For many it’s a day off from school or work and, I guess, reason enough to celebrate. For me, it goes back to history and the manner that history is taught across our country.
My seven year old daughter came home from school this past Friday and told me how her teacher read her a book about Christopher Columbus to explain “Why we celebrate him.” When I asked her what the book was about she told me it was about “some guy” who sailed on 3 boats, the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria and who “discovered America.” Then she rattled off the grade-school rhyme that many educators use to teach students about Christopher Columbus:
“In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
What my daughter describes being taught is not much different from the myth of Columbus that is perpetuated throughout many classrooms in the US. A google search of ‘Christopher Columbus rhyme” brought up numerous pages with lesson plans for teachers, incorporating the rhyme and other myths. Some common myths of the Columbus story: Columbus thought the earth was round when everyone at the time thought it flat. Columbus set sail to search for much-needed spices. Columbus discovered America or Columbus was the first European to discover America.
These statements simply aren’t true. Columbus, and most people of the time, knew the world was round. Columbus didn’t set sail in search of spices. His primary motive was the search for gold and a secondary motive of spreading European Christianity. That Columbus discovered America is false for several reasons: a) Columbus landed on many islands in the Americas (as seen in the map above) but never touched ground in continental North America, b) many explorers, including Leif Erikson, the Viking, landed and founded settlements in the Americas, many years before Columbus and, c) Native Americans discovered the Americas, including North America, tens of thousands of years before Columbus was even born. In sum, these statements are false, though the greatly exaggerated and omitted parts of the Columbus story are what truly make me upset.
In fourteen hundred ninety three, Columbus stole all he could see.
Christopher Columbus is portrayed to be a hero. Humanizing factors of his character have been exaggerated and focused upon. The history that is omitted and, often not know by many Americans, does not fit in alignment with a hero. Christopher Columbus was directly involved in the enslavement and genocide of entire cultures. “[He] introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass.” (excerpt from Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen)
Other acts of cruelty committed or ordered by Columbus included sexual slavery, rape, punishments by way of cutting off a native’s nose, ear or hands for resisting slavery, sending dogs to hunt after natives and maiming them, killing natives to be fed to the dogs and many more horrific atrocities. Not to mention Columbus’ role in the destruction and genocide of the Lucayans, Taínos and Arawaks cultures.
So, why does Columbus get the hero treatment? Why are the parts of his cruelty omitted while the parts of his exploration played up? Looking back on my childhood education I wish I had been taught the true story of Christopher Columbus; the truth of all history. Teaching children blatant lies about history, often omitting the negative details, does not benefit them or the adults they grow to be. If more people in our world were taught all of the truth and not just bits and pieces, they could potentially form better, more informed choices.
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen. I received a copy at my high school graduation from one of my teachers. It was an eyeopener at the time and a book I recommend to everyone.
Transform Columbus Day, webpage for the Transform Columbus Day Alliance who actively rejects the celebration of Christopher Columbus and his legacy of domination, oppression, and colonialism. As well as rejecting historical misconceptions regarding Columbus.
NY Times, Slavery and Colonialism Make Up the True Legacy of Columbus.
Huffington Post, Eric Kasum: Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery