Today is Columbus Day in the United States where narrow-minded Americans perpetuate the myth that Christopher Columbus discovered this country. It remains a popular fallacy despite obvious proof that the Western Hemisphere was not devoid of humans when Columbus and his fellow seafarers arrived. As someone who is part Indian (Mexican), this is a particularly vexing situation. But, as someone who is also Caucasian (Spaniard and German), I know I can be critical. For one thing, historical references can’t confirm exactly where Columbus landed. Some say present-day Hispaniola; others state Cuba. But, it’s pretty well understood that he didn’t make it to the American mainland.
We also have to understand some other facts that slip by the history texts, which have always had a Euro-Christian slant. Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus as one of their own. Evidence has surfaced in recent years, however, that the intrepid explorer was not actually a humble Italian weaver, but a Polish immigrant. Manuel Rosa, a professor at Duke University, claims that Columbus was the son of Vladislav III, an exiled king from Poland.
More importantly, though, Columbus had to seek help from Spain to finance his voyage. In the late 15th century, Italy was not actually a country, but a collection of city-states; fractured and in constant conflict. Apparently, no member of Italian royalty saw the value in Columbus’ grand scheme. Thus, he turned to Spain and received approval from Queen Isabella – one of my paternal ancestors.
Another myth is that Columbus had deliberately set out to discover the Americas, or traveled as a result of some divinely inspired vision. In reality, he wanted to find a westward route to India’s east coast and thus gain an advantage in the lucrative spice trade. Spices were as valuable as gold and silver at the time. Columbus believed Asia was where the Americas are and initially thought he’d arrived somewhere off the coast of China. Then, he thought he’d actually made it to India and thus, called the Taíno peoples of the Caribbean “Indians.”
Yet another major fact that goes unreported is that Columbus was not the first European to arrive in the Western Hemisphere. As Jared Diamond points out in his seminal book Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, scientists now realize that Norse Vikings arrived in North America nearly 500 years earlier. In the 1960’s, archaeologists unearthed remnants of a village in present-day Newfoundland known as “L’Anse Aux Meadows.” Norse literature also points to a land the Vikings called “Vinland.” The Norse had begun their march across the North Atlantic around A.D. 800; first populating the Orkney, Shetland and Faeroe islands, then moving onto Iceland and Greenland. There’s even some evidence that they’d made as far down North America’s eastern coastline as present-day Florida. But, that remains to be proven. By the time they landed in Newfoundland, however, they’d depleted much of their own energy and resources; thus any permanent settlement was unlikely.
But, here’s something even more important: people first arrived in the Americas between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago, if not sooner. They’d branched out across the entire Western Hemisphere, even reaching the southernmost tip of South America, long before Columbus started thinking about his trip. They built complex, intricate and highly-advanced societies – without firearms and without horses or cattle – and lived as best they could for all those millennia.
I’ve seen colorful illustrations of European men adorned in velvet and silk arriving on virgin American shores; their majestic ships moored in the distant background, carrying oversized crucifixes to which the scantily-clad Indians responded by dropping to their knees in automatic subjugation. But, it’s just not true. Columbus’ venture was a matter of commerce, not faith. The concept of spreading Christianity came later, as Spaniards began settling into México and then, as the English and the French began moving westward across North America. Some Indians allowed themselves to be converted to Christianity; more as a matter of survival, though, than some sort of mystical divine intervention. Others, however, strongly resisted and were subsequently beaten down by White settlers who used their religiosity more as a tool of oppression than benevolence.
Investigations into the history of the Americas are ongoing, but in recent years, research has gradually proven the Siberian migration hypothesis to be true. One study found “a unique genetic mutation” that exists only in both the indigenous peoples of Siberia and Native Americans. Other recent data suggests that Japanese seafarers made it to South America’s Pacific coast around 3000 B.C. Scientists have found similarities in pottery among Japan’s Jomon culture and coastal Ecuadorian Indians. They also noticed that “the nautical capability of Chinese sea-going rafts” were identical to those of indigenous Peruvian and Ecuadorian peoples. Moreover, archaeologists have found early specimens of the peanut – which is native to South America – in China. That humans populated just about every corner of the Western Hemisphere is testament to overall human ingenuity and determination. That they – we – have survived 500 years of disease, exploitation and genocide is even more impressive.
None of this is historical revisionism, as some staid elitists might claim. The facts are now coming forward and being revealed, whether the old-timers like it or not. It’s a mixed heritage. I’m glad, for the most part, that Europeans made it over here. But, what they did to the indigenous peoples cannot be underestimated or dismissed. While nothing can be done about it now, it’s futile to ignore historical facts – even if it puts a damper on all those Columbus Day picnics and yard sales at Wal-Mart.