anything done in the name of England, having fought so hard to be free of the mother country.
In the 19th century, it has been suggested that the symbol of Columbus stirred the nation to set out and explore and conquer more land. Some believe the myth was perpetuated through writings such as Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus. His book was popular and widely read. In the opinion of one author, however, “his soaring fancy produced a romance, more than a judicious biography” (in the source I used, the name “Noble” is noted without any reference as to the author’s full name).
So, we celebrate Columbus Day in October every year. Of course, we now know that Christopher Columbus was not without controversy. However, here are some facts you may not know about him and his voyages:
- Nina and Pinta were not the names of two of the ships (Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria) – they were nicknames given to them by the sailors. In that period of history, most ships were named after saints. While it is not known what the actual name of the Pinta was, “Pinta” is Spanish for “The Pint” as well as “The Painted” (according to History.com it means “The Painted One” or “prostitute”).
- The name of “Nina” was actually “Santa Clara”, named “Nina” in honor of its owner Juan Nino. The Santa Maria was given a nickname, “La Gallega”, but is, of course, widely known by its real name. The Santa Maria was wrecked during that first voyage and Columbus returned on the Nina, leaving behind almost 40 crew members to settle the land (when he returned later, none of them were found alive).
- Columbus made three more voyages to the New World (Carribbean Islands, South and Central Americas) after the 1492 expedition.
- Columbus returned to Spain in chains in 1500. His actions as governor of Hispaniola were brutal and even tyrannical. The other colonists petitioned the Spanish government, who dispatched royal adminstrators to detain Columbus and then return him in chains back to Spain. Perhaps it was just a “slap on the hand” because King Ferdinand did eventually grant Columbus his freedom and even subsidized a fourth voyage.
- Columbus used a lunar eclipse as an act of trickery. In February of 1504, Columbus was stranded in Jamaica. He, who studied the heavens, knew that a lunar eclipse would occur soon. He warned the Jamaican natives that if they didn’t provide him food, his god would be upset and the moon would “rise inflamed with wrath”. On that last night of February, the lunar eclipse began, darkening the moon and turning it red — the frightened islanders did not refuse him provisions any longer.
- Contrary to myth, Columbus did not think the world to be flat. That fallacy had long been disproven. Columbus, however, was mistaken about the earth’s circumference, underestimating it, which is probably why he thought he had arrived in Asia. Some believe that the flat earth myth might have originated with Washington Irving’s 1828 Columbus biography.
Many point to the fact that Columbus brought sickness and disease (some even imply biological and germ warfare!) If you call it “warfare”, then I believe there has to be an accompanying intent. Do you think Columbus and his crew members intentionally brought disease? Germs travel and history has consequences, good and bad. I’m neither condoning nor condemning here .. I’m only interested in the truth.
As an aside, it did indeed appear to be the intent of the British Army during the Pontiac War when they gave smallpox-contaminated blankets to the Lanape tribe. On June 24, 1763 a trader named William Trent wrote this about giving blankets to the Indians: “Out of our regard for them, we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”
As noted above, Columbus did go home in chains to Spain in 1500 as a result of his brutal and tyrannical treatment of those he governed.
In that period of history, exploration was more about conquest (and even exploitation) and the search for riches. Some thought they had a higher purpose to convert the masses to faith. That’s just a fact. I don’t know that all of Columbus’ deeds and exploits (or any other explorer of that day) are something that should be celebrated with a national holiday or not, but history is what it is, good and bad. One has to admire him for his bravery in setting out to try and find a New World (although he didn’t really find what he was looking for, Asia).
- So, if the story of Columbus and his exploits are so bad (even in light of the historical events and thinking from that period of time), should we teach the brutal, bloody, honest truth to our children?
- There are many things about that period of history that we can find to disagree on or find abhorrent … there was greed, brutality, slavery, pillaging, conquest, killing and the list goes on. Again, how do we tell our children about this part of history?
- The Bible says in Jeremiah 17:9 that “”The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (New Living Translation). Throughout history, people have done wicked things and many probably thought at the time they were right to do them (some even in the name of God). So how do we handle those aspects of history?
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.