Goodbye, Columbus

Juan Ponce de León discovered "America" but Columbus gets the credit!

Juan Ponce de León discovered “America” but Columbus gets the credit!

(Hello, Ponce de León. What a story you have to tell! Those who are impatient may scroll down about 2/3 to the part I’ve marked in red white (grey, really) and blue.

It’s an odd story, one that brings tomatoes to Italy,, and eventually celebrates a favorite son for something he didn’t do.

You know that the Vikings first showed up in what is now North America. That happened about a thousand years ago. Some Vikings stayed for awhile, started families, and settlements.  The first child of European descent born on these shores was probably named “Snoori,” a name I’ve always liked.

For several thousand years before the Vikings visited, there were natives in North America and South America. They probably arrived, well, by taking the l-o-n-g way around, on foot and on animal, working their way up from Africa, then through Asia, and across the land bridge into what is now Alaska. Perhaps they arrived in other ways, but that seems less likely because boats were small and unsophisticated, and oceans were large and dangerous to navigate.

During the 1400s, Europeans were becoming rich by trading goods found in Asia. Mostly, these goods traveled on the Silk Roads, a series of trade routes that were subject to piracy, tribal feuds, and every kind of evil deed. There were all sorts of theories about the best way to travel not by land, but by sea. Nobody was particularly frightened about falling off the earth; the idea that the world was round, and that circumnavigation was possible was accepted long before Columbus showed up. (It’s one of the earliest urban legends, utter nonsense promoted in fanciful children’s books for a time.)

Columbus was an entrepreneur in search of capital for his new enterprise–put together half the necessary funds, and found the rest by sweet-talking King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. They promised him a cut of the riches, and a ridiculous title, Emperor of the Ocean Seas. And they agreed to provide three ships. All for the glory of Spain, and the gold that everyone believed he would find. Make no mistake: it was all about the gold.

He took a wrong turn.

He was heading for what he believed was Japan, or, at least, Asia. Instead, he found an island in what is now the Caribbean Sea. (Certainly, Columbus Day should not be celebrated as a milestone in navigation history.)

Remember: Columbus was an entrepreneur. Perhaps it is that spirit that we should celebrate on Columbus Day. Certainly, there are very good reasons not to celebrate him at all, unless, of course, you share a very dark view of America and what it represents to the world.

Columbus kept a diary. Here, he writes about the native people, the Taino or Arawak people who greeted his crew with curiosity and apparent kindness.

They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all they have, none of them refusing anything he may possess if he is asked for it. They exhibit great love toward all others in preference to themselves.”

You’ll recall the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–the three ships provided by Spain for the first voyage. The Pinta’s captain defied Columbus’ orders, and abandoned the fleet. The Santa Maria was destroyed on a reef. Columbus high-tailed it back to Spain on the Nina, grabbing a bit of gold, kidnapping some natives. A second voyage was authorized, this time with the specific intention of becoming rich with gold. The Taino people were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to FIND THE GOLD.

Dressed in Taino garb and makeup, two contemporary Dominican girls demonstrate that these were real people with families and traditions. Each year, we celebrate an American hero who killed most of the Taino people.

Dressed in Taino garb and makeup, two contemporary Dominican girls demonstrate that these were real people with families and traditions. Each year, we celebrate an American hero who killed most of the Taino people.

Gold was not to be found. Columbus treated the Taino severely. He cut off their hands (Happy Columbus Day!)

Third Voyage. This time, a Priest named Bartolomé de las Casas joined, and kept a diary. It’s filled with documentation, generally considered reliable, about Columbus’ treatment of the natives: forced labor, brutality, horrific violence against children, babies being murdered by swinging them against trees or feeding them to dogs. From the Priest’s diary:

The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades”, wrote Las Casas. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write”

We celebrate Columbus Day because it was the beginning of the new world. In a twisted way, this is apt: the United States is the nation that was settled, mostly, by killing the natives who lived in this land. Those who believe that there is a greater reason for the celebration, an uplifting of humankind, the initiation of an era of discovery should probably consider where Mr. Columbus went, and did not go. No account brings Columbus into what is now the U.S.A. He traveled to several Caribbean Islands, notably Hispaniola (now, Haiti and the Dominican Republic,

Who discovered “America?” That’s a very challenging question. Let’s rephrase it: “Who discovered the United States of America” would trap out Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.

The earliest answer would seem to be the people who crossed Bernicia, the land bridge into Alaska around 16,000 BCE (before current era). Focusing only on the lower 48, there’s evidence dating back to about 13,000 BCE, known as the Clovis Sites.

The Vikings showed up, but probably not in what becomes the U.S.A. Sadly, our early attempts to invade, annex, or build a new country with friends nearby all failed, so Canada become a separate nation. After that, several hundred years (the Dark Ages) go by without much interest in or capability to explore, pretty much until Columbus and his kind.

Juan Ponce de León traveled with Columbus on his second voyage. He was a volunteer, a gentleman from a noble family. There were 200 such gentlemen.

For your reference, here's a map showing Hispaniola (currently occupied by Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and nearby Florida.

For your reference, here’s a map showing Hispaniola (currently occupied by Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and nearby Florida.

Columbus and his entourage apparently visited Borinquen, which we now call Puerto Rico. (In fact, when Puerto Rico finally becomes a U.S. state, the Columbus legend will come true: in that case, he would have been the explorer who discovered what become the United States of America. [For those who wish to make a case that Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S., so technically this is true today, I ask why, if Puerto Rico plays such an important role in American History, it has not been invited to join the club.)

In any case, as a result of his military leadership (de León was involved in a notable native massacre), he become Governor of the Spanish territory. Natives told him of a land to the northwest, a land that could be reached by “crossing many rivers’. He told the King, but remained as Governor until he lost out in a tussle with–who else–the son of Christopher Columbus, who was legally enforcing his father’s rights. Eventually, the King stopped the political nastiness, and after de León returned to Spain, he outfitted three ships and headed for some unexplored lands. He found what is now Florida on April 2, 1513.

Every year, we celebrate Columbus Day in the USA. Many of our Spanish-speaking neighbors in the western hemisphere celebrate Día de la Raza instead; it is, in many places, a celebration of the race, not Columbus the explorer.

Somehow, on April 2, 2013 — exactly 500 years after the first European explorer set foot on what is now a U.S. state, the first moment when Europeans visited the  part of the New World that became our nation–we did nothing.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: