hearts and minds

October 11, 2007

Christopher Columbus’ Firsts

Filed under: Christopher Columbus,Class warfare,Economics,Education,History,Race relations — Hearts & Minds @ 2:28 am

Does your family celebrate Columbus Day? Or did it slip by without notice? Columbus Day is usually noted in school classes (well before college) and after that it is all but forgotten. But the four voyages of Columbus represent an incredibly important “first” in world history, in the history of the Western Hemisphere, and in the USA, that we should not forget.

There is a yearly nationwide essay contest for high-school students. A recent topic was “How did the four voyages of Columbus change our perception of geography and alter world economics?” Materials have been sent to school principals and history departments. (Not to worry – I’m not eligible to enter. Besides that, I’ll bet there’s a high school student somewhere out there who can rip off a better essay than the one that follows.) So get on with it. Click on this link for excellent reference material (which you can download as a pdf file, or buy cheap), knock off a good essay, bust my chops, win a nice cash prize for your writing, and enhance your profile for college admission.

You may already realize that some of the “firsts” for which Christopher Columbus has received credit should not be attributed to him. But you may not be cognizant of the most significant accomplishments of Columbus, and which ARE legitimate “firsts”, and which most assuredly did then, and continue today to “alter world economics”. First lets examine “our perception of geography”.

Columbus did not discover the “New World” – except in the sense that you personally “discovered” Disneyland or New York City. People were already long established and thriving virtually everywhere on the planet that Europeans eventually “discovered”. This includes the most remote and distant ocean islands, and the most difficult deserts and arctic regions on the planet, with the notable exception of Antarctica. The first school lesson about Columbus that should be continually taught until the myth disappears is simply that Columbus did NOT discover America. Many millions of people had been living here for many thousands of years in highly organized, proficient societies by the time Columbus arrived.

Columbus was not even the first European to discover the Western Hemisphere. The first Europeans to come here were fishermen from various lands and ports, who had come often and centuries before Columbus came. Columbus followed the trace of reports of fishing voyages and their logs that long preceded his first trans-Atlantic trip.

Columbus did not discover or prove that the world is round. That fact was long known around the world. Even in Europe. The diameter of the Earth was accurately calculated a millennium or two before Columbus by, for example, both north African and south European mathematician/scientists. Competent courageous practical distant water navigators, everywhere in the world, have never feared that they would “fall off the edge of the world”, no matter how far they sailed.

Columbus did not become famous because his trip was the first. He became famous because his trip was on behalf of, and authorized by a sitting monarch of the European aristocracy, and by the institutionalized religious hierarchy. The true identities of both the first persons, and of the first Europeans, to land on Western Hemisphere shores, have been forgotten or lost due to subsequent events and vested interests. (That is also not a first for historical records.)

So how was Columbus legitimately the “first” in history? The simple pre-eminent truth is that Columbus was the first trans-Atlantic agent of genocide and the slave trade. And for that he justly deserves fame. During the decades he and his immediate successors were the appointed Governors of the Caribbean, the native population there was almost entirely exterminated, by systematic violence, mass murder, and incidental disease, and by a deadly unbridled greed that enriched, and was commanded and blessed by, both the ruling aristocracy and heads of the dominant organized religious institution of Europe. Columbus slaughtered and enslaved Native-Americans, and transported slaves from the Western Hemisphere to Europe and from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. But as monstrously cruel and devastating as Columbus was in that regard, that was only the tentative, relatively inept beginning.

Christopher Columbus has the distinction of being the first European vassal that set the precedent for intercontinental genocide, planetary colonial imperialism, and the most brutal forms of enslavement. This became the subsequent dominant history of the world, the consequences of which have overtaken and immersed our planet for the last 5 centuries. Columbus commanded the first wave of a disastrous flood that swept the earth and all her people. Columbus shall never be forgotten for what he actually did to the people who met him when he landed in the “New World” and proceeded to follow his royal and mercantile and ecclesiastical orders, and to seek high status while feathering his own nest.

Christopher Columbus was, in the 15th century, filled with personal ambition and crass pretensions, willing to exploit religiosity, and to sacrifice other human beings, without a thought, to slake his ambition. Columbus was a highly competent, successful, and fortunate navigator, who was reputed to be loyal to those who bestowed power upon him, and who was willing to risk his own life to implement his promotions. But these qualities did not make him unique.

The unique and important historical “first”, which history will long remember, is his pioneering of the murderous trans-Atlantic slave trade and exploitation, and his transporting and commanding the first of the genocidal mercenary European Conquistadores to the Western hemisphere. Never forget that all this was done just to attain exorbitant gold, power, and status.

