Christopher Columbus went to his grave with the mistaken belief that his historic voyages of exploration had landed him in Asia. To honor the heritage of his error, it is today that we celebrate Columbus Day, even though the 518th anniversary of his discovery is actually tomorrow.
Columbus Day was officially changed to the second Monday of October years ago. Such historical revisionism would’ve pleased the man credited with finding the New World, despite the fact the Vikings had made settlements in Canada 500 years earlier, and millions of natives already in the Americas had discovered themselves long ago.
The legacy of the fabled Italian mariner who famously sailed the ocean blue has swung from positive to negative in recent years. Historians stripped him of his title of “Discoverer of America,” giving him instead the wordier and more specific honorific of “the man who led to general European awareness of the American continents in the Western Hemisphere”. He got to keep the naming rights to Columbus, Ohio, Columbia, S.C., and the nation of Colombia, though he would’ve gladly traded those to Verizon for a multi-year deal when he toppled into bankruptcy in his later years. His legacy now is one of exploitation, genocide and enslavement, not much for even the best PR firm to work with.
So we (sort of) honor him today with a holiday for mailmen, bankers and owners of liquor stores, a limited but fitting observance of the life of someone whose star has faded.
Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. His parents were middle class, with his father working as a wool weaver, tavern owner and proprietor of a cheese stand. (Years later, the Catholic Church almost agreed to fund his first voyage when a cardinal misunderstood his desire to “bring cheeses to the pagans.”) Young Christopher loved adventure from an early age, and longed to spread his influence throughout the known world. He became a semen in his late teens but, when he learned that sperm donation for cash was still centuries in the future, switched his career to seaman. He traveled extensively throughout Europe as a business agent for important Genoese families, going as far as West Africa, Britain and possibly Iceland to get away from his wife, whom he left for good in 1487.
He taught himself Latin, astronomy, geography and history, even though he is not regarded as a scholarly man. He made hundreds of notations in the books he read, and clung vigorously to the simple, strong and sometimes wrong ideas that a self-educated person gains from independent reading, making him something of a Glenn Beck of his time.
When he hatched his plans to sail west to Asia, Europe was confronting the challenge of how to maintain the spice and opium trade with the Indies after the Ottoman Turks closed the Silk Road in 1453. The entire continent was going through Vicodin withdrawal, and searching about desperately for cough syrup and/or new routes to the Orient. Columbus presented his “Enterprise of the Indies” proposal to the Portuguese king as early as 1485, asking for three sturdy ships and the title of “Great Admiral of the Ocean.” The king’s experts thought correctly that Columbus underestimated the distance he needed to travel, but he was only off by about 9,000 miles.
Next he sought an audience with Spanish monarchs and singing duo Ferdinand and Isabella. They also rebuffed Columbus, yet were intrigued enough by his ideas to offer him 12,000 maravedis to keep them to himself, lest rival nations somehow benefit from the cock-eyed notion that you go west to get east. But he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, despite the fact that it’s pronounced the same way in Spanish and Italian. Finally, the king and queen gave in to his incessant pestering, and Columbus was good to go.
In August of 1492, he set sail from Palos, Spain, with three small ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Sea Yawl Later. In just over two months, this modest fleet reached land in the present-day Bahamas, at a site he named San Salvador but which is now known by the less-romantic name of Watling Island. Here he encountered indigenous peoples who were peaceful and friendly, much to their later regret. Columbus liked them a lot, noting that “they ought to make good servants, for they repeat whatever we say to them … I think they can very easily be made Christians.” He kidnapped a dozen or two to take back to Spain with him but most of them died en route. Even in those days, it was tough to find good help, or at least the kind that survived long ocean voyages.
Columbus continued this first of four expeditions, knocking around the Caribbean like a college dropout with a Eurail pass. Later in October, he sighted Cuba, which he thought was China. In December, he landed on Hispaniola, which he thought was Japan. There, he established a colony of 39 men and left them behind, which he thought was a good idea (when he returned on a later voyage to stop and say “hi,” all had disappeared). Nothing was what it seemed in this foreign world, at least not if you held 15th-century concepts of navigation and interpersonal relations. Columbus gathered up some gold and some spices — most notably basil, oregano and coriander that Isabella needed for her paella recipes — and returned to Spain.
There, he received a hero’s welcome. He had shown that great wealth lay just over the horizon to the east, regardless of whether you wanted to call it Asia, the Indies or America. He proved that the earth was round and that circumnavigation of the globe was possible. He opened up two whole continents whose riches over the next century would make Spain the most powerful nation in the world. And don’t forget the paella.
Columbus would make three more voyages over the next ten years, two of which were billed as reunion gigs while the last was a farewell tour meant to supplement his admiral income. On the second trip, he discovered Montserrat, Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Croix, to the everlasting thanks of twenty-first century rock stars looking for secluded beach getaways. During the third voyage, he explored the mainland of South America and had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. On his last trip in 1502, he was looking for the Indian Ocean which, you have to admit, does kind of look like Jamaica, which is what he actually found. He came close to discovering the Pacific Ocean in Panama, but he probably would’ve thought it was the World Showcase lagoon at Epcot.
Despite some legal problems that led to him being briefly jailed, Columbus enjoyed a good four years of retirement, living on the gold he had accumulated from the New World. He died of a heart attack reportedly brought on by arthritis, conjunctivitis and painful urination at age 55 in 1506.
Even though he was quite callous in his dealings with his own men, and is now widely recognized as pretty much a dick when it came to respecting aboriginal civilizations, Christopher Columbus still deserves recognition for the bravery it took to sail off into the unknown and expand the known world to its current size.
Even 517 years and 364 days later, he deserves to be remembered. If you have to work on this holiday meant to celebrate his life, drive a different route to the office than you might normally take, and just explain to your boss that you’re two months late in honor of the spirit of exploration. If you do get to stay home for the holiday, stroll next door to infect your neighbor with smallpox, then move into his house when he leaves for the hospital. If he complains when he gets out, tell him he’s mistaken his old neighborhood for Asia.