After my third trip to my mailbox this past Monday and finding no mail, my ever-patient wife reminded me that Monday was Columbus Day – a federal holiday – and therefore, no mail. For me, a day without mail is like a day without sunshine. So why is Columbus Day a federal holiday?
The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order (better known as Tammany Hall) held an event to commemorate Columbus’ historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Taking pride in Columbus’ birthplace and faith, Italian and Roman Catholic communities in various parts of the country began organizing annual religious ceremonies and parades in his honor. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities and in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Roman Catholic fraternal organization. Originally observed every 12 October, it was fixed to the second Monday in October in 1971.
Christopher Columbus did not really discover America. The western Europeans simply had not heard from the Russians, the Vikings, and the Chinese that it was here. Also, the latter three groups did not have the same clout and voter blocks as the Italians and the Roman Catholics. So, the misleading “truth” that Christopher Columbus discovered America is still taught in schools even though we all know – or should know – that it is not true. So, who really did discover America? If not Columbus, then whom?
It is widely accepted by scholars that humans entered the Americas via the Bering land bridge – the once-exposed landmass between Siberia and Alaska – some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. (We are indeed a country of immigrants.) These individuals were known as the Clovis people. But it has become more widely accepted in the archaeological community that people were here prior to the Clovis, thus America may have been discovered simultaneously by two different cultures – one crossing the frozen Bering Strait on foot and the other island-hopping from Europe to America’s east coast by boat.
Sites in Siberia have shown that people lived in the harsh region of the land bridge as early as 27,000 years ago. It is believed that people could survive in that Arctic environment and survive quite well. There would be nothing to stop them from heading east into present-day Alaska. (No “Trump Wall” at the border.) Moreover, sites like Chile’s Monte Verde, where tools have been dated to 12,500 years ago, have bolstered the theory that people were in the Americas before the Clovis period. Thus the land bridge theory no longer holds a scientific monopoly. Some scholars favor coastal migration theories, in which early settlers hopped along the Pacific coast in boats. More controversial theorists will not rule out the possibility of ocean crossings from Europe or Africa. However those first Americans arrived, the remains they left behind may be the only clues that could someday tell their story.
Now fast forward to circa 1,000 CE, when Eric the Red, a Viking, had followed generations-old seafaring routes westward and discovered Greenland. Naming the frozen wasteland “green” land, he hoped to entice and establish Viking settlements, which he did. When Eric the Red’s son, Leif Ericsson was old enough to take command over settlements and voyages, he became an influential young man, especially as the son of the man who discovered their new home country.
It was during these days that another young Viking named Biarni Heriulfsson (Biarni Heriulfsson?) arrived with his ship in Iceland to sail with his father back to Greenland. When Heriulfsson was told that his father had already set sail, the younger Heriulfsson rounded up his crew and set sail as well. Heriulfsson eventually made it to Greenland, but not before becoming lost in the Atlantic Ocean. The written Norse legends describe a scared and lost crew, adrift in the wide open ocean with no wind and at the tide’s mercy. It eventually pulled them to a chain of islands. When the crew asked if Heriulfsson thought it was finally Greenland, he replied, “no.”
He pointed out that each of the islands was covered in grass, hills and woods. He also noticed how there were no rising ice mountains in the background as in Greenland. And most of all, the temperature was nice. When they actually set foot on one of the land masses, they noted how the grass was covered with dew and the Vikings scraped it up with their bare hands. Heriulfsson and his crew eventually found their way to Greenland where they entertained children and sailors alike with their tale of discovering a new, lush and beautiful land. One of those most fascinated was Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red.
Ericsson was so taken with Biarni Heriulfsson’s tale of accidental discovery, he went to visit Heriulfsson to inquire further. He ended up buying a ship from him and rounding up a crew of his own. Together with Heriulfsson’s directions and descriptions, Ericsson set sail for this mysterious new world across the Atlantic.
Ericsson had one ship and a crew of thirty-five, including himself. After leaving Greenland, they first happened upon an undiscovered island made of rock with icy mountains in the background. The second island they found contained flat white sand beaches and woodlands. Continuing westward, the third giant island they found may not have been an island at all. Many historians believe that Ericsson and his crew had just discovered the New England coast!
The Vikings were so happy to find such a beautiful paradise, they built a large cabin and stayed for the winter. They documented an abundance of life-sustaining plant and animal life. In particular, they told of how both the streams and lakes were overflowing with the biggest salmon they had ever seen. Another plentiful item was grapes, with which they loaded their ship for the voyage back to Greenland in the spring. Upon leaving, they called their newly discovered paradise, Vinland – the area of coastal North America and Newfoundland.
The credibility of the Viking expedition is well established, but some people argue that the Chinese discovered America in 1421! Come on! The Chinese? To arrive at this conclusion, most researchers cite the 2002 book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies. Gavin’s book has been described as “charming, seductive, and inventive, but his book is just an elaborate literary hoax.” Assuming that Menzies is correct – and that is a huge assumption – and has not committed a literary hoax, it appears Menzies focuses his investigation and theory on a map discovered in 1972 in Taiwan by Baptist missionary Dr. Hendon M. Harris. The map turned out to be an ancient relic illustrating the fabled Chinese lost continent of Fu Sang.