The first official steps by Europeans in the “New World” (and in the entire planet south of 40 degrees North latitude) laid the decidedly hostile, exploitative foundation and set the course for relations between people of Europe and their descendants, on one hand, and people of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and those native to the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific, on the other. The Conquistadores paved the blood-soaked way followed later by colonial military forces, the U.S. Cavalry, “volunteer militias”, the School of the Americas, and client state-run death squads.

The violent overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Iran and Chile and Nicaragua and Grenada (in the last half of the 20th Century), and the unconscionable vindictive and continuing attempt to do the same to the Cuban Revolution, and the catastrophic unjustified armed invasions of Vietnam and Iraq, all follow the bloody path pioneered by Christopher Columbus.

The precedent set by Columbus established a beachhead here for “free market” principles and colonial domination and genocide, buttressed by twisted religious and academic justifications. These were unrestrained by any respect whatsoever for human rights, family values, and principles of equality and love and caring. They have spread and infected the entire world in the succeeding centuries. Columbus’ true legacy is a value system and an economic system that is corrupt to the very marrow of its bones. And the current inhabitants of planet Earth inherit the resulting intractability of the worst real problems the world faces today. Will we pass on that legacy, or will we do our best to alter it?

One constructive path is to enact the Seventh Generation Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. http://www.savethewatersedge.com/seventh-generation.html


  1. Columbus Day totally slipped by. Inconvenience actually, because the next day’s mail spilled out of my mailbox. But I have no real objection to thinking about the effects of Columbus’ Discovery, and to reflecting on history. ….

    Comment by Vigilante — October 11, 2007 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  2. I also hate the hero status and the holiday that Columbus is given. As a teacher, and as one that likes to get at historical truth or at least multiple perspectives, it kills me. Instead of learning the 1492 song and learning the names of the three ships, my first graders have been studying the Taino culture (the native people of Puerto Rico) for 4 days now. I wanted them to build a connection with those people, and then make an evaluation about Columbus’s “discoveries” there. One of my students is from Puerto Rico and knows people of Taino heritage, whose ancestors survived, but are “extinct” according to the history books.

    In our evaluation of Columbus today, I learned that my students don’t know the words imperialism or genocide, but they do know about fear, bullying, and the difference between discovering and robbing. Just looking at two perspectives opened up inquiry about the issue instead of just celebrating a day off school.

    Anyway, just wanted to … let you know that even 6-yr-olds can understand the fundamentals of right and wrong, if grown-ups choose to forget.

    Comment by Alison W — October 11, 2007 @ 4:43 pm | Reply

  3. Excellent article. Also, a nice comment from Alison about teaching these deep but clear issues to first graders!

    Comment by Lois W — October 13, 2007 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

  4. 1492 is a watershed moment in the long history of globalization, so I think that Columbus Day should be converted into Globalization Day. Let’s use 1492 as part of (a) complex lesson plan to discuss pros and cons of globalization and how it can be done better. This history will help us understand what is going on today and, most importantly, avoid mistakes in the future.

    Comment by Tim R — October 14, 2007 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

  5. Your piece is thought-provoking and courageous. While the legacy of colonization, exploitation, manifest destiny, et al is tragic in many ways, it seems to me you have demonized Columbus as being somehow responsible for all the ugliness. Of course Columbus has for a long time been symbolized by others as “The Father of Our Hemisphere.” Granted I just made up the title, but you know what I mean. I submit to you that he was neither a demon or a saint. There was no conspiracy nor a plan. He was just a guy with an idea and the chutzpa to pull it off.

    Here’s the problem. People are attached to Columbus–particularly Italians and Spaniards. By characterizing his contribution as entirely evil, you will lose any opportunity you have to persuade those same people that we should go about the business of addressing the social evils that persist since before Columbus sailed his first dingy.

    In fact, Columbus’ voyage also set into motion many world-changing processes that haven’t been entirely bad, and some have caused civilization to evolve in important ways. For example, while the Potato Famine was an awful thing, the international trade and scientific exploration that resulted from Columbus’ sail across the pond brought potatoes to the entire world–also turkeys, squash, corn, the concept of the “confederation”, constitutional government, instantaeous global mass communications, Disney movies, Boeing, chili peppers, Helen Hunt, partical accelerators, the Hubble, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “string theory” to name a few.

    You attach too much importance to Columbus, just like the people who you criticize for casting him as some sort of god.

