Columbus Day during my childhood celebrated the intrepid explorer. Each October our class recited, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” We learned about Christopher Columbus discovering America while seeking a new route to India.
Columbus erroneously believed that he found an alternate route to India; and he called the native people “Indians.” The sanitized history of the 1960s taught that Chris and his crew brought the gift of Western civilization to a savage, untamed continent.
Historical “facts” morph over time. Columbus probably didn’t discover the New World first. Evidence suggests Leif Erikson among others visited the land centuries earlier.
Then there’s the use of the word “discover.” The indigenous people occupied the land for generations. They would have been surprised to learn their home needed discovering. If an intrepid member of the Powhatan tribe sailed a dugout canoe across the North Atlantic, would historians give him credit for discovering England?
This raises another point: the history we learned dealt primarily with Western civilization. Granted, American history emerges from European history. The exploration and colonization of the Americas primarily involved Portugal, England, Spain, and France, although Russia did make inroads on the western coast.
Today’s historians take a global approach to world history. Highly developed civilizations evolved in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Students now learn about Mayan mathematicians, Arabic philosophers, Chinese chemists, and Japanese poetry.
And what to think of Christopher Columbus? Did he bravely set forth on unknown seas to discover a New World? Or did he serve as a chauvinistic agent of the Old World who left pestilence and privation in his wake? The truth rests somewhere between the two extremes. Columbus was neither an unsullied saint nor a stained sinner but a mixture of the two.
Columbus sailed into the unknown on a 70-foot ship. He risked life and fortune on a radical notion of a round world. This week we honor his intrepid spirit of exploration, recognizing that even the best of intentions can have the worst of consequences.