Heroism Built from Fictions

The Christopher Columbus You Never Learned About In School

David Stone

Assumed Portrait of Christopher Columbus
Assumed Portrait of Christopher Columbus
Understanding the truth about Christopher Columbus is not so easy, after all we've been told. But in today's political climate, masks are torn off, and in maturing as a nation, we are being asked to make a reckoning with truths about our history that have been covered up and distorted.

What we know about Columbus, what scholars always knew and refused to disclose for fear of public backlash, is far from the pretty picture public school teachers and textbooks painted.

Christopher Columbus: The Man Who Almost Discovered America

History of Accidental Discovery and Intentional Slaughter

Myth-making about our American heritage is a big part of what shapes our sense of who we are in the world when we're growing up. I remember learning about Columbus in school.

He was, we were told, a bold pioneer who challenged the common wisdom that the world was flat.

His ships, he was warned, would fall off the edge, into some hellish oblivion.

Only Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were willing, against all odds, make his voyage of discovery possible, financing the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in search of the New World.

But wait a minute?

How could he be looking for the New World when nobody, including Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella, imagined there was one?

Columbus's actual intention was to enrich himself and Spain by finding a sailing route to Asia and its fabled wealth.

But through his bravery, he discovered America instead, leading to colonization by an enlightened European culture.

Little of this, it turns out, is true.


Yes, Christopher Columbus believed he was on his way to Asia and thought he'd landed in India where spices were available that might please the King - and make Columbus, who negotiated 10% of the profits as part of his deal, wealthy too.

That's right, Columbus was no Meriwether Lewis or William Clark, off to explore new lands for the sake of patriotic discovery. He was in it for the money.

But Columbus Discovered America!

Dumb luck, notwithstanding that you can't "discover" a land already populated, coast to coast, by native Americans.

Columbus's ridiculously off-base calculations about the size of the world turned off every monarch he approached before the Spaniards.

He figured the world as much smaller than it is, roughly five times smaller, no matter what everyone else believed, and his wrongheaded convictions would have lead to the death by starvation of his entire crew had he not bumped into the Caribbean Islands by accident.

Even at that, still sure of himself in spite of the evidence, Columbus insisted he'd landed on islands just off the coast of China.

Delacroix painting of Christopher Columbus returning to Spain before Ferdinand and Isabella, with captured Arawak
Delacroix painting of Christopher Columbus returning to Spain before Ferdinand and Isabella, with captured Arawak

In order to tickle the King and Queen into more financing, he also claimed, without evidence, that there were vast fields of gold - and, tragically for the future of North America and Africa, thousands of compliant natives who could be exported to Spain as slaves.

Oh, and the flat world thing? No educated person thought the world was flat in 1492, and most hadn't since Aristotle explained that the Earth is an rounded orb, nearly two-thousand years earlier.

Celebrating The Father of "Complete Genocide" On October 12th

"The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide." - Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, Harvard Professor and historian Samuel Eliot Morison from Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus.

What's striking about this quote is that Morison goes on to excuse the explorer's atrocities because of what he describes as "...his superb faith in God and his own mission as the Christ-bearer," offering the same kind of religiously-based rationalizations put up to justify genocides and ethnic cleansings around the world.

Although the Catholic Encyclopedia lionizes Columbus and justifies the wrongful characterization by leaving out the ugliest parts of the story, few Catholics or other Christians would honor Christopher Columbus on October 12th each year, if they knew everything there is to know about him.

What kind of gutlessness influenced the educational authorities of my generation to turn a blind eye on Columbus's brutality and failures? It's not as if they weren't known. They were. They just were taught.

We don't honor with individual national holidays of tribute to Lewis or Clark, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Cabot, Henry Hudson, John Hancock or a host of other gallant figures who risked their lives in the discovery and building of America.

Aside from Martin Luther King and Christ, it's Christopher Columbus alone who's given a solo day of tribute. It's unjustified and a blow to American ideals of freedom and honor.

Statue of Columbus at the end of Las Ramblas in Barcelona
Statue of Columbus at the end of Las Ramblas in Barcelona

Histories of Native American Genocide

Descendents of European culture may feel comfortable mythologizing Christopher Columbus's legend as discoverer and settler of the new world.

But the Arawak and other cultures were already settled here, and what may seem like bravery to us in the Age of Discovery and beyond was a decades long genocide for them. 

Christopher Columbus And The Profits Of Slavery

"We could subjugate them all..." Christopher Columbus

A famous painting by Delacroix depicts Columbus triumphant return to the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, who - who we shouldn't forget - were also the leaders of the bloody Spanish Inquisition.

We've been taught the myths, but what did Christopher Columbus really do?

He never set foot in North America. He probably didn't realize it was there.

That is well-known. He discovered the Caribbean because he was a terrible navigator who miscalculated the size of the world, thinking he'd hit Asia.

Arriving in the Indies, Columbus set a tone for a tragic future, as he wrote in his log, "I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."

Ominously, he added, "They would make fine servants. With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

As samples for the King and Queen, Columbus brought a handful of Arawak natives with him on his return to Spain, probably by force or deception. Several died when exposed to cold weather for the first time.

In his appeal for financing for a second voyage west, highlighting the benefits he hoped to bring the Spanish monarch, Columbus promised "...as much gold as they need...and as many slaves as they ask."

Among his first shipment of five-hundred human slaves, two-hundred died on the way to Spain, much as, in centuries to come, African slaves would perish in large numbers during the ocean crossing to America.

Undeterred by this human catastrophe and driven most likely by his growing realization that he was never going to find enough gold to pay back his investors, Columbus next invoked God as his guide.

"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity," he wrote, "go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

I'll spare you the cruelties that were common in Columbus’s administration of the Indies as well as that of his followers, but you should be aware that among the results was the "complete genocide" of the Arawak people who had occupied the area, living communally in relative peace, for hundreds of years before Columbus lead his crew of Spaniards onto their lands.

So peaceful were the Arawak that they swam out to meet Columbus's ships when they saw them break the horizon.

The Arawak freely shared whatever they had with Columbus and his men.

Eventually and before he was recalled to Spain under charges of extreme cruelty toward the natives, Columbus and his underlings tortured and killed many.

Those still alive were forced into slavery.

The Most Un-American Holiday, Columbus Day, October 12

There's a minor industry of excuse makers and myth builders, from the Knights of Columbus to Fox News, who campaign to keep the long accepted story of Columbus’s heroism alive.

I agree that having heroes, even mythological ones that stand out as shining examples of the ideals we cherish, are worth keeping in our collective cultural consciousness.

In down to earth terms, Gandhi’s brave nonviolence in search of independence, and Nelson Mandela's astonishing sacrifices for racial equality are right in front of us.

The band of brothers who risked death for treason by standing up to King George deserve to be recognized as do women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who faced ridicule and rejection to win women the same rights the Brothers won.

So does the courage of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers.

I can easily come up with a hundred Americans more deserving than the genocidal, accidental tourist who got lucky by bumping into the Bahamas.

That we allow so many brave men and women to fade into the background while we salute Christopher Columbus should make us think again about the example we make when we put Christopher on a pedestal as representative of our American values.

Christopher Columbus on Crusade

Like the Conquistadors who followed, Christopher Columbus had little regard for human rights or respect for the natives in the lands where he landed.

His motivations were religious and ambitious, a brutal combination in which genocide was as comfortable for him as it was for his handlers, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the beasts who sponsored the Inquisition.

Americans have nothing of which to be proud or worth celebrating on October 12, Columbus birthday.

And let's take down every damned statue of this mass murderer too.

Columbus's Ashes
Columbus's Ashes

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