Christopher Columbus Facts They Don’t Teach in School

Columbus Day has become an occasion not just to celebrate the first steps toward founding America, but a time to re-examine what we know about the famed explorer. The accomplishments of Christopher Columbus are myriad and well-known, but much of his life’s story, as well as his subsequent voyages to the Americas, is lost in mythos and misconception.

While he did in fact “sail the ocean blue” in 1492, the biography of Christopher Columbus is filled with obscure facts and historical oddities that never make it into any school nursery rhyme – or even into many textbooks. Many people still believe that Columbus set out from Spain to prove the Earth was round – but we know he didn’t. We also believe he made peaceful contact with the natives of what he thought was India – but he didn’t, and he actually believed he’d reached the mythical land of Japan.

Could he have even made it there? What about his other trips to the New World? Or his revisionist reputation for brutality and cruel treatment of the natives? Here are some facts about Columbus that, despite decades of re-examination, most people don’t know.

“Christopher Columbus” Wasn’t Actually His Name

Photo: Sebastiano del Piombo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The famed explorer was born Cristoforo Colombo – or Cristóbal Colón, if you speak Spanish. “Christopher Columbus” is the Anglicized version of his name, but he likely wouldn’t have answered to that. Among other unknowns about Colón/Columbus’s life is what he looked like – as no portrait of him was painted during his lifetime.

He Wasn’t Spanish – Though He Sailed for Spain

Photo: Giorgio Sommer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Columbus sailed under the Crown of Spain, but definitely wasn’t Spanish by birth. Little is known of his early life, but it’s generally agreed upon that he was born in Genoa, at the time an independent city-state and satellite of Spain. He would be considered Italian today.

Few People Still Believed the World Was Flat

Photo:  Trekky0623/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Writers like Washington Irving have implanted in the popular consciousness that Columbus set out to prove Catholic teaching wrong about the Earth being flat. But it was already widely believed that the Earth was round. As early as the sixth century BCE, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras used mathematics to surmise the world was round, and later, Aristotle proved it with astronomical observations. By 1492 most educated people knew the planet was not a flat disc.

Columbus Was Not Searching for the New World

Photo:  Twice25/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

While Columbus found the unexplored land that came to be known as “the New World,” it wasn’t what he was looking for. He was seeking a quicker passage to Asia that wouldn’t involve crossing the Silk Road, which had been sealed off due to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire. The aims of his voyage were exploiting the gold and spices believed to be found in abundance in the Orient – and to grab some for himself.

He Never Would Have Reached Asia

Photo: Andries van Eertvelt/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Columbus estimated that the distance from the Canary Islands, where his voyage began, to Japan (known then as “Cipangu”), which he was attempting to reach, was about 3,700 kilometers. This was a vast underestimate, as the distance is actually about 12,000 kilometers. Columbus’s small fleet could never have carried enough provisions to last such a voyage, nor would these ships have survived the harsh conditions of the Pacific.

His Motives Were Not Altruistic

Photo: Daniel Chodowiecki/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

His first proposal to sail to the Orient, submitted to King John II of Portugal, involved him walking away with quite a bounty. He requested to be given the title “Great Admiral of the Ocean,” to be appointed governor of any and all lands he discovered, and be given one-tenth of all revenue from those lands – which would have involved a huge amount of gold. Portugal rejected this proposal, and several others, before Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to fund Columbus. But even they rejected him at first, thinking his plan unfeasible.

Columbus Almost Certainly Wasn’t the First European to Find the New World

Photo: H. E. Marshall/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Historians generally believe that the Norse Viking Leif Eriksson landed in present-day Newfoundland around 1000 CE, 500 years before Columbus set sail. It’s also been hypothesized, though not proven, that Celtic explorers crossed the Atlantic before Eriksson.

Nobody Knows Exactly Where Columbus Landed

Photo: John Vanderlyn/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Columbus was looking for Japan, but what he found was the modern day Bahamas. After leaving the Canary Islands on September 6, strong winds pushed his three-ship fleet westward until they sighted land on October 12. Columbus called this island “San Salvador” – and believed he’d found Asia. The exact location of where he first set foot is still unknown, though it’s been narrowed down to three possible islands.

