Columbus Day (boo, hiss)

Columbus Day has fallen out of fashion, reports AP. Some schools will be open today.  Others are teaching lessons that emphasize a darker side of Columbus. He didn’t “discover” America because the natives got there first. And the Europeans’ arrival turned out very badly for the native peoples.

In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the “Columbian Exchange” — which consisted not only of gold, crops and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.

In McDonald, Pa., 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, fourth-grade students at Fort Cherry Elementary put Columbus on trial this year — charging him with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. They found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

“In their own verbiage, he was a bad guy,” teacher Laurie Crawford said.

I went to elementary school in the benighted ’50s, but we knew that Columbus had “discovered” for Europe a world that had been discovered previously. We knew he was so lost he named the place the “West Indies.” And we knew that most of the natives had died from diseases for which they had no immunity. We also honored his courage.

Update: Columbus, Ohio no longer holds a Columbus Day parade, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Jay Greene has an interesting take on indigenous peoples and land theft.

About Joanne


  1. It is hard to manage a balanced view in a classroom, isn’t it? That’s the main thought that came to me from reading the descriptions of how different classrooms approach the question of Colombus.

    And life in jail for thievery and misrepresenting the crown? Tough judge. Although probably less tough than the Spanish judicial system during Colombo’s time.

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    “The indigenous population was kind of waiting expectantly, almost with smiles on their faces,” Kracht said. “‘I wonder what this guy is bringing us?’ Well, he’s bringing us smallpox, for one thing, and none of us are going to live very long.”

    But the natives returned the “favor” in spades with the introduction of syphilis to Europe.

    Apparently, the New World isn’t all that intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus discovered; seems we may also have him to thank for spreading the pathogen that causes syphilis—along with news of the Americas—to Europe.
    A new study provides what scientists say is the most convincing evidence to date that the Italian adventurer and some of his crew contracted the disease during their voyage to the New World—and unwittingly introduced it to the old one circa 1493.

    But that is only the half of it. Tobacco was obtained from the Indians and spread throughout the world.

    However, tobacco was more to the Indians than just a religious item. It was smoked for pleasure, and the medicine men used it to cure a range of illnesses. But it was clear that many natives smoked tobacco purely for pleasure, and it was this fact that amazed Christopher Columbus and his men the first time they saw the Indians smoking tobacco.

    So I guess we should credit the Indians for all of the death’s due to tobacco. Funny we never seem to blame them for that.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Somebody was going to discover the Americas for Europe.
    The Portuguese had discovered that sailing southwest into the South Atlantic and picking up a slant for the Cape of Good Hope was more effective than working down the coast of Africa. One guy swunt a bit wide and spotted Brazil. Didn’t stop, but he told folks about it when he got home.
    The first Norseman we know of to spot the Americas was a merchant headed for the Greenland settlements who missed, running a bit south and encountering the coast of Labrador. He didn’t stop, either, but he told Leif Ericson about it.
    The city of Bristol, before Columbus, would, every two or three years, send a small fleet into the North Atlantic, looking for the mythical island of Huy Brasil. Never found it, of course, but sooner or later they’d have hit, say, Newfoundland, or, at least, the cod-rich Grand Banks. At which point, the waters would have been swarming with fishermen, which happened only a few decades later, some of whom would have found land.
    One suggestion is that Huy Brasil would have been a handy stop on the way home from the Grand Banks, meaning there was already fishing there, and presumably somebody had found Newfoundland and was using it to haul out and dry their catch. Doing that on the way home would have been more economical.
    If it hadn’t been Columbus, it would have been somebody else, and not very much later, either.

  4. Richard Nieporent has anticipated much of what I was going to say, so I’ll just add this:
    Syphilis wasn’t “only the half of it”, it was more like a third of it. The Western Hemisphere gave the Eastern Hemisphere syphilis, tobacco, and cocaine in return for smallpox, alcohol, and gunpowder. They probably got the worst of the bargain, but gave a heck of a lot in return. I believe gonorrhea was also unknown in Europe before Columbus. In fact, there seems to be no mention of any venereal disease in places you would expect it to be mentioned if the ancients knew of it: Juvenal, Martial, Aristophanes, Petronius, other authors with no self-restraint when it comes to mentioning even the most tasteless subjects.

