Spain Sunday: Christopher Columbus

Saturday was “Hispanidad (Hispanic) Day” Dia de la Hispanidad. Aka the National Day of Spain AKA Day Christopher Columbus’s Arrival in Americas Day.

That’s right, while Americans have Monday off for Columbus Day, Spain has no day off because they always celebrate it on October 12th. While America uses the second Monday in October Spain celebrates the actual day Columbus arrived. In honor of Hispanidad Day we’re bringing Spain Sunday back to talk about how Spain celebrates the holiday and what Columbus even did.

The History and Reality of Christopher Columbus

Myth or Fact: Christopher Columbus is Portuguese/Spanish

When we were in Portugal they wouldn’t shut up about him. They loved him and claimed him as their own. But, ol CC was actually born in Genoa. This is in modern day Italy but Italy (as we know it) didn’t exist then. Many people have claimed him, Scotland and Mallorca even have said he was theirs. But Portugal and Spain claiming him is false – he’s Genoan/Italian.

A cool fact is in the Genoan language his name would’ve been Cristoffa Corombo. In Spain they call him Cristóbal Colón and in Portugal he was  Cristóvão Colombo. So don’t think Christopher Columbus is really his name, I’ll just call him CC since we all agree it starts with the letter C.

Myth or Fact: He is from low birth

Correct. His father made cheese and later owned a tavern. CC says he first sailed at 10 but we know for sure in his 20s he began sailing as an apprentice. He sailed to Greece, England, Ireland, possibly Iceland and finally to Lisbon, Portugal. He met up with his cartographer brother and set up a starter-life there with a family. He sailed down to Ghana briefly for gold. While there his first wife died and he took another in Spain. At this point he began reading fervently and learning many languages (he was mostly self taught). This is when the obsession with getting-to-Asia began.

Myth or Fact: Kings and Queens turned him away because they believed the earth was flat (and he would fall off)

CC was looking for faster shipping routes to Asia. He approached Portugal who was in the market (more than other countries) for a better route. He asked for 3 good ships, to be made “Great Admiral of the Ocean,” and to keep 1/10th of the wealth he found. Amazingly they were pretty okay with these requests but said “You think India is only 2,400 miles away? Check your sources and come back to us with a higher number.” 3 years later he tried again and they were like, “that sounds really great but  Bartolomeu Dias actually just found us a great sea route under and around Africa so we’re not in the market for explorers or routes, now, thanks.”

CC went to Genoa and Venice and his brother even asked England. No one believed his numbers were correct.

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain were in the middle of year 999 (out of 1002)  fighting against the Moorish people. They took the time out of their busy war schedule to listen to his claim. They said the same thing as everyone else- “your numbers are bad. There is no way India is that close.”

The globe museum in Austria talks about globes going back to 1492. People have known for a long time it was round and have used globes to portray it as round for centuries

So no one thought he would fall off the earth, they thought his math was bad and he would die at sea/lose all the ships. Almost everyone at this time agreed the earth was round so that’s a fat myth. What everyone (correctly) believed was that the world was much bigger than Columbus thought. They just didn’t know there were two whole unexplored continents.

Isabella and Ferdinand didn’t like his math but still gave him an allowance and a magic letter that said “give this man what he wants if he lands in your port.” On  January 2, 1492 Spain won the war and not 4 months later they were like “Alright! Feeling great from winning this huge war, God is on our side. Off you go!” Just kidding, only Ferdinand said that. The story goes CC met with the wife, Isabella, who was like “hell no, get out.” The husband, Ferdinand, overrode this and had someone literally chase CC down and bring him back to discuss terms.

Myth or Fact: He landed in Florida

4 months after getting approval (now August 1492) CC was off. In October he made landfall but never actually made it to either the North or South American continent itself. Even after 4 journeys he never made it to North America. So no, Florida. Not at all.

His first journey brought him probably to San Salvador Island. He sailed around nearby islands for a while looking for riches before abandoning 40 guys on Haiti to colonize it. He declared all the land he touched to belong to Spain, then returned to real Spain.

6 months later he sailed again and found his colony totally gone – whoops. But he was a stubborn man – he had been asking 5 countries to go on this journey for 7 years. He’s obviously not a quitter. So he left 2 of his brothers and a bunch of slaves to try the colony thing again.

Speaking of slaves, as a “thanks again for sanctioning this journey” present for Isabella and Ferdinand he gave them 500 people as gifts. Isabella said “Nope they’re Spanish citizens because Spain owns those lands. You can’t just enslave Spanish citizens that’s ridiculous.” And sent the people back.

Myth or Fact: He was a brutal colonizer and rapist

CC wrote a very detailed account of his rape of an indigenous woman:

“I captured a very beautiful Carib woman … When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.”

He was a brutal colonizer but that’s possibly because he was just a really brutal guy. He was cruel to anyone (Spaniard or Native) who got in his way. He had someone’s ear and nose cut off for stealing corn. A woman who said he was from low birth was stripped naked and paraded on a horse (and later had her tongue cut out). These people were Europeans.

When he was accused of misleading others about colonies and mismanaging things he hung some of his own men for disobedience. So CC was just a grade A asshole.

If you need a laugh and have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish you might enjoy this video and song.