    Would you get into a space capsule for the purpose of flying off to another planet that may or may not be there knowing that you would be unable to communicate with the folks back home, that if you didn’t make it they would never know where you died or how, and that odds are really good you won’t ever get home?

    Comment by Howard H — October 16, 2007 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  6. The author replies:

    Alison’s comment 2 and Tim’s comment 4 above are very provocative and constructive, don’t you think so? Thank you for those contributions.

    The writer of comment 5 declares “there was no conspiracy nor a plan”, and Columbus was “just a guy with an idea and chutzpa…”

    That was true of the seafarers who preceded Columbus to “the New World”. It is transparently NOT true of Columbus. The collusion between the organized church and the monarchs of Europe is the kind of thing for which the word “conspiracy” was invented. More and less convoluted and complex plans have been concocted by “just guys”. But it is incredible to portray the four voyages of Columbus, and the initiation, thereby, and unfolding of global colonization, genocide, and a trans-Atlantic slave trade, as happening without a plan. As I said, Columbus was a vassal in the employ, and acting under the explicit orders of, a European monarchy and the church establishment’s top hierarchy. This is not just my opinion. He was undoubtedly clever, but this was a conspiracy and a plan, without any doubt whatsoever.

    You ascribe to me the implication that Columbus was personally and solely responsible for the entire dreadful history of colonial subjugation (“et al”), but that is a straw man. I did not. I credit Columbus for what he did, and for what he participated in and initiated, certainly not for what preceded him. And others are responsible for what they did after him, right up to the present day.

    In my email introduction to this essay I described Columbus as “… the accomplished and courageous 15th Century navigator and expedition commander”. In the article itself I asserted that “… Columbus was a successful and fortunate navigator, who was not reputed to turn with treachery on those who bestowed power upon him, and was willing to risk his own life to implement his promotions.”

    Now I admit that is pretty faint praise, but I did not assert the usual landlubber’s criticism that he was “lost”. The point is that my op-ed column is not, after all, an essay about navigation. It is not even an essay ABOUT Columbus. It is ABOUT world history and the consequences of a particular world view, and (as an essay of less than a thousand words) it uses Columbus Day to focus attention on that.

    I accurately described the actions of Columbus and those under his command, and I accurately characterized that which he can and should legitimately be remembered for as “the first”. Columbus did NOT discover America (or the Western Hemisphere). Columbus was NOT (by a long shot) the first European to travel to the Western Hemisphere. Columbus was NOT the first to demonstrate, believe, or prove that the world is round – again by a long shot. (Matter of fact, his voyages did not prove that the world is round. He sailed by latitudes, using rhumb lines, and had very little idea of how west he was at any time.) Technically speaking, Columbus’ four voyages did NOT prove that the world is a sphere.

    Dead reckoning plus knowledge of the ancient accurate calculations of the diameter of the earth, plus knowledge of the treks by Marco Polo to the Pacific Coast of China, would have provided Columbus with the basic data sufficient for him to know that his great desire to sail to China by sea had NOT (again, by a long shot) been realized when he made landfall at Hispanola. However, had he continued on course, rather than remained at the islands on his first voyage, he would have arrived at the mainland, where judicious inquiries and a few days overland exploration would have revealed the Pacific Ocean to him. But that is NOT the subject of my essay.

    My intent in this essay was to fully exploit the opportunity to spotlight an underlying terrible truth about history and a current world view that greatly imperils future possibilities of life on earth. The opportunity is presented by the literally incredible myths surrounding Columbus, and by the undeniable truth that is revealed by simply naming the actual “firsts” for which Columbus can be justly credited. That truth is the morbid means (slavery and genocide) by which domination and subjugation of the world economy has been achieved.

    It’s not about whether Columbus was brave and clever and with “the chutzpa to pull it off”, or a good navigator and ship captain. Maybe, on top of that, he was handsome, a good father and husband, and gave to the United Way, too. I’ll be glad to grant you all that. But there are only two human beings who have a national holiday named after them in the USA. Only one of them was a U.S. citizen. In fact only one of them ever laid eyes (much less lived) on the land that was or would become the USA. And that one was not Columbus. Ironically, the one who was a U.S. citizen, was also a descendant of victims of the very trans-Atlantic slave trade that Columbus initiated.

    So why the hell is a national holiday named in honor of Columbus? Because of the oft-repeated but false myths about his supposed “firsts”? Because of his bravery and his navigational skills and maybe his nationalist connections to a particular Mediterranean-European-American constituency that is a definable voting demographic? Or is it BECAUSE OF THE ACTUAL COLONIALIST AND IMPERIALIST INITIATIVES WHICH HE TRULY PIONEERED, AND WHICH ARE POWERFULLY SIGNIFICANT, IN RETROSPECT, BUT WHICH ARE UNSTATED IN POLITE COMPANY AND IN OUR CLASSROOMS AND OUR ANNUAL CELEBRATIONS?

