Monday, October 12, 2009

The Real Truth About Columbus

Today is Columbus Day. How will your school celebrate? If celebrated in the traditional way, you will probably learn how Christopher Columbus discovered America on October 12, 1492. He was looking for an alternative route to the Indies (all of southern and eastern Asia) and thought that by going west, he could circumnavigate the world, establish a trade route, and avoid the problems of traveling through Arabia. He made four trips to America using the trade winds to travel west and the prevailing winds to travel east back to Europe. He did find islands and named the people there "Indios."

If your school celebrates in a non-traditional manner, you'll learn a little more about Columbus, depending on your age. Not all of Columbus' life story is appropriate for younger children. You might learn that:

1. Columbus miscalculated the circumference of the earth. He thought it much smaller than it actually is.

2. Columbus asked for ships and funding from Portugal, Italy, Spain, and England several times before Spain finally decided to give him the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.

3. Columbus never knew that he hadn't reached the Indies. He thought he had reached outlying islands that had not been visited before.

4. Columbus and his crew brought smallpox to the people of the islands and took syphilis back to Europe.

5. Columbus was a tyrant over the people of the islands. He expected them to bring him all of their gold. When they didn't, because there wasn't any, he had their hands cut off. If they fled, he ordered them killed.

6. Columbus was arrested when he returned to Europe after his third voyage for his tyrannical rule as governor of Hispaniola.

7. Columbus was not the "discoverer" of America. The native population was already there and the Norse had found it several hundred years before Columbus. Columbus did, however, make the land known to all of Europe which started the migration of European peoples to America.

8. Columbus was intent on converting the native populations to Christianity. He was nominated for sainthood in the Catholic church in 1866.

9. Columbus kidnapped many of the native people to take back to Europe to be used as slaves. Many died on the voyage.

10. Columbus refused to baptize the native people. Enslavement of Christians was banned by Catholic laws and he wanted to use the natives as slaves.

So... today is Columbus Day. It was made a federal holiday in 1934 and depending on where you live, you may be celebrating Columbus' virtues or his vices. For some, it will be a day out of school. For others, Columbus Day will be remembered with classroom songs, puzzles, map study, story telling, poems, or skits. Some of the skits may focus on his memorable "discovery" of America. Others students may reenact his arrest and trial with a verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty."

It is truly a day of controversy. Many landmarks, cities, and locations have been named for Columbus, even the nation's capitol. On the other hand, the native American population is less than enthusiastic for the holiday. In South Dakota, it is not even called Columbus Day. Instead, they call it "Native American Day."

However you plan to celebrate, I guess we should all remember that Columbus was only human and that his good and bad qualities made him who he was. As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto wrote, "Every hero is somebody else's villain."


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