Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Columbus was like a 7 year old brat

How Christopher Columbus got his own holiday might be one of the seven wonders of history. I confess that I have a bit of a bone to pick with Chris. My disenchantment goes back to my third grade history report in which I sentimentally droned on about what a fabulous guy he was, only to find out later I had been fed a pack of lies.

Smarty pants
Let’s start with the story we know and love. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue from Spain to the islands of the Caribbean while looking for a sea route to the Indies. No, he didn’t believe the earth was flat. No one thought the earth was flat. But Columbus also certainly didn’t expect to hit the Americas instead of his desired destination. Unfortunately, when anyone tried to tell him he hadn't arrived in the Indies, the naysayer ended up with their tongue cut off.

Go ahead and make me
His voyages were also not as harmonious as my history books led me to believe. After weeks of being lost at sea, his crew begged him to turn around, but Columbus refused. The desperate crew soon came to the conclusion that it would just be better for everyone if they threw Columbus overboard. But there was one problem. No one but Columbus knew the way home and their captain’s last dieing words were not going to include directions. Everyone believed that they would die. So you can imagine the rejoicing when the crew landed in the Caribbean. That’s when the fun began.

Mine, Mine, Mine
As soon as Columbus’s crew got off the boat, they slapped down a Spanish flag claiming the unknown territory. Unfortunately, the land already belonged to some confused Native Americans of the Arawak tribe. According to Columbus’s log, the Arawaks thought Columbus’s crew were straight out of heaven accept they couldn’t quite understand why angels stunk so much and why they were wearing so much darn clothes. Then, they became even more confused when the angels turned out to be no-good thieves.

Indian Givers
We first must understand how the Arawak culture worked. The natives sort of remind me of my grandmother (god rest her soul). I would say, “nice necklace grandma” and she would immediately insist that I have it. Tell her you like her cookies and she would send you home with every last crumb. The Native Americans demonstrated the same generosity. If you complimented anything they owned, then they would immediately give it away. But there was a catch. The Indians would give things away….but then they would expect them back. To them, humans didn’t own things. Columbus saw things a bit differently. Once someone gave you something (or you stole it), it was yours to keep. He called the natives “Indian Givers”, (a phrase we still use today), and couldn't understand why they would want their gifts back.

Yuck, Cooties!
And what did the natives get in return for their generosity? Columbus’s crew gave some very special gifts to them in the form of measles, tetanus, typhoid, influenza, pneumonia, dysentery, whooping cough, smallpox and pork chops. The last one was Queen Isabella’s idea. She knew a fattened pig was the perfect food source. Unfortunately, the pigs also spread trichinosis. All those poor Native Americans knew is that one minute they were living happily smoking their peace pipe with perfectly working bowel movements and the next they had a bad case of the runs and some wild pigs running through their homes. Fair? Hardly.

oooouuuuuu shiny things
By now, the honeymoon was over. The Indians soon had enough and attacked Columbus’s crew killing many of them. Columbus just got more men to come over and enslaved the Indians forcing them to mine for gold. Meanwhile, the Indians just couldn’t understand why Europeans got so worked up over shinny things. It would be like a bunch of aliens landing in New York and demanding large quantities of bobble head dolls. Sure, bobble head dolls are amusing, but they have no monetary value. To the Indians, gold was not currency, and certainly not something that they were willing to die for.

I know you are, but what am I
Columbus seemed to take a sadistic delight in the rape, pillage and murder of innocent people. The rape and pillaging part is generally scratched out of the history books because it makes a far less picturesque tale then the tiny ships of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria merrily sailing across the ocean. Any Indian who didn’t give Columbus enough gold immediately had his hands cut off or was bled to death. By the time Columbus was done being a fabulously swell guy, 250,000 Indians had died. ok ok, we must remember that this was part of exploration and he did nothing more horrible than any other explorer of his time. But like my grandmother always said…. just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When you look at all the mayhem Columbus caused, you can’t help but wonder why school children everywhere still have to write reports on such a big jerk. But if there is one thing that the kids at home should learn from this blog it is this - the person with the most toys gets to write the history books and Columbus certainly brought back his share of new toys. His spoils included gold, slaves, chocolate, peanuts, potatoes, tobacco and possibly syphilis.**

Maybe Columbus' appeal to school kids is because he kind of acted like a spoiled brat. He didn't share. He spread countless germs. He bullied others. He is the kind of guy that we teach are children not to grow up and become. So why then do we honor him in classrooms across America?

** Some historians even argue that good old Chis spent his last days suffering from some itchiness. The other side of the debate is that Columbus did not bring back syphilis to Europe. Syphilis may have randomly mutated into a virulent pathogen at the end of the 15th century and the fact that it began to wreak havok on the population at the time of Columbus’s return home was mere coincidence.