    I am not characterizing Columbus’ character or contribution as “entirely evil”. (He was courageous and a good navigator and ship captain, as I said.) And you cannot seriously believe (or demonstrate) that I ascribe all social evils on earth to Columbus, or that they all started with Columbus, just because he engaged in them in a way that set important precedents. Your arguments both ignore and distract from my essay’s central argument and import.

    I do not attach any more importance to the bogus legend of Columbus than those who continuously promote those lies as truth, and take continuing pains to infect succeeding generations with the myth, instead of publicly acknowledging things which must be acknowledged in order to move ahead to Peace with Justice.

    With regards to your concluding argument, my guts and glory do not have to be equivalent to those of the royally dubbed “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” in order to make valid historical comment on the continuing exploitation of the Columbus myth by powerful forces that propagandize incessantly to perpetuate their manifest destiny of cruel greed and domination.

    Comment by clydewinter — October 16, 2007 @ 10:12 am | Reply

  7. ummm is this all true and how can u prove it

    Comment by ks — October 31, 2007 @ 7:42 pm | Reply

  8. The author replies to ks:

    How can I prove it? I was there, ks (or whatever they call you). I was a sailmaker and stood night watches on the Nina on the first voyage, and sailed on all four voyages to the west with the Admiral. My nephew was Colombo’s cabin boy. Bartolome De Las Casas and I were life long friends. I saw it all go down, or heard of it from those I trust, who saw and heard, with their own eyes and ears, as it happened. And I kept my mouth shut. Until now. I saw the bosun who didn’t, hang for his uncompromising decency. And there are many, many dark-skinned ghosts who swear it’s all true, and more that’s never been told. Are you going to deny them? Look them in the face when you say that.

    Comment by clydewinter — November 1, 2007 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

  9. It sure does seem like a wasted holiday to me. We don’t take off on Voting Day, even though that could be a great teaching moment to show our children an active way to display pride (or great concern) for our country. It’s an impressive argument by Clyde against emulating Columbus and thinking more clearly about what (and who) he stood for, namely the Power Elite. ks, I imagine the strongest proof of the truth of what Clyde says, if you weren’t convinced by the words from the past, would be what we don’t see around us every day. The complete decimation of the indigenous culture by Columbus and those who came after him is attributable to the savagery of the “cultured” Europeans! How could it be otherwise? We would live in a blended society consisting of native “Americans” and those others who assimilated over the years.

    Comment by Mike — November 3, 2007 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  10. Great idea for a holiday honoring Voting Day, Mike! (… rather than Columbus Day, in my opinion.) We also need a concurrent Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens. That would be a great way to ring in the new holiday, and usher out the old one.

    Besides my personal experience citation to “ks”, the text of my article also contains hyperlinks to important and useful sources, which themselves provide bibliographies and additional references to begin to answer his question.

    That’s an interesting thought (that you implied in your conclusion, Mike) about the newcomers being assimilated by the established culture of long standing.
    That seems how an unfamiliar visitor should act when coming to a new neighborhood or a new land. Assimilation has always meant, to “compassionate” European-Americans, that if there are any survivors among the people they officially visit, the survivors and their descendants must and will absorb and convert to the Euro values, beliefs, and culture, not learn from each other, and certainly not the other way around. And the survivors, to this day, are expected to accept the role and the rule of white supremacy.

    Comment by clydewinter — November 3, 2007 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  11. Informative and thought-provoking essay you put together. But why do you so often feel the need to inject your political drivel? Especially when it doesn’t even flow with the body of work. Remove the I-hate-Dick-Cheney paragraph and nothing is lost. In fact, it reads in its current format like you went back for one last glass of wine for courage and went back and threw it in just for posterity. You took what could have been an alternative viewpoint on history and ruined any credible intentions or ambitions you might have been attempting to project. This reader in particular dismissed the entire body of work as a result.

