The above portrait of Christopher Columbus is probably more accurate than most, because it depicts his prematurely gray hair. Unfortunately, the tint of his locks isn’t the worst morsel of misinformation widely distributed in romanticized visual and verbal portraits. Children are no longer fed the Caucasian-centric absurdity that he “discovered America” — which is quite inaccurate even from a Caucasian-centric vantage point. But there are plenty of other misconceptions about the man that many people still take on good faith. Here are the most common.
Myth # 1: He was Italian
There is a great deal of scholarly speculation about the famed navigator’s national and ethnic roots, with recent scholarship suggesting he was Spanish (there is even some evidence that he may have been of Hebraic derivation). For the time being, however, the official story is still that he was born Cristoforo Colombo in Geneoa, which of course is a city in Italy. At least that’s where it is now. At the time of his birth, however, it was an independent city-state. That would make him Genovese, not Italian.
Myth # 2 He proved the earth is round
Another popular traditional misconception is that Columbus encountered a lot of resistance to his proposed explorations because most folks at the time believed the earth was flat, and he would just sail off the edge of it. (Into what?). Not true; the rotundity of the planet had been common knowledge since at least the ancient Greeks. There may have been a few people who believed it to be a big platter floating in space, but probably no more than there are today.
The myth of widespread flat eartherism didn’t even gain traction until about two centuries after Columbus, when Protestants made such an accusation against Catholics. In the Nineteenth Century, the myth was advanced further by a handful of scientists in not particularly scientific books aimed at making creationists appear even more backward than they really were.
But for the myth relating specifically to Columbus, we can thank Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame. His 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was the literary equivalent of a 1950’s Hollywood biopic, giving Columbus the Parson Weems treatment. Weems, you may recall, was the “biographer” of George Washington who took great liberties with the facts in order to exalt his subject, and may have invented the cherry tree episode . Similarly, Irving inserted an account of a meeting between Columbus and a Spanish commission to consider his proposed voyages, in which the commission objected that the silly navigator believed the earth was (snicker, snicker) spherical, and they couldn’t possibly get behind such a notion. The meeting was apparently real. The objection was not.
3. He was a brilliant, visionary navigator
So what did the commission object to, then? They objected to his wildly inaccurate calculations. Another popular misconception is that he knew much more about geography than the scientific minds of his time, so they rejected or were jealous of his ideas. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. Columbus underestimated the size of the earth by 25 percent, and erred drastically in his figures about the distances between various points on that globe. Rather than brilliant visionary, a more accurate description might be that he was an inept quack who stumbled into the history books through no merit of his own. Despite his reputation as an explorer of North America, he never even set foot on the North American continent; and he went to his grave believing that he had landed in the Indies.
4. Queen Isabella hocked her jewels for him
After being turned down by the royalty of Portugal, England and France, he finally found willing sponsors in King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But while they did indulge in some rather creative financing for the expedition, it did not require opening the family treasure chest (although that option actually may have been brought up at some point.)
5. His ships were the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria
The official names for these famous vessels were la Santa Clara, la Pinta (?), and la Santa Gallega. The crew, however, gave them nicknames, as sailors were wont to do. Their name for la Santa Clara was la Niña (“the girl”); they called la Pinta la Pintada (“the painted lady”); and their name for la Santa Gallega was Maria Galante (later transformed somehow into Santa Maria). These nicknames appear to have been references to practitioners of a certain profession reputed to be even older than sailing.
6. He was a noble, heroic figure
In fact, Columbus was the last person anyone should be looking up to or honoring. He was greedy, brutal, ruthless, and even sadistic. His severe and extensive atrocities were documented by some of his contemporaries, who considered him a monster even by that era’s standards. He enslaved the peaceful natives and forced them to labor to exhaustion seeking gold. If they didn’t find their quota, they would have their hands cut off and hung around their necks as a warning to others. He had ravenous dogs set upon them to rip them to shreds. He sold native children into sexual slavery, burned people alive, poured boiling soap down their throats, and dismembered with abandon — sometimes his men would test the sharpness of their blades by cutting off the legs of children, or have a wager about who could cut a person in half more quickly.
7. He died disgraced and penniless
Alas, no. It’s true that upon his return to Spain from his third voyage, he was jailed because of his crimes against humanity, and it appeared that justice would be served. But he was later released and his wealth and “honor” were restored — he merely slaughtered primitive islanders after all, not real people. And he was even sent on a fourth voyage. He was made a hero even in his own lifetime. Sad but true.
8. Columbus Day is a timeless, patriotic holiday
But if you dare to suggest that maybe this thoroughly evil individual should not be beatified in American culture, or that — heaven forbid — we should be honoring his victims instead, you are likely to be attacked by reactionaries as being a frivolous “politically correct” leftist, and probably anti-American, anti-Christian, maybe even a worshiper of Satan who bites the heads off live chickens, and even, I kid you not, a total hater of Western Civilization itself. The impression Americans often give is that Columbus Day has been a holiday since the nation’s inception if not before, and that it’s inextricably intertwined with the patriotic spirit. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Columbus was first celebrated in 1792 as a tribute to Americans of Italian extraction. But Columbus Day did not become a federal holiday until 1934. And it was established as such out of political rather than patriotic motives — under pressure from Italian-Americans and the Knights Of Columbus, a Catholic organization that wanted to have their religion represented by a national hero, and weren’t terribly picky about who it would be. And many Americans still aren’t, nor is it likely that the situation will change any time soon.
So Happy Brutalization Of Indigenous Peoples Day, everyone.