  5. Thanks, Joanne. We actually moved our younger son to a Catholic school with 30 year-old textbooks after watching our older son bring home work in high school pointing him towards a denigration of Columbus’s achievement.

    I still can’t believe that people who casually hop on planes to go everywhere can simultaneously believe that all the peoples of the world would never meet.

    My parents emigrated to America 45 years ago when I was 5. I still think it was a good move though the old country seems better and better, and simultaneously, worse and worse, more like America as it is, rather than it was.

    I may be getting old and cranky; but, I don’t think so.

  6. It seems to make sense to say smallpox is given. I don’t think it makes sense to say the same about Syphilis. I’d guess it makes more sense to say that was taken.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    Richard Aubrey has it about right: if not Columbus, someone would have “discovered” the lands in the western hemisphere. But for one of those curious accidents of history, it might have been the Chinese about 60 years earlier than Columbus.

    It also appears that the writers of the current politically correct textbooks choose simply to ignore inconvenient facts, such as the way epidimiology works.

    For the more scientifically challenged educators, it comes to this: virtually all our diseases, including smallpox, have come from domesticated animals. The indigenous people here essentially had no domesticated animals, hence no centuries of time in which to build up immunities. And so they were vulnerable, as have been Europeans and Asians when they ventured into sub-Saharan Africa.

    All of which makes it at best wrong-headed to blame Columbus for much of anything.

  8. Turned out bad for the natives? That’s one way to look at it, I guess. You could get killed by the Aztecs or get killed by the conquistadors. I don’t recall all that many “noble savages” in my study of Western Hemisphere natives.

    Granted, Columbus and the boys weren’t the nicest to the Caribbean islanders.

  9. It’s a bit sad that Columbus has to bear the burden alone for representing the European discovery/invasion of the Americas. Perhaps there can be a separate day set aside for arguing both sides of colonization’s consequence while preserving the reverence for the man himself and his historic mission.

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    OK, the Europeans didn’t intend to wipe out the indigenous people with measles and smallpox, so we can’t blame Columbus for that. But practically the first thing he did when he got to the New World was take slaves. He brought back slaves from his first trip. This was not a nice guy.

  11. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to discover the New World. Leif Erikson made it to Newfoundland about 500 years earlier. St. Brendan may have even visited North America in the 6th Century A.D. but we don’t know for sure.

  12. The indigenous peoples already had slavery.

  13. When I was in grade school in the late 40’s and early 50’s there was no mention of the downside of old CC’s “discovery”.

  14. Fang: He was a bad guy — b/c he practiced an institution that existed for time immemorial?

    I also find it somewhat chuckle-inducing how some folks (like Howard Zinn) laud Bartolome de las Casas for advocating the cessation of Indian slavery around the era of Columbus. OK, sure, that was a good thing. But de las Casas then advocated that everyone look to Africa to make up the difference! What a “hero!”

    As a semi-related side note, sci-fi/alternate history fans may like the novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. It neatly tackles many of the issues bandied about in this thread, and offers up a striking resolution!

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Crimson Wife
    Geoffrey Ashe in “Land to The West” suggests that Brendan’s voyage, once stripped of stuff like talking whales, puts Brendan in the sailing directions for the northern route to North America. By implication, the directions existed and Brendan was one more to use them, but this time it was for spiritual exploration, not commerce.
    IIRC, Brendan wasn’t sent out to explore. In fact, most places he landed he could get a meal and hear mass. His kind of folks were already there.

  16. I think that this discussion does much to support the teaching of social studies, rather than simple history and geography. Reality is, life offers few heroes or villians. Those whom history has raised up make their contributions or detractions within a social context. Is an individual who made a profound contribution to the general knowledge of the geography of the world a villian because he did not question slavery and was unable to see beyond his own ethnocentrism? Or, was he a tremendous explorer within a culture limited by its own sense of itself as superior?