    Comment by CSS — November 17, 2007 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

    • I did remove that short digression contrasting Cheney with Columbus, and agree that nothing is lost by doing so. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Comment by clyde winter — March 9, 2010 @ 11:46 am | Reply

  12. You revisionists would be amusing if you weren’t so dangerous. Big bad white man is not responsible for all the ills you rewrite them to be. Disease was problematic for the Native Americans prior to Columbus (Read the research of Richard Steckel, professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State). Mayans and Incas were slaughtering one another to appease the gods and African slaves were enslaved by bigger dominate tribes in Africa even prior to there being brought to the Americas. The school teacher is what is wrong with public education and why it is failing so miserably, despite the government throwing so much money at it. Wake up people, stop waving your peace signs and read a little, rather then be manipulated by boneheads like this.
    Michael in Seattle(of all places)

    Comment by michael g — November 19, 2007 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

    • Whether “disease was problematic” (or not) in the Western Hemisphere prior to the European invasion does not alter my contention that a horrific genocide accompanied that invasion. It is true enough that all humans, of all nationalities, have experienced cruelty and murder, and that slavery was not invented by Columbus and Europeans. But that is not the point of this essay.

      My point is that the one and indisputable and certainly the most important “First” with which Columbus (and Europeans who followed him) must be credited, is the invention and establishment and persistence for centuries, of the inter-continental trans-oceanic trade and exploitation of human slavery.

      Comment by clyde winter — March 9, 2010 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  13. And here’s the greatest irony of it all … Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first to discover America. In fact, the first discovery can’t even be ascribed to Spain. The honor actually belongs to the Vikings who landed in Newfoundland around 1000 AD.

    Here’s the article where I found the information:


    So, given the bloodlust of the vikings in the past, should we get a holiday off for them as well? Or perhaps, we could replace Columbus day with Viking day. I know Brett Favre would love that one! 🙂

    Regardless, it’s not good for a country to honor a man who came to enslave the original owners of that said property. It reeks of wrong and injustice!

    Comment by Ken H — March 8, 2010 @ 1:05 am | Reply

    • You must have missed the third, fourth, and fifth paragraphs of my essay, Ken, where I dispelled the myths about Columbus being “the first to discover America”. I didn’t mention the Vikings by name, but they were certainly among the first European fishermen to precede Columbus to the Western Hemisphere. However, it was NOT a European who was the first human to discover the “New World”. When the first Europeans arrived here there were already thriving populations and countless distinct cultures, long established, everywhere from Cape Horn to the Northwest Passage. The honor of discovery does not belong to Europeans.

      Comment by clydewinter — March 8, 2010 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  14. Yeah, I reread your article and the other one I mentioned. What do you think about the Phoenicians sailing all the way across the ocean? Could they have really done it on their own? And where did the Indians come from? I remember seeing a show that said something about a land bridge, but if that’s the case why do the Eskimos look so different than the other Indians? Different migrations with different origins?

    I know this was never the scope of your article nor the intent, but now you have my mind racing and my curiosity peaked!

    Comment by Ken H — March 9, 2010 @ 2:15 am | Reply

    • There has long been a European scientific theory that human migration to the Western Hemisphere occurred across a “land bridge” (across the Bering Sea, from Asia to Alaska). For a quarter century, I have been more than skeptical that such a “land bridge” could have been the only, or even the primary route of human migration. But my skepticism was not supported by peer-reviewed scientific research, so it did not rise beyond mere speculation and conjecture. However, there has been such research accumulating in recent years, and evidence is accumulating to support a scientific theory of the times and means and origins of human migrations to the Western Hemisphere prior to the invasion of the conquistadores in the 15th century A.D.

      My speculations are based on the following preliminary assumptions:
      (1) It is much easier for humans to travel far, and to migrate, by boat than on foot
      (2) Evidence does not support the theory that “pre-columbian” human habitation of the entire Western Hemisphere radiated from the Arctic North
      (3) Virtually all suitable islands of the oceans were already inhabited by humans at the time they were “discovered” by Europeans during their “Age of Discovery”. These islands were not settled using a “land bridge”. It defies any seafarer’s logic that humans found and settled all these islands, but somehow “missed” and were unable to settle the huge, continuous, unavoidable land mass of the Western Hemisphere.

      In direct answer to your question, I certainly think it is possible for Phoenicians to have traveled to the Western Hemisphere. You also may find the voyages of Thor Heyerdahl across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on “Kon-Tiki” and “Ra” interesting.

      We must expand our mental horizons beyond the restrictions and limitations of our particular formal education which supports “manifest destiny” assumptions of European cultural superiority. It is not only possible, but highly likely (in my opinion), that the Western Hemisphere was discovered and settled entirely by humans who did NOT originate in Europe (or even the Mediterranean). What evidence currently exists suggests settlement over ten thousand years ago by humans who originated in Asia and Africa.

      Comment by clydewinter — March 9, 2010 @ 11:30 am | Reply

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