As Soon as He Landed, He Began Doing Horrible Things

Photo: Theodor de Bry/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Columbus’ actions as a slave trader and by-the-sword evangelist are starting to become more and more widely known in popular culture. And these actions started almost immediately. The first natives he encountered on San Salvador were the Arawak people (also called the Taino), natives to the islands. Columbus found them to be peaceful and loving – and promptly took a group of them prisoner so he could interrogate them as to the location of the Orient’s gold. Subsequent Spanish colonization of the Bahamas was brutal to the Arawaks, and within half a century, they’d almost all be gone.

Not All Three Ships Survived the Voyage

Photo: Dietrich Bartel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Columbus and his crew, which had dwindled due to disease and mutiny, spent three months sailing up and down the Bahamas, from October 12 through January 15, 1493. But it’s not common knowledge that the Santa Maria didn’t survive the trip, having grounded on Christmas Day. Columbus ordered the ship evacuated and blown up with cannons – to impress the natives with Spanish firepower. Columbus then snapped up about two dozen natives to take back as slaves, left 39 men to establish a colony on what’s now Haiti, then headed back to Spain.

The Second Voyage of Columbus Was All About Conquest

Photo: OneArmedMan/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Columbus’s first voyage to the Orient was a trip of exploration. But the second could never be mistaken for anything other than one of colonization and, if necessary, armed conflict. He left Spain on September 23, 1493, with a huge fleet consisting of 17 ships and 1,200 men. Among the passengers were farmers, priests meant to convert natives to Christianity, and armed soldiers to impose Columbus’s will.

Armed Conflict Broke Out on the Second Voyage

Photo: Edward Everett Hale/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Columbus and his fleet made landfall in Dominica, now a small island nation in the Caribbean. He sailed up and down the Lesser Antilles, went back to check on the 39 men he’d left behind at the colony of La Navidad (which had been destroyed with 11 men murdered by the natives for raping local women), and, in an omen of things to come, had an armed skirmish with several tribesmen caught castrating two boys from a different tribe. He established several small colonies, took about 500 Caribbean people as slaves, and headed back to Spain again.

He Still Hoped to Find the Orient on the Third Voyage

Photo: Roke~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Columbus’s third voyage to the New World was delayed almost two years thanks to machinations in the Spanish court. When he finally set sail from Spain in May 1498, he had just seven ships. Several headed for previously established colonies, while Columbus himself and the bulk of his fleet headed south, still hoping to find the mythical passage to the Orient. Instead, he found Trinidad, as well as Venezuela. But the worst was yet to come.

The Third Voyage Ended in Disgrace

Photo: USCapitol/Flickr/Public Domain

Several months of exploring South America left Columbus in poor health and exhausted, so he returned to the colony of Hispaniola, where the Santa Maria had grounded on the first voyage. When he arrived, he was greeted by chaos.

The colonists were unhappy, starving, and threatening to mutiny. The natives were treated horribly, and often responded by murdering the colonists. Columbus and his brothers were cruel governors, and the Taino natives had engaged in armed revolt, which was crushed in 1497. Faced with a number of complaints about his governorship and cruelty, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered Columbus and his brothers arrested, and taken back to Spain in chains.

The Fourth Voyage Was a Disaster

Photo: Roke~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

After spending a few months in prison, Columbus went before Ferdinand and Isabella. They pardoned him and financed a fourth voyage, but stripped him of his governorship. Leaving Cadiz in May 1502 on four decrepit ships, Columbus set forth to find passage to the Indian Ocean.

Instead, he got lost, sailed through a hurricane that annihilated the first Spanish treasure fleet, had two ships sink, and finally had to beach the other two in Jamaica, where he spent a year stranded. While there, he persuaded the natives to supply his desperate men with food and water by predicting a lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504. A relief fleet finally arrived in June, and Columbus reached Spain empty handed in November.

