Growing up in St. Croix, I had a fairly typical U.S. education with fairly typical U.S. textbooks as far as I can remember. Like most Americans, I learned “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Ingrained in my mind are the names of his ships: The Nina, The Pinta and the Santa Maria. Of course, I learned that everyone expected him to sail off the edge of a flat earth into space or sea monsters or something. And most of all, I was taught of his discovering America.
One of the (many) perks of growing up on an island in the Caribbean was that we could actually take a field trip to Columbus Landing – a spot fairly close to my school where Columbus and his crew set foot in 1493 among islands he called Las Islas Virgenes, after St. Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins.
Now, I got nothing against thousands of virgins, or a good story, but as I got older and began learning more about the history of the Caribbean, the glossy veneer of ol’ Chris didn’t hold up.
First of all, Christopher Columbus isn’t even his name. It’s Cristoforo Colombo. Christopher Columbus is just one of those English adaptations someone felt was preferable to pronouncing a foreign sounding name. The next obvious question is: well, if that’s not his name, what were the names of his famous ships? Well, the Pinta was indeed, the Pinta, however his other two ships on his first voyage were the Santa Clara and the Gallega. (He had plenty of different ships on subsequent voyages.)
Ahh, well, semantics. It was still his idea to sail west, rather than east to hit the East Indies, right?
Wrong, it was his younger brother Bartholomew’s (which most believe came from their family’s time in Iceland where the brothers may have been exposed to the adventures of another explorer: Leif Erickson). Sure, Chris had been sailing since age 14 and was a talented astronomer and navigator, however it was his brother, the cartographer’s idea to sail West.
To this end, they split up, Chris going to Spain and Bart to France, in an effort to secure funding for their expedition. The plan was to join up once they’d gotten the backing they needed, then sail away together to claim their riches. Except, once Chris had succeeded in Spain, he didn’t wait for his brother, and Bart was left behind on the cutting room floor of history. (He did follow his big brother to the Caribbean two years later.)
Ahh, well, brothers will be brothers. Chris wasn’t a bad guy… right?
Well, the tough thing about labeling someone as good or bad is the definitions change with the times. For example, a neighbor taking a stick and beating your child as some kind of punishment might have been perfectly fine at one time. In fact, that might have been a good neighbor, whereas today… That neighbor might find themselves in jail.
I believe that’s the tact to take when looking at Chris. Sure, he was addicted to opium, but a lot of people were at the time. And, sure he was directly responsible for the enslavement, torture, mutilation and murder of thousands of indigenous people in the Caribbean islands during his quest for riches. And he could be credited for marking the establishment of institutionalized slavery in the West Indies, which, of course, led to a demand for more slaves and eventually hundreds of years of African slave trade… but… uhm… I suppose that was par for the course with explorers at the time, so I’ll leave labels up to you. (You may want to add this into the equation.)
Fine, fine… But he did discover America… right?
OK, let’s just put aside the paradox of “discovering” a land that already had a population. Even if we ignore that, this one still depends on your definition of America. On his 1492 voyage, Chris landed on a number of islands including some in the Bahamas very close to mainland Florida, but as far as I know, no U.S. landfall. On his second voyage, he landed at Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica among others. All great islands, but no mainland U.S. On his third, he named Trinidad and landed in present-day Venezuela. Then, on his fourth, final voyage, he landed at present-day Panama. So, yes, in 1498 and 1502, he did reach the Americas, South and Central America to be exact, but by then he was hardly the first… Even if you discount the fact that people lived in these places all along.
So yeah, Columbus – upon closer inspection, an odd fellow to honor, but people are only human and times (and their acceptable behaviors) change, so why look a gift horse in the mouth? Instead, enjoy the day off and learn more about all the diversity that makes the Caribbean great… Or even plan your next trip!
I’m looking forward to “discovering” Dominica one of these days. How about you?