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Celebrating Columbus I: The Myths Behind the Man

Christopher Columbus has gotten lots of breaks from history—he even escapes blame for the massive die-off of the peoples in this hemisphere.

Cristóbal Colón aka Cristóvão Colombo aka Cristoforo Colombo aka Christopher Columbus has gotten lots of breaks from history. He escapes blame for the massive die-off of the peoples in this hemisphere on the theory he did not intend the spread of disease, but he also gets a pass on his barbaric personal conduct among the Taino people.

The exploration package he finally sold to the monarchs of what would be Spain (after failing to interest Portugal, England, Venice, and even his hometown of Genoa) involved making him governor of the lands he discovered and conjuring up a new title just for him. He had requested “Great Admiral of the Ocean” but he settled for “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”

Note that Columbus was Genoan rather than Italian because Italy did not exist. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the middle of the 19th century, the peninsula was a land of warring and conspiring city-states. It was culturally rich but politically fragmented, like the Indians of North America.

Of course, there was no “Spain” either, but the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon laid the geographical and political basis for a nation that would become an empire based on looting of the Americas by the conquistadores who followed Columbus. The miscalculation of the monarchs who turned down Columbus would be unmatched in history until Decca Records turned down The Beatles, but of course the Fab Four were not thieves.

In popular history, Columbus never gets tagged with ruling the island called Hispanola by terror or with beginning the American slave trade but both crimes have his fingerprints all over them. Removed by Isabella and Ferdinand for tyranny and incompetence, Columbus was accused by reports later found in Spanish archives of using torture and mutilation as routine governance.

The reports alleged that he paraded dismembered Indian bodies though the settlements to terrorize survivors. Also in the archives was a letter from Columbus to his brother Bartolomé approving punishment of a woman who suggested Columbus was less than noble by having her paraded naked though the streets as a prelude to cutting her tongue out.

RELATED: 8 Myths and Atrocities About Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day

In popular history, Columbus was a plucky and learned man who convinced the dunces ruling in Europe that the earth was round rather than flat. In fact, the general shape of the earth had been common knowledge among scholars since Aristotle. Real historians trace the myth of Columbus to the fiction writer Washington Irving, creator of the beloved Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

Less well known than the Headless Horseman was an excursion into a genre called “romantic history,” a polite term for making up stuff that pleases the public and selling it as true. After doing real research among Spanish manuscripts in Madrid, Irving published a load of moonshine called A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which became popular enough to sell through 175 editions between 1828 and the turn of the 20th century. This fanciful tale sealed the myth of Columbus as master of geography ahead of his time. In U.S. public schools, from that day to the present, this myth is taught as fact.

In popular history, Columbus was the first European to be discovered by Native Americans. In fact, Leif Ericson beat Columbus by almost 500 years and Norsemen had actually colonized part of what is now Canada and been run off by Indians long before Columbus showed up.

In popular history, Columbus was a great navigator, but he went to his grave convinced that he had reached Asia and the people he called Indios were in fact Asians.

In the contemporary U.S., Italian-Americans have determined to claim this ignorant barbarian as one of their own. They have elevated the myths of popular history as if scholarly history did not exist and they have promoted a holiday to celebrate his memory that would certainly suit his quest for prestige. His only question would be how to turn a buck from it.

Why celebrate such a man must remain a mystery, since there are plenty of Italians to choose from who are in fact distinguished. In part II, we will look at the persons recently chosen to be Grand Marshals of the New York Columbus Day Parade, arguably the most significant and certainly the most prestigious Columbus fête in the country. This year, the organizers have finally selected a man appropriate for the task of honoring Columbus.