Sources and Further Reading:
Hayden, Deborah. Pox: Genius, Madness, And The Mysteries Of Syphilis, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2003.
Christopher Columbus: Explorer of the New World. DVD. History Channel. 2005.
Cook, Noble David, “Sickness, Starvation, and Death in Early Hispaniola”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Winter, 2002), pp. 349-386.


Unknown said...

I totally agree with you! I was talking with a few friends on Friday about why we get this day off from work - it truly makes no sense. I think this is the most ridiculous holiday - thanks for the post!

ibeeeg said...

This was a very interesting post for which I am going to with my teenage children.

Curious: Did you use specific resources for this post or can one just google to find your posted information?

Heather Carroll said...

It might make you happy to know, I was in a first grade class last friday and they were talking about Columbus (no big unit like I remember in school) and I was happy to find that the teachers were now saying "we celebrate Columbus bc he discovered America, but how can you discover America when it was already there!" So thank goodness things are changing a little!

I love this post, especially the Indian Giver part, I didn't know how that phrase came to be!

Amy said...

When I was in 5th grade, I did a report on Christopher Columbus. I figured, "Easy A. 1492 and all that rot." After doing research in the library (there was no Wikipedia back then: horrors!!), I discovered the "truth" about Columbus. When I handed in my report, my teacher was so impressed/horrified my my research, so had me come to the teacher's lounge during recess and read my report to the few teacher-friends she had assembled there. I was rewarded with cookies and chips and a soda from their vending machines.
Then I was sent home with a note, asking my parents to stop writing my reports for me.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

First of all, it took years before I realized that Columbus was Italian and that's why so many Italians were in the Columbus day parade, and then to realize that they basically slaughtered the native population. It's why I have such problems with Thanksgiving as well. Yeah, smallpox blankets!

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

This is great. It reminds me of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Bearded Lady said...

dolleygurl - glad you like the post.

Deanna - sources are listed in the bottom. For some reason, it didn't get posted the first time I published the post?

Heather - errrr Columbus wasn't even the first to discover America!

Amy - that is too funny! You were much sharper than I was as a child.

Elizabeth - my family is Italian and they get mad at me for dissing Columbus. I was told insulting Columbus was "unAmerican"

A Bookshelf-Monstrosity - I read that book many years ago and I loved it.

Amanda said...

And that was just the beginning of all the fun things Spain and later others did to the New World. Great post. Maybe we should keep the day though in remembrance...learn from history's past mistakes.

Carrie K said...

Shh! Don't let them take any more holidays away from us, however ill deserved the man the holiday is named after. Excellent post!

Bearded Lady said...

oh I agree. I may go on and on about what a creep Columbus was but I still want my holiday!

Unknown said...

Oh I really loved your post *-*

I found the gifts part was the most interesting to me. Because I live in Brazil and the portuguese did basically almost the same give gift to indians thing, the difference is that they gave silly things like pieces of glass and beaded beads and in exchange they wanted the indians to do all the work, like cutting the Brazilwood and stuff like that. And with that exchange they also wanted to make alliance with the indians to fight against the french. French and portuguese did different alliances with diferent tribes because they wanted to have control of the new found land.
So I always thought the giveft giving was the same on all the Americas (except the french part of course)

I never really liked Columbus, his life never was of an interest to me, and I always get pissed when people say he discovered the continent! There were people living there already, hellooo! One of the reasons I can't stand the topic of Brazil's "discovery". I really don't know how peole buy it, Portugal and Spain signed that stupid Tordesillas Treaty, how could they not know there was a land where the line passed! Portuguese knew that there was a land over there since Columbus arrived, they signed the Tordesillas Treaty but after that never really sended anyone to there. Only when the French threatned to take over the land it's where the portuguese decided that they should name the new land their land.

But well, I'm starting to ramble and I'm really really sorry. When I start to talk about history I desperately need to someone to shut me up. I'm really sorry! =P

Leslie Carroll said...

Oh, Carlyn, how I love your writing; and your perspective! In my chapter on Isabella and Ferdinand in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, I remove Columbus's saintly mask as well, and I'm glad that the discussion of his place in history is becoming more, well, well-rounded. "Un-American to insult Columbus"! That cracks me up.

Sapheyerblu said...

Outstanding article. My husband is part Native American, so we don't observe Columbus Day anyway. But I remember when I was in grade school what a big deal it was. Not so much anymore, though. I don't think my kids did a whole lot for the "holiday". Could have something to do with the fact that we live just south of the Lakota nation and just east of the Ogallala nation. Columbus isn't a big hero around these parts. LOL