    There is great value, I believe, in being able to walk around an event and to see it from the viewpoint of others in the story. I was surprised when I visited London to hear King George referred to as “the last king of the Americas.” I don’t know if it is true, but I have heard that some schools in the American South refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression.

    In the end, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to be able to distiguish between heroic commitment to a cause–an incredibly rare find–and moving within a system of cultural values and economic motivations, a far more frequent reality.

  17. His discoveries also began the path to the nation which led to the greatest advancement of freedom and democracy in world history. Funny how thee’s no mention of that. I used to work with some Cubans and all they ever talked about was how Americans take freedom for granted and what repression is like.

  18. Genocide has fallen out of fashion?

    Babies were taken from mothers’ arms and thrown into the river with great laughter.

    Swords were run through bodies simply to test the sharpness.

    It wasn’t just slavery and disease. It wasn’t just mass murder.

    Killing was done for sport and for the purpose of humor.

    Boo and hiss? This wasn’t melodrama.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    Robert. You’re talking about the Aztecs, or the Mayans? You aren’t clear.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oops. Or possibly the Caribs? Of course, you could say the Caribs didn’t kill for sport and only killed what they could eat.

  21. I’m talking about what Columbus’s men did to the Tainos and Arawaks.

    (Caribs also killed in defense.)

  22. Bill Leonard says:

    Ah, here we go again! I wondered how long it would take someone to come up with the “G” word.

    The Europeans who arrived on this shore pretty much consistently acted brutally, perhaps because they were of their time and place.

    Virtually every indigenous tribe in the Americas routinely tortured captives for the amusement of fellow tribesmen. But of course, they were noble peoples because they weren’t Europeans, right, Mr. Wright?

  23. Bill, I’m not aware that native Americans did anything comparable.

  24. Bill Leonard says:

    Re: treatment of captives, see any of the historical accounts of Indian-European involvement — wars, if you will — in the Great Plains and Southwest. The Apaches were particularly nasty toward their American and Mexican captives. Torture of captives also was common among the tribes in parts of the Northeast and what is now central Canada.

    Generally ignored in most discussions of European colonization and exploration of the western hemisphere are the feats of exploration themselves; Orellana’s exploration of the Amazon comes to mind. To this day, Iquitos, Peru, is, at 2,300 miles-plus inland, the furthest inland deep ocean port on the planet. For a comparison, imagine going ‘upriver’ from San Francisco to Louisville, KY.

  25. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mr. Wright really is aware. But he can’t afford to admit it.

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    I forgot. Which was it, Arawaks or Tainos that the Caribs ate?
    (Note to self. Read up on Native American cannibalism. Hate to have to guess.)

  27. It is useful when teaching the Columbus story to ask the children to think about the Columbian exchange, that is, what the Eastern and Western hemispheres received and lost as a result of the age of exploration. All kinds of lessons can be designed to help the students understand how the world was transformed by this event.

    This doesn’t mean just turkeys and pumpkins. It means religion, language, writing, science, metallurgy, government, medicine-every aspect of culture. We might ask the students to come up with an understanding of why Indians had remained innocent of technologies such as the wheel. We could have them consider why the major pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas all practiced wholesale human sacrifice. Perhaps our Power-Point could be spiced up with a cut from Apocalypto.

    Why not ask them to construct a non-Columbian population scenario, and then decide who among their classmates should be eliminated to bring woirlds populatioon down to a pre-1492 level.

  28. Richard Aubrey says:

    If you read Guns, Germs, and Steel, you’ll find plenty of excuses.

    It’s been said that the Mayan and Aztecan pyramids are so steep–you ever climb those suckers?–so that the dead bodies can be rolled flopping down without any effort to be rendered unto the stewpot. Others have said that if you eat corn and beans at the same time, you get the protein you need without having to eat, you know, meat.

    It’s one thing to not have draft animals. It’s another entirely to not have herds from which to eat.

