By Jim Hagerty
Baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet are American traditions, correct? Sure, why not?
Often considered America’s pastime, baseball is a treasure, although the NFL is king in fall. Americans strive to make pies apparently and General Motors has built an empire transporting the American family. America was built on traditions–and its tales.
Generations have been led to believe, beginning with the little song that goes, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…,” that none of these down-home stories we cherish as Americans would be possible without the voyages of Christopher Columbus. We even celebrate Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. Why?
Millions of Americans interested in preserving their childhood can dig up old elementary school homework assignments on which they answered correctly that Christopher Columbus was the explorer who “discovered” America. For many of us, those correct answers earned us a star at the top of the page.
To the amazement of just as many who hold steadfastly to the Christopher Columbus yarn, the real story reveals that Columbus had next to nothing to do with the discovery of America or giving us baseball, apple pie or quality automobiles. The story did, however, mark an important move for the Catholic Church.
The real story of Christopher Columbus goes something like this:
Columbus Day was first recognized as a state holiday in Colorado in 1906 and a national holiday more than 30 years later. Prior to 1934, Columbus’ journey to the “New World,” was celebrated every 100 years, most notably in New York and cities that housed millions of immigrants.
Making Columbus Day a national holiday was no small feat. Seemingly interested in following Colorado, the Knights of Columbus, the famous Catholic fraternal organization, began what has been described as a tireless and hard-fought lobbying campaign to attract the attention of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The effort paid off in 1934 when Roosevelt put his signature on a holiday proclamation. By 1937, Columbus Day was an official national holiday.
As part of Roosevelt’s proclamation, Columbus Day honors the explorer for being the first European to set foot in the Americas, or, as our children learn, “discover America.”
Oops. Apparently the Knights of Columbus failed to mention to lawmakers that Leif Ericson, some 500 years before Columbus decided to “sail the ocean blue,” established a village in what is now know as Newfoundland, Canada.
The Knights, nor Roosevelt, found it appropriate to mention that the somewhat contested Kensington Runestone, a 200-pound slab of rock found in Minnesota in 1898, contained writings suggesting a group of Vikings were the first to arrive here.
So, was it Columbus, the Vikings or Ericson who discovered America? Let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, that nobody discovered anything.
Among the hundreds of stories pertaining to American History, none are void of the fact that when settlers arrived in North America, Central America and South America, they were eventually met by natives.
Generations of American school children have come to know these indigenous people as Indians, some fierce, fighting “cowboys” to the death. Some Indians were friendly and lived with the “White Man” in peace and harmony, as Hollywood would tell us. In short, Indians, natives, Native Americans, Redskins, whatever we’ve called them, were here long before explorers arrived in the Americas.
Is that end of the story? Hardly.
Other evidence continues to show that natives sailed in homemade canoes between North and South America in great numbers before Ericson or Columbus were ever born.
Gold, sex and blood
In 1492, Christopher Columbus didn’t arrive in America, shake off his boots and jump for joy at the sight of Indians as the little song suggests. In 1492, Columbus reached what is now known as the Bahamas, eventually arriving in Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
There, Columbus met people known as the Arawaks, Tainos and Lucayans–all friendly according to the explorer’s writings.
When the Arawaks assisted Columbus in repairing the shipwrecked Santa Maria, he realized these hospitable people would do pretty much anything he wanted, including surrendering their land. An empire soon followed.
Seizing the land for Spain, Columbus took the Arawaks as slaves, putting most of them to work in newly “discovered” gold mines. Within a year or two, more than 120,000 Arawaks died in the mines or were murdered by the man America honors every October.
Oh, don’t forget that Columbus, and the Catholic Church, led millions to believe the mission was to covert native people to Christianity.
A story which will likely never make into into Little Jimmy’s history books involves the year 1500. These events were so poignant, Columbus chronicled them so nobody would forget, writing: “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”
You guessed it. Columbus also dabbled in the flesh trade. Women and girls as young as 9 who were not sold as sexual servants worked in extreme conditions until hundreds dropped dead of exhaustion. Others committed suicide.
Columbus: The governor
The people of Hispaniola were not void of their own power struggles among tribes. Columbus, fittingly, lent his Christian hand in preventing such squabbles.
According to writings, droves of Taino people were beaten and severely punished for various crimes against other tribes. One of the most prolific accounts tells how the Tainos, for failure to pay agreed-upon “taxes” to the Columbus regime, would have their hands cut off and left to bleed to death.
Those who tried to escape were buried alive, burned and torn apart by packs of hunting dogs. Taino and Arawak babies were routinely fed to dogs and other animals.
Because the Catholic Church did not allow enslavement of Christians, Columbus solved the problem by refusing to baptize those he captured as slaves. As a result, few of the people of Hispaniola were ever baptized.
Back in Spain and Italy, financiers were not concerned with Columbus the tyrant and vicious killer. It wasn’t until Governor Francisco De Bobadilla of Spain had Columbus arrested, along with his two brothers, did the explorer come close to answering for crimes against humanity.
Following his arrst, in a classic political move, Columbus, coming to the table with ship loads of gold, was pardoned by the King and Queen of Spain. Money had a voice in 15th and 16th centuries, too.
The reign of Christopher Columbus was again under fire when Bartolome De Las Casas, a former henchman and slave owner, grew uncomfortable with what he saw. Eventually becoming Bishop of Chiapas, De Las Casas described Columbus-led acts that haunted him for the rest of this life.
Throwing natives into vats of boiling soap, cutting them in half and beheading them with swords for fun, and raping more than 2,000 women were acts the former Columbus confidant witnessed daily.
“Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” De Las Casas wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”
Twenty years after Columbus arrived in Hispaniola, a native population of two to three million had been raped and slashed to a mere 50,000. Some historians claim that not a single direct descent of the native people of Hispanolia exists today.
By the early 16th century, the business model Americans have come to know as the slave trade was in its infancy. As native slaves in Hispaniola died, Africans were taken by force. At the direction of his father, Diego Columbus became one of the first traders of African slaves in 1505.
When Christopher Columbus died in 1506, the Spanish crown passed Diego Columbus over, granting governorship of all “discovered” land surrounding Hispaniola to Juan Ponce de León.