Columbus Wanted What Was His

Photo: John Clark Ridpath/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As befitting someone who wanted to explore new lands primarily to cash in, Columbus spent a lot of time and effort making sure he got what was coming to him. In 1502, shortly before the fourth voyage, Columbus wrote Book of Privileges, a long testimony of all of the titles, riches, positions of power, and rewards he was expecting the Spanish Crown to give him and his descendants as part of his ten percent cut of his exploration.

He Had Become an Apocalyptic Crank

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Like many luminaries of his day, Columbus balanced a keen instinct for exploration with a fervent belief in Biblical prophecy nonsense. He complied a number of apocalyptic “revelations” in Book of Prophecies, which was published in 1501. Among his “revelations” were that Christianity must be spread throughout the world, the Garden of Eden is out there waiting to be found, and that Spain’s King Ferdinand would be the Last World Emperor. 

After His Death, His Remains Traveled the World

Photo: Ввласенко/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Food poisoning on one of his voyages led Columbus to develop a case of reactive arthritis, thought at the time to be gout. Suffering from that, as well as various other ailments he contracted during the four voyages, Columbus died in 1506 in Valliadolid, Spain.

Columbus’s remains were first interred there, then in Seville by his son Diego, who had become governor of Hispaniola. In 1542 the remains were transferred to the present-day Dominican Republic. In 1795, when France took over Hispaniola, Columbus’s remains were again moved, this time to Havana, Cuba. After Cuba became independent following the Spanish–American War in 1898, the remains were moved back to Spain. But it’s likely that not all were moved, and Columbus might actually have resting places in both Cuba and Spain.

His Estate Was Tangled in Lawsuits for Centuries

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

After he died, the children of Columbus waged a lengthy legal battle with the Spanish crown, claiming that the monarchy had short-changed them on money, titles, and property they were due. Most of the Columbian lawsuits were settled by 1536, with the Colón family walking away with the perpetual title of “Admiral of the Indies,” claims on land in Jamaica, Hispaniola, and several other islands; and a large sum of money to be paid annually.

There were still numerous claims to untangle, and the legal proceedings, called the Pleitos colombinos, dragged on until well into the 18th century.

He Left Behind a Complex Legacy

Photo: Robert Fleury/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For centuries, Columbus was venerated as the heroic discoverer of America and he’s still honored with a Federal holiday on October 12. But in recent decades, Columbus’s legacy of brutality toward natives, capturing and movement of slaves, and his pronounced ignorance on many aspects of ocean travel have become more and more well known.

It’s not in dispute that Columbus was a tyrannical governor of Hispaniola, creating a governing system where natives were mutilated for not making their gold-mining quotas, and slaves were regularly shipped back to Spain. But he was also a courageous explorer, making four Atlantic voyages through dangerous waters, rough weather, and totally unexplored territory.

Colonization of the New World also leaves a complex legacy. It wiped out native peoples from San Salvador all the way through the American west – but at the same time, set in motion the events that would lead to the United States and the modern world. Is Columbus a hero or a villain? A conquering monster or a courageous pioneer? In reality, probably all of them

Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery

We do not celebrate Columbus Day here in Australia, so I found this article intriguing, especially in the light of what we now know about Columbus and his governorships and brutality to natives,

Italian-Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus is shown in this work by Italian painter Sebastiano Del Piombo. (AP Photo)

Once again, it’s time to celebrate Columbus Day. Yet, the stunning truth is: If Christopher Columbus were alive today, he would be put on trial for crimes against humanity. Columbus’ reign of terror, as documented by noted historians, was so bloody, his legacy so unspeakably cruel, that Columbus makes a modern villain like Saddam Hussein look like a pale codfish.

Question: Why do we honor a man who, if he were alive today, would almost certainly be sitting on Death Row awaiting execution?

If you’d like to know the true story about Christopher Columbus, please read on. But I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Here’s the basics. On the second Monday in October each year, we celebrate Columbus Day (this year, it’s on October 11th). We teach our school kids a cute little song that goes: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s an American tradition, as American as pizza pie. Or is it? Surprisingly, the true story of Christopher Columbus has very little in common with the myth we all learned in school.

