It turns out the history I learned in second grade was wrong.
Those of us born in the barbaric age of black & white TV learned Columbus discovered America, which allowed the migration of freedom-loving, intrepid people of all races the opportunity to establish the greatest nation on Earth, a nation that has provided the greatest economic bounty and personal freedom to people from every social class. Later, these hard-working and diligent people created the game of baseball from the insanity that was cricket, thus bringing peace and tranquility to many afternoons.
According to those folks 35 and younger, who learned history in the more enlightened times—post 1990, that is—Christopher Columbus discovered America, handed the indigenous people smallpox-laden blankets, stole their land, raped their women, and allowed white Europeans the opportunity to destroy the noble, animistic, peace-loving culture of the quote-unquote Native Americans. Later, these same greedy white men invented capitalism, a system of wealth accumulation that enriched them while impoverishing everyone else.
What happened to Columbus?
The Truth does not lie somewhere in the middle, as people tend to suggest Truth will be found. The Truth ran away and hid behind the door while the rest of us manipulated facts to fit our paradigm.
Christopher Columbus—or Cristofolo Colombo, in his native Italian—actually made four voyages to the New World, all of them to Hispaniola, a mid-sized island in the Caribbean. Hispaniola is best known for coup d’etat, hurricanes, and being home to the nation of Haiti. With the Santa Maria sunk out from under him, Christopher greeted the native Taino people, said hello, shook hands, and picked up some nice t-shirts for the kids back home. He left behind a handful of sailors, who promptly infected the natives with a cornucopia of diseases, including—probably—small pox. They didn’t mean to, but hey, shit happens and people die.
On subsequent missions, Christopher brought his pals, the Dons, to Hispaniola. The Spanish nobles, not to be outdone by a bunch of illiterate sailors, committed atrocious acts of genocide and enslavement, and attempted to exterminate the Tainos, which certainly gives Columbus a bit of a black eye, historically speaking.
Important fact Mrs. Green, my second-grade teacher, failed to mention: Columbus never noticed the enormous land mass a hundred miles to the west. Never set foot on any part of North or South America, or even that skinny bit in the middle.
Another Italian should share in Christopher’s fame-slash-infamy. Amerigo Vespucci ran into South America while navigating for the Portuguese, who wanted new lands and native peoples to pillage. We can thank Amerigo for the name of our continent, yet he didn’t get a cool mnemonic poem written about him sailing the ocean blue.
We should also add to the list John Cabot, whose real name was Giovani Caboto (another damned Italian!), who smacked into Newfoundland in 1497. He sailed for that rascally white guy, Henry VII—the father of the serial wife-killer.
And then there’s the damn Vikings, who hated paperwork and lost all their files during a pillage or while quaffing too many ales in the longboat. Had they not, we’d be celebrating the discovery of Erikland by Leif and his horn-helmeted kin.
So is there a point to Columbus Day? What, exactly, are we celebrating? (Beyond the Macy’s Clearance Event Sale, I mean.) Should we gift the Postal Service with a day off in order to remember to the guy who opened the door for his party boys back home to decimate the Taino on Hispaniola? Or should we say what we really mean when we honor the “discovery” of this hemisphere by European explorers?
I suggest two actions to rectify this misunderstanding of Columbus’ place in history.
One, if you’re suffering from retrograde guilt related to American history, and it burns in your gullet that superior firepower and organized industrialism destroyed both the agrarian and the nomadic indigenous people (who stole the land from the Anasazi), then you should move back to England. Give your home to a descendant of the Cherokee, Apache, or Comanche. Or to anybody from Oklahoma. That will help restore the balance by (a) ridding us of another hair-shirt and (b) opening up some minimum wage jobs for someone else.
Second, I move that we change the name of Columbus Day, for the sake of accuracy. My favorite alternates are Damn Glad We’re Americans Day, or TGI’m American and Not French. If I can’t have that, then I’ll enjoy both Columbus Day and Thanksgiving without a scintilla of guilt over why, knowing as I do the real reason we honor the explorers of the 15th Century.