Columbus, the Gilligan of Explorers

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Today is Columbus Day, when we celebrate the first European explorers to discover the Americas, which they weren’t, when Christopher Columbus landed on our continent, which he didn’t.


Still, Columbus thought October 12, 1492, was worth celebrating. After all, he’d badly miscalculated the size of the word, figuring he’d have to sail about 2,300 miles to reach the East Indies. It was actually 12,200 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan. I’m not sure anyone even consulted the Japanese on the idea, let along the Canaries.


Luckily for Columbus’ dwindling food supply, he bumped into a continent that nobody even knew was there. He spent his whole time there assuming he was in Asia after being the first to sight land—which he didn’t. A guy named Rodrigo de Triana was the first to actually see some little palm tree in the Bahamas.


After one of his ships ran aground he established the first Age of Discovery colony in the New World, but the men he left behind argued over gold and internet usage, and the town failed. Meanwhile Columbus headed back with some kidnapped locals, and introduced Europe to tobacco.


If you think about it, he was kind of a lousy explorer. If he'd made it to the Pacific, he'd have ended up stranded on Gilligan's Island.


I mean, Cuba looks nothing like China. Come on.


But at least that got Columbus the job of Governor of the Indies, where he gained the nickname “The Tyrant of the Caribbean”, soon to be a major motion picture from Disney.


All of this led to the Aztecs and Incas being wiped out, pandemics in both the Americas, yadayada, Pilgrims, American Revolution, treaties broken, Trail of Tears, casinos.


I’m summarizing a bit.


Now, my wife is not a fan of Christopher Columbus. I suspect she thinks Columbus’ direct descendent was Andrew Jackson—see above about the Trail of Tears. Emily’s a descendent of the Aniyvwiyaʔi, which is what we’d call the Cherokee Indians if we weren’t too lazy to spell it.


My Cherokee ancestors lived up in the Appalachian Mountains and got something of a pass, pardon the pun, from forced relocation. Emily’s ancestors walked hundreds of miles, and those who survived ended up in snowstorm earthquake territory, instead of the much more pleasant southeastern hurricane zone they’d enjoyed before.


All because of Christopher Columbus.


You can see why some areas now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on this day, which is actually that day, because getting a Monday off is way more important than marking an actual date. Personally I’m in favor of renaming it Explorer’s Day, or Discoverer’s Day, or some such. Columbus did make important voyages, after all, even if he was a dick; and it would be a way to learn about all the explorers from all over. Remembering the past, instead of hiding it.


We are a race of explorers, after all, and as a people we tend to crave discovery. To the bottom of the ocean to the ends of space, we need to keep exploring.


For the sake of little green men, hopefully in the future we’ll be nicer about it.




opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 7:08am
Nice article. Columbus, like the other explorers, was merely looking for lands to plunder and people to force Christianity on. An obnoxious character.
The first Europeans to discover America were probably the Vikings anyway.
I'm all for an Indigenous People's Day. It is time that some awareness of the calamity of the Westerners moving in is acknowledged.
Leroy Added Oct 10, 2017 - 7:47am
"The first Europeans to discover America were probably the Vikings anyway."
It's like diamonds in Africa.  The discovery meant little if they didn't know what to do with it.  The Vikings likely were not cognizant of what they had discovered and certainly never exploited the discovery to any great extent.  From a Western point of view, Columbus' discovery was vastly more important.
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 9:14am
Leroy - they do seem to have set up a settlement but did not have the resources or ships to make a go of it.
When the Pilgrims arrived they were taken in by the Indians, sheltered and fed or they wouldn't have survived. That's what Thanksgiving is about isn't it?
The irony is that those self-same Indians were all wiped out.
Stone-Eater Added Oct 10, 2017 - 9:52am
The first "Europeans" were the Vikings around 1000 AD. That fake shit should have been abandoned by now as should be the definition "Indians". It's not their fault that Columbus didn't know where he was going ;-)
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 10:01am
SEF - you don't think it was the Vikings?
Leroy Added Oct 10, 2017 - 11:01am
"When the Pilgrims arrived they were taken in by the Indians, sheltered and fed or they wouldn't have survived."
Handouts are never appreciated, are they?
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 11:54am
Leroy - Lol.
I've never complained.
Bill Kamps Added Oct 10, 2017 - 1:53pm
It is amusing that scholars knew at the time of Colombo ( his real name ), that the Earth was round, and that it was larger than Colombo thought it was.  Colombo made some errors in calculations and unit conversions which led him to believe the trip would be some 2K miles instead of the 20K miles others calculated.  More forgivable I guess than the metric conversion error that caused the Mars lander to crash.  Back in the day, not everyone's mile was the same, and while people knew about latitudes not everyone agreed on the distance between a degree of latitude.  This is of course is understandable, since the distance between a degree varies with the distance from the equator.  So he made some math  errors, something all of us have made.
People in the know, thought the trip was long enough that it was not possible for a ship to hold enough water and food to make the long voyage from Spain to China.  That was part of his problem in getting funding, not the fact that anyone thought  the Earth was flat.  That was a "story" popularize by Washington Irving which made the explorers of 1490 look like idiots which they were not.  The Spanish gambled that while he may not reach China, he might find something of value.  This proved to be a good gamble since the Spanish were able to steal considerable gold and silver from the Incas in South America. 
Meanwhile the Portuguese were going around Africa not because they feared falling off the flat Earth, but because they knew that was the shorter route to India and China.
Colombo made four voyages to the New World, never once admitting to knowing where he went.  He didnt know where he was going when he left, he didnt know where he was when he got there, and he never admitted knowing where he had been once he got home.  This despite as Neil points  out  that Cuba doesnt look like China.  Kind of like politicians who create things like the "Affordable" Care Act and insist that it is so.
What Colombo did manage to figure out was how the easterlies and westerlies worked, so that one could sail in a reasonable time west to the New World, and then east again home, without the extreme delay of sailing against the wind.   The Portuguese sort of figured it out, but never actually did it, until after Colombo did it.
Hardly seems reason for a holiday, and while Federal workers get the day off, I never have.
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 2:56pm
There's always a good reason for a holiday.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 11, 2017 - 3:06am
The more that gets revealed in various sciences, the more it turns out that people in ancient times got around a lot more than was originally thought. Who knows how many different people got to the Americas, and how they arrived? This time next year someone might be digging up relics in Nebraska honoring Cylons and Vlad the Impaler.
I'm just a humor writer, so of necessity I don't put a lot of my research into my pieces. But I love following the research and clues ... and yes, also the guessing.
opher goodwin Added Oct 11, 2017 - 4:47am
Mark - the amazing tale that is waiting to be told is that of the Native American Indians. All the tribes of North and South America appear to have descended from one very small clan of around 24 adults (I might be wrong on the exact number - it might be smaller) and it is now thought that they worked their way down from Russia across the Bering Strait right down to Tierra Del Fuego along the coast in canoes.
Wick Burner Added Oct 11, 2017 - 7:01am
Mark, nice article, thanks.
There are more than a few parallels between the issues you raise with Columbus and the flow-on effects and misdirection in history, and the foundational mythologies we celebrate in Australia.
Our 'national day', Australia Day, on January 26 every year, is fashioned like a bastard blend of your 4th of July celebrations and Columbus Day, even though there was no discovery made on that day, no proclamation of ownership for the crown, no independence from any foreign power.  It is only a simile of the day that the first 'permanent European inhabitants' (convicts and soldiers, mostly) landed their ships at Sydney and established their colony.
Our national day is currently subject to some 'true history' re-imagining, being recognised by our indigenous peoples (and many non-indigenous citizens) as 'Invasion Day' or 'Survival Day' for what it really was - the first foothold in the colonial devastation of a continent and its constituent nations, deemed by the colonists and the crown as an inconvenience to be 'managed' by weight of numbers and reinforcement of anglo-centric world-views.  It was also the first day of the aboriginal resistance movement against displacement by the foreigners, but there is almost nowhere one can read about that, and it's almost universally ignored as an historical event.
Yes, there should be a day to celebrate new chapters in the history of a place, but at least make it relevant to actual history, warts and all, so we can celebrate and learn and heal.  I hope your Columbus Day can help achieve that, as I hope that my national day dilemma can be remedied so it can do what a national milestone celebration should do - bring a whole nation together to advance that nation for all its inhabitants.
Mark Hunter Added Oct 11, 2017 - 7:48am
Thanks, Wick. I absolutely agree with the warts and all part; there are very few areas of history that don't have the bad with the good. The important thing is to try for accuracy.
John Minehan Added Oct 11, 2017 - 1:24pm
The people who probably get too little credit in the matter are Basque Fishermen.  
The Basques apparently discovered land on the other side of the Atlantic while pursuing the Cod fisheries, which were being undermined on the Eurasian side of the Atlantic by the Catholic practice of eating fish on Friday.  The Basques, not wanting to lose the commercial advantage, kept the existence of land on the other side of the Atlantic under their collective hats.
Unlike the Vikings, they continued to voyage to those other shores.
One of the interesting things that Basques left behind is the common  name of the Sixth Nations, the Iroquois. 
opher goodwin Added Oct 11, 2017 - 3:13pm
John - interesting. Where did you get that from?
Mark Hunter Added Oct 12, 2017 - 1:37am
That one's new to me, John.

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