Columbus Day, as we know it in the United States, was invented by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization. Back in the 1930s, they were looking for a Catholic hero as a role-model their kids could look up to. In 1934, as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt signed Columbus Day into law as a federal holiday to honor this courageous explorer. Or so we thought.

There are several problems with this. First of all, Columbus wasn’t the first European to discover America. As we all know, the Viking, Leif Ericson probably founded a Norse village on Newfoundland some 500 years earlier. So, hat’s off to Leif. But if you think about it, the whole concept of discovering America is, well, arrogant. After all, the Native Americans discovered North America about 14,000 years before Columbus was even born! Surprisingly, DNA evidence now suggests that courageous Polynesian adventurers sailed dugout canoes across the Pacific and settled in South America long before the Vikings.

Second, Columbus wasn’t a hero. When he set foot on that sandy beach in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, Columbus discovered that the islands were inhabited by friendly, peaceful people called the Lucayans, Taínos and Arawaks. Writing in his diary, Columbus said they were a handsome, smart and kind people. He noted that the gentle Arawaks were remarkable for their hospitality. “They offered to share with anyone and when you ask for something, they never say no,” he said. The Arawaks had no weapons; their society had neither criminals, prisons nor prisoners. They were so kind-hearted that Columbus noted in his diary that on the day the Santa Maria was shipwrecked, the Arawaks labored for hours to save his crew and cargo. The native people were so honest that not one thing was missing.

Columbus was so impressed with the hard work of these gentle islanders, that he immediately seized their land for Spain and enslaved them to work in his brutal gold mines. Within only two years, 125,000 (half of the population) of the original natives on the island were dead.

If I were a Native American, I would mark October 12, 1492, as a black day on my calendar.

Shockingly, Columbus supervised the selling of native girls into sexual slavery. Young girls of the ages 9 to 10 were the most desired by his men. In 1500, Columbus casually wrote about it in his log. He said: “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

He forced these peaceful natives work in his gold mines until they died of exhaustion. If an “Indian” worker did not deliver his full quota of gold dust by Columbus’ deadline, soldiers would cut off the man’s hands and tie them around his neck to send a message. Slavery was so intolerable for these sweet, gentle island people that at one point, 100 of them committed mass suicide. Catholic law forbade the enslavement of Christians, but Columbus solved this problem. He simply refused to baptize the native people of Hispaniola.

On his second trip to the New World, Columbus brought cannons and attack dogs. If a native resisted slavery, he would cut off a nose or an ear. If slaves tried to escape, Columbus had them burned alive. Other times, he sent attack dogs to hunt them down, and the dogs would tear off the arms and legs of the screaming natives while they were still alive. If the Spaniards ran short of meat to feed the dogs, Arawak babies were killed for dog food.

Columbus’ acts of cruelty were so unspeakable and so legendary – even in his own day – that Governor Francisco De Bobadilla arrested Columbus and his two brothers, slapped them into chains, and shipped them off to Spain to answer for their crimes against the Arawaks. But the King and Queen of Spain, their treasury filling up with gold, pardoned Columbus and let him go free.

One of Columbus’ men, Bartolome De Las Casas, was so mortified by Columbus’ brutal atrocities against the native peoples, that he quit working for Columbus and became a Catholic priest. He described how the Spaniards under Columbus’ command cut off the legs of children who ran from them, to test the sharpness of their blades. According to De Las Casas, the men made bets as to who, with one sweep of his sword, could cut a person in half. He says that Columbus’ men poured people full of boiling soap. In a single day, De Las Casas was an eye witness as the Spanish soldiers dismembered, beheaded, or raped 3000 native people. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” De Las Casas wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

De Las Casas spent the rest of his life trying to protect the helpless native people. But after a while, there were no more natives to protect. Experts generally agree that before 1492, the population on the island of Hispaniola probably numbered above 3 million. Within 20 years of Spanish arrival, it was reduced to only 60,000. Within 50 years, not a single original native inhabitant could be found.

