Monday, October 10, 2011


One of the first things you learn about being a foreigner on foreign soil is to identify yourself by the nation you come from.  We have grown up citing our heritage (I’m half-Irish and half-Mexican) rather than our country because America is called the melting pot – full of Americans who are (as Schoolhouse Rock says) “something else as well”.

We have learned to say we are from the US, primarily because our fuax pas of saying we were American happened in Brazil, where a highly educated Brazilian said, at the table we were eating, “So are we!” The table erupted in laughter, and I sensed a feeling of being told off, by people who were used to the narcissism of visitors from the USA.  South Americans are Americans, too, he insinuated, loud and clear. 

In school we were taught that “Columbus discovered America” and we memorized the poem “In 1492 Columbus sailed the Ocean, blue”.  We were taught that if it weren’t for Columbus we wouldn’t be here.  

  Somewhere after Columbus came the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, then Lewis and Clark.  All of these were before recess and sometimes my mind  wandered.  All I needed was a teacher to spice things up – maybe by telling us all the real truth. 

First in to the North Amrican spaces were (by most theorists) the ice-trekking Asians who later became known as “Native Americans”.   Second was Leif Erikson, who plunked down on Newfoundland and third was a misguided, clueless...and brave leader named Cristoforo Colombo, hailing from Italy. 

Colombo (we call him Columbus) started sailing as a young child (some say as young as 10) and later learned to navigate by stars, the greatest danger known to man: the Ocean Sea.  He was part of trips to the Indies, where spices, tea and (shhhh) opiates were collected and brought back to the European monarchies, who shared the wealth with the upper class of their nations: those who paid. 

This “spice route” was powered by the greatest ally of any sailor: the trade winds.  These helped the relatively small ships negotiate the powerful ocean, waiting to push them into oblivion – literally over the edge, as many believed.

It is the “earth is flat” belief that kept Columbus from obtaining funds for his own Captaincy to the Indies.  Although Christoforo (now 41 years old) had a theory that he could get to Asia  faster and use different winds, the theory was unpopular and became a taboo subject in Portugal and Italy.  It is still unclear to most historians how Columbus got the knowledge of faster winds (he didn’t write about it in his journals), but he eventually convinced the Spanish monarchy to fund his trip—pay for his crew, his ships, and the food and water they would need- to Asia, not the “new world”.  Columbus, in all estimation, never hypothesized that there was land between Europe and the Asia.  Like many great discoveries, it was an accident.

What Columbus “discovered” on his first trip (he set sail on On the evening of 3 August 1492)  with his three ships: the Santa María (nicknamed Gallega), Pinta (the Painted) and Santa Clara, (nicknamed Niña after her owner Juan Niño)  was modern day San Salvador, or the Bahamas. 

On the morning of October 12, 1492, a lookout from the Nina spotted land, or light,  from the shore.   This sighting was hotly disputed between the crew and its captain: Columbus claimed for years after that he had seen the light hours earlier.  Typical man. 

The indigenous people he met there were peaceful and friendly, and a little surprised to have visitors.  Colombus saw them as a vulnerable people, but realized that they would have to become slaves...and be baptized. 

On October 12, 1492, Columbus wrote the following in his journal:  

"Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”
 As with the feeling of the day, he also wrote:
"I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”

Between 1492 and 1503, Columbus completed four round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas, funded all by Ferdinand and Isabella.  Because of this, the Americas spoke primarily Spanish and had Spanish names to identify them.  It began the inevitable:  the European exploration and colonization of the American continents.  With progress (the discovery of the “new world”) always comes the bad (the enslavement and genocide of its native peoples).  It is the inevitable mark of the conquerors and the conquered. 

Though not popular now to speak this out loud, Columbus did the inevitable: he ran into the Americas.  Someone was going to do it, and it might as well be him.  Since the leaders in the field of exploration that day (the Italians and Portuguese) also served a Catholic monarchy, the fate of the Americas would  most likely have been the same.  In my estimation, the day is worth celebrating, even though we celebrate the joy of discovery as well as the darkness of conquering kingdoms. 

In my opinion,  this it what Columbus did wrong:  

  • ·         He miscalculated the size of the sea, mainly because  had a relatively low estimate of the size of the Earth;
  • ·         He  believed that the Europe and Asian landmass (Eurasia) was the  largest mass on earth (although most map-makers had already hypothesized that the connecting African continent was much larger);
  • ·         He believed (and taught his crew)  that Japan and other inhabited islands lay far to the east of the coast of China.
  • ·         He refused to “claim the land” of San Salvador for Spain – thinking that they were part of Asia.   This may explain why, in part, why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci and not after himself (We are America, not Columbia).
  • ·         His pride kept him from achieving closeness with his crew, as Lewis and Clark did with the Corps of Discovery. 

In my opinion,  this it what Columbus did right:  

  • ·         He showed tenacity to fund a trip that was completely original, and didn’t take “no” for an answer, even from his home country;
  • ·         In the face of mounting opinions to the contrary, Columbus believed Aristotle’s  theory of a spherical earth, and  boldly took on the Church to explain his route and his confidence in it.
  • ·         While he had shortcomings aplenty, he delivered the goods:  that there was a new route, and his theory (later proven by many, including Vespucci) of new winds was not lethal;
  • ·         He brought back chocolate, tomatoes, corn cassava and tobacco. 

Many countries in the Americas celebrate the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas, which occurred on October 12, 1492, as an official holiday.  

Once, in my classroom, we illustrated the holiday by taking  a picture of Columbus, outlining it with glue and sprinkling powdered spices on it.   Two of the kids had to go home because they got the stuff in their eyes and their parents didn’t speak to me for about a week.

Like Columbus, I’m an example of having a good idea, but not exactly having it work out the way I saw it going.