Note: Travis Hameloth graduated with a degree in History Education from Millersville in Dec. 2017.
“1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I’m sure many of us remember hearing this rhyme in school, even if we weren’t taught it directly by our history teacher. Every year, in the weeks surrounding Oct. 8, students read about and are taught Christopher Columbus’ “great achievements.”
Why? Why are we still celebrating this man and his life? What have his contributions to our society and our understanding been? Truth be told, Christopher Columbus was a nasty, racist, incompetent captain whose “achievements” amount to very little.
He is remembered as the man who “discovered America,” but historians have known for quite some time now that he did no such thing. Even ignoring the fact that the new continent he landed on had been inhabited for thousands of years, with indigenous societies surpassing European ones in size and population, he still wasn’t the first European to sail to North America. That honor belongs to the Norsemen almost 1000 years before his famous voyage.
Not only did he lose the title of “discovery” to the Norsemen, he almost died doing it. He was so sure of himself and his knowledge of the sea, he only brought half as many supplies as necessary. He was convinced that the ocean separating the Old World and the Oriental couldn’t possibly be as large as the Atlantic Ocean actually is, and refused to heed the advice of other captains telling him to bring more supplies in case of an unexpectedly long journey.
Not only was he an arrogant and incompetent captain, but he was also a foolishly stubborn one. Christopher Columbus died believing that the island he landed on was off the coast of India. On his deathbed, he insisted that the land he opened up to colonial exploitation, disease, rape, and murder was the Oriental Land of India.
He could not conceive the possibility that he was wrong, and that there was, in fact, two whole continents between where he landed and India. Even after being confronted with maps made on voyages that came after his, he was determined to make a fool of himself to his last breath. This misnomer is the origin of our English slang word “Indian” when referring to a Native American.
When looking at the list of “accomplishments” credited to Christopher Columbus, they are inconsequential to his blunders. For all the reasons listed above, and for how he acted during his stay in the Americas, Christopher Columbus should not be remembered as a voyaging adventurer who discovered America. He should be remembered as the cruel and incompetent man he was who let his sailors rape and pillage the islands they landed on as they pleased.
He should be remembered for laying claim to already inhabited lands. And he should be remembered for the mass genocide that came as a result of European settlement of the New World. Was he personally responsible for this genocide? No. But it baffles the mind to imagine a world where the harbinger of such an acroscity is remembered fondly.