In 1516, Spanish historian Peter Martyr wrote: “… a ship without compass, chart, or guide, but only following the trail of dead Indians who had been thrown from the ships could find its way from the Bahamas to Hispaniola.”

Christopher Columbus derived most of his income from slavery, De Las Casas noted. In fact, Columbus was the first slave trader in the Americas. As the native slaves died off, they were replaced with black slaves. Columbus’ son became the first African slave trader in 1505.

Are you surprised you never learned about any of this in school? I am too. Why do we have this extraordinary gap in our American ethos? Columbus himself kept detailed diaries, as did some of his men including De Las Casas and Michele de Cuneo. (If you don’t believe me, just Google the words Columbus, sex slave, and gold mine.)

Columbus’ reign of terror is one of the darkest chapters in our history. The REAL question is: Why do we celebrate a holiday in honor of this man? (Take three deep breaths. If you’re like me, your stomach is heaving at this point. I’m sorry. Sometimes the truth hurts. That said, I’d like to turn in a more positive direction.)

Call me crazy, but I think holidays ought to honor people who are worthy of our admiration, true heroes who are positive role models for our children. If we’re looking for heroes we can truly admire, I’d like to offer a few candidates. Foremost among them are school kids.

Let me tell you about some school kids who are changing the world. I think they are worthy of a holiday. My friend Nan Peterson is the director of the Blake School, a K-12 school in Minnesota. She recently visited Kenya. Nan says there are 33 million people in Kenya… and 11 million of them are orphans! Can you imagine that? She went to Kibera, the slum outside Nairobi, and a boy walked up to her and handed her a baby. He said: My father died. My mother died… and I’m not feeling so good myself. Here, take my sister. If I die, they will throw her into the street to die.

There are so many orphans in Kenya, the baby girls are throwaways!

Nan visited an orphanage for girls. The girls were starving to death. They had one old cow that only gave one cup of milk a day. So each girl only got ONE TEASPOON of milk a day!

After this heartbreaking experience, Nan went home to her school in Minnesota and asked the kids… what can we do? The kids got the idea to make homemade paper and sell it to buy a cow. So they made a bunch of paper, and sold the paper, and when they were done they had enough money to buy… FOUR COWS! And enough food to feed all of the cows for ONE FULL YEAR! These are kids… from 6 years old to 18… saving the lives of kids halfway around the world. And I thought: If a 6-year-old could do that… what could I do?

At Casady School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, seemingly “average” school kids raised $20,000 to dig clean water wells for children in Ethiopia. These kids are heroes. Why don’t we celebrate “Kids Who Are Changing the Planet” Day?

Let me ask you a question: Would we celebrate Columbus Day if the story of Christopher Columbus were told from the point-of-view of his victims? No way!

The truth about Columbus is going to be a hard pill for some folks to swallow. Please, don’t think I’m picking on Catholics. All the Catholics I know are wonderful people. I don’t want to take away their holiday or their hero. But if we’re looking for a Catholic our kids can admire, the Catholic church has many, many amazing people we could name a holiday after. How about Mother Teresa day? Or St. Francis of Assisi day? Or Betty Williams day (another Catholic Nobel Peace Prize winner). These men and women are truly heroes of peace, not just for Catholics, but for all of us.

Let’s come clean. Let’s tell the truth about Christopher Columbus. Let’s boycott this outrageous holiday because it honors a mass murderer. If we skip the cute song about “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” I don’t think our first graders will miss it much, do you? True, Columbus’ brutal treatment of peaceful Native Americans was so horrific… maybe we should hide the truth about Columbus until our kids reach at least High School age. Let’s teach it to them about the same time we tell them about the Nazi death camps.

While we’re at it, let’s rewrite our history books. From now on, instead of glorifying the exploits of mass murderers like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte, let’s teach our kids about true heroes, men and women of courage and kindness who devoted their lives to the good of others. There’s a long list, starting with Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy.

These people were not adventurers who “discovered” an island in the Caribbean. They were noble souls who discovered what is best in the human spirit.

Why don’t we create a holiday to replace Columbus Day?

Let’s call it Heroes of Peace Day.

Reference

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