By LaKeshia Myers
“In fourteen-hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—we all know the chant well; and many of us believe we know the true story of Italian sailor Christopher Columbus’ journey to the “new world”. The sad reality is, most of what Americans believe about Columbus’ discovery is filled with trite inaccuracies that have continued to dominate history courses and revile the most learned of history teachers for centuries. As a teacher of American history, I feel it is my duty to debunk these fallacies of revisionist history.
Myth #1: Christopher Columbus was of Spanish decent. This is untrue. Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. Much about his upbringing is shrouded in obscurity; but historians do know that he was the son of Italian merchants and he began his maritime career at an early age having sailed with various companies to the British Isles.
Myth #2: Columbus discovered America. This is abhorrently false. After many years of denied requests, Christopher Columbus received permission from the Spanish crown (Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II) to make a journey to the East. According to a 2015 article printed in The Guardian, Columbus knew the earth was round, he just thought the circumference of the earth was thousands of miles smaller, and thus that the islands of the Caribbean were the East Indies (Guardian, 2015). But let us be explicitly clear, Christopher Columbus never stepped foot on American soil. He did, however, set foot on the island of Hispaniola, which today are the subdivided countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Myth #3: Columbus was on his mission to find riches. This is not totally false—Columbus and his crew were looking for valuables to return to the King and Queen of Spain. However, the most important part of their mission was to convert natives to Christianity on behalf of the Catholic Church. In his voyage journal, Columbus wrote, “It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language” (Columbus, 1942). What ensued from Columbus’ voyage was the death and genocide on the island of Hispaniola. Historian Laurence Bergreen estimates that there were 300,000 natives on Hispaniola when Columbus arrived; by 1550, there were just 500. Many had been killed by disease or Spanish soldiers; others had been enslaved and sent back to Spain (Guardian, 2015).
The American obsession with Columbus has surely waned in the last few decades. Even in our county and state, efforts have been made to revisit the revisionist Columbus narrative. The City of Milwaukee has proposed a resolution renaming Columbus Day and Gov. Tony Evers officially declared the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day.
Milwaukee County also took the bold step in renaming Columbus Park Indigenous People’s Park. While some still pine for Christopher Columbus, believing him to have been a brave hero, history cannot deny factual evidence. Christopher Columbus was an explorer who at the behest of the Spanish monarchy was supposed to travel to the orient. He got lost on his voyage and stumbled upon an island already inhabited by indigenous people. In his infinite wisdom, he proceeded to kill, convert, and capture the people in the name of God and the Spanish government. If Columbus were alive today, he would undoubtedly be considered a genocidal terrorist—but only in America can we so vividly rewrite history to make him a hero to be lauded with his own holiday.