Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Myth Bustin' Columbus....13 Style

This past Monday was our annual remembrance of Christopher Columbus. For his name to be so recognizable most people know very little about him and there is a very likely chance that what they do know is actually false. Here are a few of the more common myths and facts regarding Christopher Columbus.

1. Christopher Columbus was Spanish. Well, it would make sense since Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag, but the long term story is that Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. However, there are many other theories that have linked Columbus to a Jewish background, the island of Corsica, and even a Viking background.

2. The main goal for the first voyage was to prove the Earth was round and not flat. This is a false statement. By 1492, most of the educated people in Europe understood the Earth was a sphere. However, there was a great debate regarding just how big the planet really was. Even Columbus had to readjust his views after completing that first voyage.

3. The crews on board the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were filled with cut-throat criminals. While records indicate that amnesty would be granted to those who would undertake the voyage very few criminals applied for a pardon.

4. The only reason Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain agreed to fund the journey is Columbus stated he would spread Christianity to those he encountered. While there are iconic paintings of Columbus and his men landing in the New World with a priest in tow there were no clergymen on the first journey. By the second journey five priests had managed to tag along. In the picture above the priest is seen clutching the Bible behind the standard.

5. Columbus is buried in Santo Domingo. This is not necessarily so. Many records conflict this by stating his remains were moved. Maybe he is in several locations. The primary resting spot is the Cathedral of Seville in Spain. The tomb is pictured below. Santa Domingo, Genoa, and even Cuba are also mentioned in various sources.

6. Columbus discovered North America. Not quite. He was searching for a faster route to the Orient than the overland Silk Road. His theory was the Orient could be reached from Europe by sailing west. He landed in the Caribbean Islands and at no time did he ever set foot on the continent of North America. Columbus actually thought he had landed in the Orient and had no clue North or South America even existed.

7. Columbus was the first man to reach the New World. This is also false. We have many sources that indicate there were plenty of visits and near visits to North and South America before Columbus such as visits by the Vikings and the Chinese explorer Zheng He. Knowledge regarding these initial visits in no way decreases the importance of the efforts of Columbus. He should be remembered because his voyages inaugurated the first permanent contact between the East and the West.

8. The Spanish monarchy had to sell the crown jewels in order to fund the journey. Actually, it is believed Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand cut a deal with the city of Palos so that the citizens there could replay a debt to the crown. The debt covered the cost of two of the ships. There was also some Italian funds that backed the trip as well.

9. I learned in high school Columbus died from syphillis. Did you? That’s not correct. While he had poor eyesight and gout Columbus did no die of syphillis. The disease was in Europe after 1492, but Columbus did not have it.

10. Columbus died in prison. This is also false. He actually died on May 20, 1506 in Valladoliad, Spain. At one time he was in chains at the end of his third voyage, but upon landing in Spain a misunderstanding was cleared up and the chains disappeared.

11. Women were never allowed on the voyages, and horses did not arrive in the New World until the conquistadors. Actually women did travel with Columbus on his third voyage. There was one woman for every ten emigrants. Horses, however reached the New World before women. They came over on the second voyage.

12. Many believe Columbus arrived with several hundered men, but that’s not true either. The ships he used were very tiny compared to today’s standards. They were probably no bigger than a tennis court and were less than 30 feet wide. The Santa Maria had a crew of 40, the Pinta had 26, and the Nina had the smallest crew with 24 men.

13. On that first voyage only the Nina and the Pinta returned triumphantly to Spain. This is fact. The Santa Mara was shipwrecked around Christmas in 1492. Thirty-nine members of her crew volunteered to stay behind at La Navidad, a fortress that was built on the northern coast of what is today the island of Haiti. Unfortunately all of these men were killed by natives. They were upset because the Spaniard s had mistreated them

Visit other Thursday Thirteens here.


Anonymous said...

I knew some of this -- only because I live in Columbus, but many things I did not know. My boys will love this.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting...

Chelle Y. said...

I love these history lessons!

Yuriko said...

How very educational...

Tink said...

Columbus speaks to my imagination! You busted some myths though! ;-)
My TT shares 13 quotes by W.B. Yeats.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thank you. Apart from #1, I didn't know any of that.

Ms. George said...

This was awesome as always! There was so much that I did not know, or had forgotten. I am going to pass this on!

Dreamer said...

Thank you for that! We were seriously taught in high school that he 1. discovered America, and 2. died of syphillus, in prison.

:-) Happy TT!

Anonymous said...

I adore these history lessons.

Thanks for this.

Mine's up--also historically based this week.

Anonymous said...

I love hitorical TTs. You're always bound to learn something. I actually hadn't heard of all these myths. I like to think when I had history in school those many *cough*cough* years ago, that my teachers actually did a good job. Nowadays with all the teaching to the test teachers have to do, I have no idea what kids are walking away with in terms of knowledge. And thanks for the memory. I have seen the tomb in Sevilla, which yous pictured reminded me that I had been there.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I really appreciated this concise historical summary. I was definitely taught otherwise in school back in the sixties---amazing how much more we know now than then...

Alasandra, The Cats and Dogs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alasandra, The Cats and Dogs said...

Enjoyed your list. We just finished reading a book about Columbus, that debunked some of the myths.

He is a fascinating person, there is so much we don't know about him, and he lived during such an exciting period.

Denise Patrick said...

Great information. And, while I knew some of it, I learned something new today. Thanks you.

Happy TT!

Michelle said...

Thanks for the myth-busting....always a good thing to know the truth!

Happy TT!

Karla Porter Archer said...

oh what a fun blog!!

Amazingly, I hadn't heard most of these myths. But I didn't know much of anything about Columbus.


Qtpies7 said...

Great, great post! Love it! I hate how history gets distorted over the years, sometimes on purpose.

I have two TT's up! and

Mitchypoo said...

Loved this, very educational! Happy TT!

Vadim said...

Thanks for interesting info!


Rowen said...

That was an interesting read, thankyou

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

I didn't even pretend to know much of what you wrote here! I appreciate your dredging up this material, digesting it for us, and putting it in readable form. Have you ever considered publishing a Reader's Digest of History? Among those who don't like slogging through daunting tomes, I'm sure there'd be a market!

bw said...

After many long years of intending to read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of The United States: 1492 to the President," I got around to reading it, front to back, two months ago. [Brrrr].

It starts out with Columbus, and has great quotes from Columbus, and then from one of the Priests who had gone to Cuba first, and came to Hispaniola in 1508.

Here's Zinn quoting from Columbus's writings:
His website is

The chapter on the web is here:

chapter II

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.2 He later wrote of this in his log:

"They... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts." The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage "as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask." He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities."

And then this, featuring Bartolome de las Casas:

"The chief source-and, on many matters the only source of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:

"Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians..."

Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings."

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."


Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides . . . they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . . . and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated.... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write...."

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...."

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas--even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?) is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure--there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media."