Christopher Columbus: 3 things you think he did that he didn’t

Columbus (The Ocean Blues. (THE WASHINGTON POST LIBRARY)
Christopher Columbus                             (The Ocean Blues. THE WASHINGTON POST LIBRARY)

So you think that Christopher Columbus discovered America in the Niña, the Pinta  and the Santa Maria and also, while he was at it, proved the Earth wasn’t flat?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. Given that the European explorer has a U.S. federal holiday to his name — and is honored by holidays in other countries as well — let’s look at the disturbing truth about the fearless but brutal Columbus.

*He didn’t prove that the Earth is round. 

Kids in school have long been taught that when Columbus set sail in 1492 to find a new route to the East Indies, it was feared he would fall off the edge of the Earth because people then thought the planet was flat. Nope.  As early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras — later followed by Aristotle and Euclid — wrote about Earth as a sphere, and historians say there is no doubt that the educated in Columbus’s day knew quite well that the Earth was round. Columbus in fact owned a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography, written at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Chris Columbus set sail. Several books published in Europe between 1200 and 1500 discussed the Earth’s shape, including “The Sphere,” written in the early 1200s, which was required reading in European universities in the 1300s and beyond.  The big question for Columbus, it turns out, was not the shape of the Earth but the size of the ocean he was planning to cross.

* The famous names of the ships he took on his famous 1492 trip across the Atlantic Ocean,  the  Niña,  Pinta  and Santa Maria, probably weren’t really named NiñaPinta and Santa Maria. The Santa Maria was also known at the time as La Gallega, meaning The Galician.” The Niña is now believed to be a nickname for a ship originally called the Santa Clara, and the Pinta was probably also a nickname, though the ship’s real name isn’t clear.

*Columbus didn’t “discover” America — he never set foot in North America.

During four separate trips that started with the one in 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands  that are now the Bahamas as well as the island later called Hispaniola. He also explored the Central and South American coasts. But he didn’t reach North America, which, of course, was already inhabited by Native Americans, and he never thought he had found a new continent. You may also remember that it is believed that Norse explorer Leif Erikson  reached Canada perhaps 500 years before Columbus was born, and there are some who believe that Phoenician sailors crossed the Atlantic much earlier than that.

And here’s something he did do that you may not know:

* Columbus was a brutal viceroy and governor of the Caribbean islands on which he did land.

He committed atrocities against native peoples on the islands and decimated their populations while he also terrorized Spanish colonists, according to the biography “Columbus” by Laurence Bergreen.

Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?

The first Columbus Day celebration recorded in the United States was in New York on October 12th, 1792, held  to honor Italian-American heritage. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937 proclaimed October 12th to be Columbus Day, a national holiday. In 1971, the holiday date was changed to the second Monday in October.

For various reasons, many places have changed the name of the holiday. Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992 to honor the original inhabitants of the islands where Columbus landed.  In 1989, South Dakota started calling the holiday Native American Day. Alabama celebrates a combination of Columbus Day and American Indian Heritage Day, and Hawaii calls it Discovery Day. Other countries also celebrate Columbus with different holidays; for example, in the Bahamas, it is called Discovery Day, and as Día de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional in Spain.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 13, 2013