    Wild cattle, not speaking of feral cattle, were really wild. Not easy to handle. But selective breeding gave us our placid milkers and resigned beef cattle.

    If you captured a couple of buffalo calves and killed 90% of the calves born each year, selecting for the least aggressive, how long until you had biddable animals?

    Ditto zebras.

  29. Bill Leonard says:

    Lou, I believe the wheel was known to the Aztecs, but the concept never moved beyond children’s toys, possibly because the Aztecs had no draft animals and of course, had plenty of slaves to carry loads in caravan.

  30. Richard Aubrey says:

    Think a slave could manage more pulling a wagon?
    You can carry 400 pounds on a bicycle. You walk beside it with one stick coming vertically out of the center of the handlebars, right above the front wheel, and the other affixed to the handlebar coming out horizontally.
    Might take two guys to get it on its feet, so to speak, but from there, you just keep it balanced.
    Point is, a bike is almost contra designed as a freight carrier, being hard to balance and so forth.
    A two-wheeled cart, on the other hand….

  31. Bill Leonard says:


    Yup, a slave probably could pull more in a two-wheeled cart than he could carry on his back. But for whatever reasons, the (to us) obvious solution simply didn’t occur to — or at least, didn’t happen with — the Aztecs.

    But humans so frequently do the counter-intuitive. Those who came west across the prairies with their heavy Conestoga wagons would have been far better served by the two-wheeled carreta that was the mainstay of the southwest and the Mexican borderlands. Indeed, the wagon train guides must almost certainly have known of the carreta and its utility, but the northern plains travelers stuck to the big, often unwieldy and dangerous Conestogas.

    And so it goes…

  32. Richard Aubrey says:

    Better served if they were carrying less and didn’t plan on living in it.
    Still, the Europeans had to have the stirrup introduced from the outside, along with the horse/ox collar. That’s billions of cumulative man-years spent looking at a problem and failing to address it.
    I had a Turkish kid, an exchange student, tell me a Turkish peasant would burn his furniture in his stove before he started thinking about improving it. “You Americans,” he said, “start thinking how to change something before you get it out of the box.”
    Needless to say, his family was not of peasant stock.
    However, we have two entire continents with no wheeled transport, no draft animals except the fragile llama, and no large-animal herds for food. And no metal tools.

  33. Llamas, wheels, exchange students.

    Genocide isn’t as ugly as I thought.

  34. Bill, I had known about the Meso-american wheeled toys, but omitted the point for brevity. As the foregoing discussion demonstrates, sometimes all you have to do is throw the plug out, twitch it a little and the bass come and hit it. That’s how we teach now, isn’t it?

    Richard, Guns, Germs and Steel is valuable for laying out data and provoking a discusssion of the meta-civilizational question of what went wrong with some cultures and what went right with others. Diamond throws it all on geography and dumb luck, but that’s plainly wrong. As that Turkish exchange student observed, some people make their luck.

    Diamond and his ilk delight in pointing out non-Western “accomplishments” in discovering technologies, but as our point about the wheeled toys underscores, it is the use made of the idea that matters.

    Chinese gunpowder and Arab navigational instruments redound not to the glory and honor of those civilizations, but to their shame and punishment for not having employed them correctly. The deciding factor was differences in the core culture, particularly in the concept of the individual. Top-down civilizations become satisfied with the way things are, because their rulers are satisfied. Dynamic civilizations keep pushing.

    Diamond lost me when he wrote elsewhere that Japan had done well to shut itself off from the world by murdrering missionaries and converts. He listed this as a cause of Japan’s “success.” If he thinks that what Japan has brought down upon itself in the last hundred years was “success,” he has little to teach us.

    The question presented, at last, by Columbus Day, is what went right with the West, and what went wrong with the rest. The answer, I would say, lies in culture, not geography, not race, not luck. Our fusion of ideas, from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and, yes, Philadelphia, provides the answer; we just have to ask the right questions.