Upon further inspection of the Harris map, it was determined that the size, location and outline of Fu Sang were almost identical to North America. Taking it as further evidence that Fu Sang was actually North America, the ancient Chinese map also included geographical landmarks, most notably the Grand Canyon. Gavin Menzies believed it was too much of a coincidence and he embarked to discover more evidence that the Chinese had been to America before Columbus. For additional evidence, Menzies pointed to a Chinese relic called the “1418 Map” because that is the date it is believed to have been created. The Chinese map included outlines and details of each of the world’s continents, including North and South America. Even more impressive, it included accurate depictions of major rivers throughout America. Menzies and many others believe the Chinese could not have mapped inland America without coming here personally. Is it a hoax or a reality? The jury is still out on this one.
So we have the Russians, the Vikings, and possibly the Chinese – each of whom with a claim of discovering America.
All of this brings us finally to 1492 and the year that Columbus supposedly discovered America. Actually, 1492 was the year that he discovered the Caribbean. Columbus, like most educated Europeans of his day, understood that the world was round, but he did not yet know that the Pacific Ocean existed. As a result, Columbus and his contemporaries assumed that only the Atlantic lay between Europe and the riches of the East Indies.
In his first journey in 1492, with three small ships – the Santa María, commanded by Columbus himself, the Pinta under Martín Pinzón, and the Niña under Vicente Yáñez Pinzón – Columbus visited San Salvador in the Bahamas (which he was convinced was Japan), Cuba (which he thought was China) and Hispaniola (where he found gold).But alas, America was not one of the places discovered on this voyage.
On 3 November 1493, fitted out with a large fleet of seventeen ships, Christopher Columbus set out on his second voyage, landing on a rugged shore on an island that he named Dominica. On the same day, he landed at Marie-Galante, which he named Santa María la Galante. After sailing past Les Saintes (Todos los Santos), he arrived at Guadeloupe (Santa María de Guadalupe), which he explored between 4 November 4 and 10 November 1493. Again, America was not on the list of “finds.”
The object of the third voyage in 1498 was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal claimed was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. Columbus explored the Gulf of Paria that separates Trinidad from mainland Venezuela. He then explored the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River. He also sailed to the islands of Chacachacare and Margarita Island and sighted and named islands Bella Forma (Tobago) and Concepcion (Grenada). He described the new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured it hanging from China, bulging out to make the earth pear-shaped! Still, America was not to be found on this third try.
In 1502, Columbus made a fourth and final voyage, nominally in search of a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. If he could sail past the islands and far enough west, he hoped he might still find lands answering to the description of Asia or Japan. He struck the coast of Honduras in Central America and coasted southward along an inhospitable shore, suffering terrible hardships, until he reached the Gulf of Darién. Attempting to return to Hispaniola, he was marooned on Jamaica. After his rescue, he was forced to abandon his hopes and return to Spain. You guessed it. America was not discovered on this final voyage.
By his third journey, however, Columbus realized that he had not reached Asia but instead had stumbled upon a continent previously unknown to Europeans – the “New World.” The term “New World” today means a new continent, but Europeans of the time often used the phrase simply to describe regions of the world they had not known about before. Columbus believed the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Since he knew that the world was round, this meant that if one could sail far enough to the west of Europe, one would reach the Far East. This was exactly what Columbus believed he had done. Columbus clung tenaciously until the end of his life to the idea that in crossing the Atlantic he had reached the vicinity of Japan and China. He thought he had shrunk Europe’s geographical horizons; in reality, he had expanded them.
So Christopher Columbus did not “discover” America. He never set foot on what we would call “American soil.” Leif Ericsson may have, but not Christopher Columbus. He was not even the first European to visit the “New World,” as I have tried to show. However, his journeys kicked off centuries of exploration and exploitation on the American continents. The consequences of his explorations were severe for the native populations of the areas he and the conquistadores conquered. Disease and environmental changes resulted in the destruction of the majority of the native population over time, while Europeans continued to extract natural resources from these territories. Today, Columbus has a mixed legacy – he is remembered as a daring and path-breaking explorer who transformed the New World, yet his actions also unleashed changes that would eventually devastate the native populations that he and his fellow explorers encountered.
Many Native Americans hold Columbus in contempt and mark that year as the date when the white man launched his war of genocide upon them. While I have great empathy for Native Americans, it is worth noting that Columbus never made it to America. And Native Americans were immigrants to America themselves at one time, having come from across the oceans. Also just like the white man, the Indian tribes that European settlers wiped out, had wiped out the weaker ethnicities that occupied the lands before them. The moral of the story is that peoples and nations have been conquered and annihilated since the beginning of time and they still are today. It does not make it right. It just makes it true. Columbus should not be vilified for vanquishing the Indians any more than the Indians should be vilified for vanquishing America’s original Asian and European inhabitants who first migrated here 14,000 years ago.
One may well be fascinated by the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus – impressed in much the same way twentieth century human beings were impressed when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and said: “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Even so, I must say that I still miss receiving my mail on the second Monday in October.