The Truth, Mainly - 10/12/1992

Revisiting the second grade and exploits of Chris Columbus
by Leon Satterfield

Despite the charge that Christopher Columbus 500 years ago today exposed this hemisphere to Europeans, I always liked him.

For one thing, I first learned about him when I was in second grade in 1942, and I thought he was awfully thoughtful to have held off his discovery until 1492, a date I could easily remember.

And later, I went off to college, joined a fraternity, and learned a song so deliciously dirty that male bonding took place, the refrain going like this: "He knew the world was round-o,/He knew it could be found-o,/That mathematical, geographical sonuvabitch Columbo."

So Christopher Columbus was all right by me. None of the classes I took in college in the snug 1950s suggested anything to contradict what I'd been told in second grade:

• that Columbus was an intrepid sailor primarily motivated by a desire to show the flat-earth mouth-breathers that the world was round-o.

• that a secondary concern was to spread his Christian faith to a continent full of heathen hot to hear the Good News.

• that he was greeted by enthusiastic natives, relieved that they had finally been discovered.

• that, last but not least, there probably was gold to be found which could decorate buildings in Europe for American tourists to gawk at.

But lately I've been hearing about the Admiral's darker side. For one thing, at about the same time he discovered America, some Eskimos from Canada made their way across the North Atlantic in kayaks to discover Scotland. But they had the good sense to keep quiet about it once they found out there were already people there. That put Columbus in a new light for me: maybe he discovered America in the same sense that Jesse James discovered banks, or in the same way Saddam Hussein tried to discover Kuwait two years ago.

For another thing, Columbus seems not to have been a very geographical sonuvabitch at all. He persisted in believing he had reached islands off the coast of India instead of islands off the coast of Florida, and he persisted in calling the locals Indians even though they kept telling him they were Tainos. When the landscape didn't match what Marco Polo described from his travels to the Orient, Columbus comforted himself with the belief he'd discovered the original Garden of Eden.

Not that it stayed blissful for very long. Although some of the natives believed Columbus was an emissary from Heaven (and hence allowed themselves to be taken back to Spain as slaves, thinking they were making an early trip to the Pearly Gates)—he wasn't so friendly as you might expect heavenly messengers to be.

I find out now that the Tainos were assigned quarterly quotas of gold to bring to Columbus, ten percent of which he got to keep himself; if they didn't meet their quotas, he cut their hands off and they usually bled to death. Several hundred thousand died from such treatment, from their refusal to convert to Christianity, and from European diseases they had no immunity to.

And that was just the beginning of the encounter with Europeans for the people we still call Indians. They'd probably just as soon Columbus hadn't made the trip.

Some people hear stories like those and say it's part of an academic plot to make our schools politically correct. Gullible people like me begin to wonder what else we were taught in second grade that might not be true.

Next thing you know, somebody will tell us that Indians weren't invited to that first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth. In his eyewitness account, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, tells about the turkey, the venison, the fish and the corn they ate, but makes no mention of Indian guests. Not surprising since the Puritans believed Indians were agents of Satan.

And if the Thanksgiving myth goes down the tube with the Columbus myth, what's next?

We may begin wondering why the assertion that "all men are created equal" didn't include women, blacks, and Indians, or why we use the term "Indian giver" for someone who gives, then takes back, when we were the ones who broke the treaties. We may ask just how glorious our victory at Wounded Knee was and how inglorious Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, and how much our wars with Mexico and Spain in the 19th century had to do with extending freedom and how much with extending territory.

We might even begin to wonder about more recent events. How many Native Americans have been victims of our overt and covert policies in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Guatamala, and Panama?

It's enough to give Euro-Americans like me a headache, enough to make us pop a brew and turn on the teevee. None of that election stuff, either; it's time for Monday night football. Are the Redskins playing?


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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