“If you don’t love Jesus: I’ll colonize you. If you don’t speak my language: I’ll colonize you. If you aren’t white: I’ll colonize you.”

Myth or Fact: He systematically genocide people -purposefully with blankets and biological warfare.

Many people have heard the smallpox blanket story – the idea that he gave people blankets covered in smallpox to wipe out the population and avoid a war. The first and only time this has ever been written about was 1760 and was during the French Indian war. There’s not even evidence it worked. So CC did not do this.

Maybe he tried this and didn’t write about it. But this is unlikely since he wrote about raping and cutting tongues out. I’m pretty sure he would’ve written about his grand blanket plan.

He had claim to land and colonies. These people were “his” (both slaves and as his subjects). While he was an asshole he didn’t try to systematically genocide his own future-taxpayers. The plague and epidemics were essentially an accident as no one even knew there would be two whole continents in the way of their route to India. They of course couldn’t know people would get sick from contacting each other.

If you have ever asked yourself why did the natives get super sick but Europeans and the Old-World never caught any diseases there’s an interesting video about that (which also explains why the New World indigenous people got sick to begin with).

Myth or Fact: He always believed he was in India.

Haha more or less fact. This is why Native Americans are called “Indians” because he called all the Indigenous people he met indios (Spanish for Indian). If that word had been different I’m sure we would be calling Native Americans that word, instead.

He believed he had landed in India, then later believed it had been islands near India/China that could be used to establish his new spice trade route. And at one point he thought he was in the Garden of Eden. It doesn’t seem like he ever really accepted he was in a new place.

And we can all laugh about how stupid he was when we see our maps showing things there. But many people were in severe disbelief about there being continents with 60 million of people on it. That would be as crazy as me telling you right now there are 2 continents with millions we’ve just never noticed on Google Earth before. It’s hard to come to terms with the world suddenly getting bigger. People really didn’t come to terms with it for centuries. So we have this neat concept art of what Europeans believed North and South Americans looked like (drawn up until the 1600s).

All hail the cannibal dog people. I only wish all of us North Americans looked like that.

CC made 4 voyages back and forth from “India” but it took a whole different guy (also sanctioned by Spain) to finally say “Uhh, actually, this is an entirely different continent.” His name was Amerigo Vespucci which sounded way cooler in Latin – Americus so that’s obviously why there is North and South America. Not North Colón or North Corombo. But that’s actually how Colombia was named. Which is why Colombia is spelled ColOmbia not ColUmbia. Because Spanish spells Columbia as ColOn. ColOmbia.

Myth or Fact: He was arrested for war crimes

Fact. He sailed a 3rd time and explored around Trinidad and the South American mainland. He checked on his little pet-project, his colony. No surprise- it had been destroyed because his brothers, like himself, were pretty brutal people.

So brutal, in fact, that the Spanish crown investigated him for war crimes. That’s right, even they thought he was bad at the time. At first he was in trouble for mismanaging things. But they learned more about his crimes and charged him with tyranny. Spain sent a new governor Francisco de Bobadilla (member of the Order of Calatrava) to take over the colony.

CC and his brothers were arrested but later allowed to make their case at the Alhambra. They must have made a good case because not only were they allowed out of prison they were given funding and ships to make a final journey.

His final trip was to Panama where 2 out of 4 boats were destroyed by rightfully-pissed-off natives. During this voyage sometime between suffering from arthritis, gout, food poisoning, gonorrhea, and “bleeding from the eyes” there was an insanely violent storm that left him and his crew stranded. Nearby Spaniards refused to help him because they hated him so much.

Finally, despite Gods, the weather and the natives best efforts to kill him he died in 1506.

He was a dick. Why do we celebrate him?

Ultimately everyone wants to celebrate this really intense thing that happened – New and Old World coming together. It had to happen eventually and when it did it changed everything everywhere for everyone. Seriously most of the things you touch or eat wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t met up. That’s worth celebrating. Not Columbus or the genocide or colonizing. But two worlds coming together. People want to celebrate this so at first everyone celebrated by calling it “Columbus Day” (Spain even did for a while). Over the years we’ve just learned to call it something else.

Almost everyone celebrates the day, they just call it something different. In Argentina they call it Day of American Cultural Diversity. In Chile it is the Day of the Discovery of Two Worlds, in Costa Rica, the Day of Cultures; in Uruguay, Day of the Americas; and in Venezuela, Indigenous Resistance Day. Many states in America have changed the name to First People’s Day or Indigenous People’s Day.

Officially it’s still Columbus Day in America. And while Franklin Roosevelt made it an official holiday on the actual day (October 12th) it was changed to the second Monday in October in 1971.

How does Spain celebrate?

This is essentially their fourth of July. With all their wars, the dictator and all those complications this is the one day everyone can agree is Spanish (the other being Constitution day but that’s actually celebrating the second constitution. Yikes).

Madrid had all the fun. There was the biggest (if only) military parade. The king and royal family all waved and smiled and the king saluted every branch and thing that went by. It took about 1 hour and 40 minutes which is pretty good to have the entirety of the military present itself. It was also neat because they honored all the ministers and leaders of the autonomous communities. The police dog and goat (?!) were probably the highlight of the thing. I also enjoyed seeing a snowplow (from the Military Emergencies Unit).


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