Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Christopher Columbus - Original Discover of America, or Late to the Party?

Parmigiano portrait of Columbus
(from  Christopher Columbus: His Life,
His Work, His Remains - 1904)
One fact we’re all sure of as kids is “Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” His destination was the orient. Instead he sailed head on into America landing at Hispaniola (present day Haiti).

That’s what we’ve been taught for hundreds of years. Hell! We even created a special day just to celebrate his discoveries.

Recent scholarship, however, tells a different story about who the actual discoverer of America was.
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If the truth be told, Columbus was late for the party.

The actual discoverers may have been the ancient Phoenicians who are supposed to have sailed to America as early as two thousand years ago. Mark McMenamin contends the images on a Phoenician gold coin dating from 350 BC show a horse with a tiny map of the world on it. And, you guessed it—America is pictured in that map. Another piece of evidence is credited to a Sicilian historian, Diodorus, writing in the first century BC, “…in the deep off Africa is an island of considerable size…The Phoenicians had discovered it by accident after having planted many colonies throughout Africa.”

St. Brendan is an Irish monk who legend has it voyaged to America as early as the sixth century. Of course, Brendan wasn’t looking for America either. He assumed he could sail his way to paradise, and discover heaven on earth. What he found instead was an island so big after forty days of walking he was still unable to cross it. He discovered a “river too wide to be crossed,” a “floating island,” and “an island of fire” that pelted him with rocks.

The best claim to being the original discoverer of the Americas belongs to a Viking sailor named Leif Eriksson. Archaeological evidence suggests the Vikings had a thriving settlement at L’ Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland dating back to 1,000 AD.

Before I go further into the story of the discovery, I feel a compelling need to point out—America was never lost, so in reality it never needed to be found. North America was populated by millions of Native Americans when the first discoverers arrived. In their quest for riches it never occurred to them the original inhabitants may have had a claim to the lands they inhabited.

But that’s a story for another book.
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Thevet portrait of Columbus
(from  Christopher Columbus: His Life, 
His Work, His Remains - 1904)
Christopher Columbus (born Christopher Colon) is a complex character. On one hand, he was deeply religious and believed God inspired his voyages of discovery. On the other hand, he was incredibly cruel and allowed the wanton massacre of the native races for the amusement of his men.

After meeting the Arawak natives Columbus wrote in his journal, “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Later as governor of Hispaniola, Columbus set a quota for native workers. If they did not bring him the set amount of gold dust, their hands were chopped off and tied around their necks. Then they were left to wander and suffer until they bled to death. It is recorded that 10,000 unfortunate men, women, and children suffered this fate.

And that is only the start of the atrocities.

Bartolom√© de las Casas, traveled with Columbus on his first voyage and later wrote about the atrocities he witnessed on Hispaniola. “They [Columbus’s men] laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man…They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rock.”

Most of what we’re taught about Christopher Columbus is incorrect.

Neither Columbus, nor most of the educated world believed the Earth was flat. The ancient Greeks proved the Earth was spherical as early as the sixth century BC. So all that crap your teacher taught you about the risk Columbus took, and how his ships might fall of the edge of the Earth to certain death. That’s all bullshit.

It is true Columbus had trouble finding backers. Portugal, England, and France all turned him down before Spain ponied up the funding for his first voyage. It’s also true on the first voyage Columbus kept two sets of records: one that was accurate, and one that he shared with his men. In the records he shared with his crew Columbus shortened the distance he traveled, in an attempt to quell dissatisfaction and mutiny. The problem was Columbus misestimated the size of the Earth by about twenty-five percent. Much of the reason for this was he didn’t realize that the continents of North and South America existed.

Here’s another fact not commonly talked about. Columbus’s first voyage to America took 43 days. Conditions for his sailors were pure hell. Most of his men went barefoot the entire voyage, and wore the same clothes home that they started the trip with. Rats shared the decks, sleeping quarters, and food with the crew, and everyone was lice infested.

Jovian portrait of Columbus
(from  Christopher Columbus: His Life, 
His Work, His Remains - 1904)
On Christmas Eve 1492 a cabin boy steered the Santa Maria into a coral reef and wrecked it. Because of that incident Columbus was forced to leave thirty-nine men behind when he returned to Spain. They formed the settlement of La Navidad, the first European colony in America.

Over the next ten years Columbus made three more voyages to America. Contrary to common belief, Columbus never set foot on North America, or understood that he had discovered a new continent. For his entire life Columbus held onto the belief he landed in the Orient. The mistaken belief that he had landed in India caused Columbus to name the native inhabitants indios, later Americanized to Indians.

In 1500, Christopher Columbus, who was then serving as governor of Hispaniola, was arrested and brought back to Spain in chains. The charges were cruelty to the native inhabitants, the execution of rebel Spanish colonists, and mismanagement of the colonies. After a short trial he was found not guilty, and the only real consequence was he lost the governorship of Hispaniola. Whatever, the Spanish crown thought of the charges leveled against Columbus it couldn’t have taken them too seriously. King Ferdinand financed Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502.

Late in his life Columbus wrote a controversial book titled The Book of Prophecies. In it he said God directed his explorations, and proclaimed that the end of the world would soon be at hand. Mysteriously, he took credit for it, saying “he was causing it.”

Whatever, can be said of Columbus, his voyages brought about a new age of discovery and growth. He also ushered in an era of unending cruelty, death, and destruction for the native inhabitants. One can’t help wondering if he had treated the natives differently, would there have been a different outcome in the colonization of the new world.


Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History