  35. Richard Aubrey says:

    Robert Wright. It’s been my experience that those complaining of genocide in the Americas are extremely limited in which genocides they consider a Bad Thing. I don’t expect you’re any different.
    In addition, it wasn’t genocide. That’s a word with a very specific meaning. It’s so specific, in fact, that Bill Clinton forbade his staff from using it in regards to a dust-up in Africa because it would make him legally responsible to do something, which he wished to avoid.
    What we had was disease introduced before the germ theory of disease was known, and the result of the most recent Volkerwanderung, none of whose predecessors have been reproached.
    See Muslims into India and 60-80 million dead Hindus for example.
    Also see Mann, 1491.
    Diamond is nuts. He figures there is a Melanesian people smarter than anybody because, on a chance meeting they practically always fight. But they have to figure out on the instant if the other party is possibly a friend, or from an allied group. This quick thinking, he says, means they’re smart. Unlike, say, the Ashkenazim Jews, 1SD above the rest of us.
    Anyway, Robert Wright, that’s an old schtick designed to show off the schticker’s superior morality and awareness and stuff. Doesn’t work.

  36. Bill Leonard says:

    Ah, Lou. “Zut alors!” cries the shrewd fat old bass from the bottom of the pond. “This twitch looks promising…” Congrats. You’ve hooked me deeper into these discussions than I usually go.

    I in fact own and have read a couple or three of Prof. Diamond’s tomes. I think he is a superb synthesizer of major concepts — the germ theory of medicine, for instance — in order to make those concepts comprehensible to a lay audience.

    But as others have pointed out, he is selective in some of his facts, and very selective in his choice of civilizations to study.

    But none of that negates the idea that the European colonization of the New World had nothing to do with genocide — certainly not as the terms has come to be accepted in the wake of the Nazi government’s efforts during WWII. Those who disagree might start with a bit of research about how the germ theory of disease works, and when it was ultimately formulated.

    If the Europeans who colonized the New World were guilty of anything, it was a matter of acting normal within their frame of human reference. The plain fact is, at no point in human history has a technologically superior society ever dealt well with one that was technologically inferior. (The politically correct among ye should refrain from dumping contumely on this correspondent. We are talking here about a society’s technological development, not its world view.)


  37. Richard Aubrey says:

    Bill Leonard.
    To make an analogy, I once, years ago, read Catton’s Civil War trilogy end to end. I was somewhat familiar with the subject, and I knew that 600,000 guys died in that war. As I read along, encountering Shiloh, and the Wilderness, and Gettysburg, and Chickamauga and a score of lesser fights, my internal calculator was getting nervous. Where are my 600,000 dead? Wasn’t adding up. Turns out that most died of disease. In fact, it wasn’t until WW I that more guys died in combat than of disease.

    I read American history and hear about Wounded Knee and King Phillip’s War, and the Cherokee Removal and such like and I’m wondering, where is my genocide? Where are the heaps of dead? Turns out it didn’t happen like that. Got a book on the Eastern Pequots–don’t ask–and disovered that, since the Pequot War of several centuries ago, nobody’s been bothering them. Still, they were down to half a dozen not so long ago. What happened? Assimilation happened. Then a sharp lawyer with a view to gaming laws and Indian semi-sovereignty happened along and there are now a whole lot more Eastern Pequots and they are said to be CT’s largest single taxpayer.
    For a different perspective, see “Sheboss” and the Natchez Trace. A tavern on the Trace, run by a married couple, he Indian, she white. When somebody asked the hubby something, his English was not adequate and he would point to his wife and say, “She boss.”
    Where was this guy as an “Indian”? Culturally? Their kids? Any of them shot to death by Daniel Boone? If there was a census that counted them, how did he count? Their kids?

    For some perspective on Mann and “1491” and disease, see Zinsser, “Rats, Lice, and History”.


  1. […] Columbus Day « NotionsCapitalColumbus Day has fallen out of fashion, reports AP. Some schools will be open today. Others are teaching lessons that emphasize a darker side of Columbus. He didn’t “discover” America because the natives got there first. … Read more […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kriley19. kriley19 said: Joanne Jacobs: Columbus Day (boo, hiss) Full […]