Columbus Day myths and legends

Since the Beltway occupants are mostly taking a day off from the Shutdownpalooza, perhaps we can do likewise, at least for a little while. Tomorrow is one of the more frequently debated of the federal holidays – Columbus Day – and Christopher Wanjek assembled some of the most common misconceptions about Christopher Columbus himself. I thought I might open these up for discussion – as well as the “controversy” over the holiday itself – because I wasn’t even familiar with a couple of them.

His first myth is that “Columbus set out to prove the world was round.” After scratching my head for a while I think we were told stories back in my high school days (back in the dark ages, of course) about some of his sailors being afraid they might sail off the edge of the world. But it really doesn’t make much sense. Early scientists and thinkers were, as the article notes, pretty sure that the planet was round thousands of years before Columbus set sail. Also, sailors were almost undoubtedly some of the earliest people to be aware of the curvature of the Earth, needing to know how far away the true horizon was when other ships or shores would pop up or drop out of sight. But perhaps the biggest argument against this was Columbus’ stated intent of finding a way to sail to Asia by heading West. The Europeans already knew about Japan, China and India. Columbus just thought there was a faster way to get there.

Another of the theories under discussion was that Columbus introduced syphilis to Europe. Really?

This is hotly debated. Syphilis was presented in pre-Columbus America. Yet syphilis likely existed for millennia in Europe, as well, but simply wasn’t well understood. The ancient Greeks describe lesions rather similar to that from syphilis. Perhaps by coincidence, an outbreak of syphilis occurred in Naples in 1494 during a French invasion, just two years after Columbus’ return. This sealed the connection.

But aside from descriptions of syphilis-like lesions by Hippocrates, many researchers believe that there was a syphilis outbreak in, of all places, a 13th-century Augustinian friary in the English port of Kingston upon Hull. This coastal city saw a continual influx of sailors from distant lands, and you know what sailors can do. Carbon dating and DNA analysis of bones from the friary support the theory of syphilis being a worldwide disease before Columbus’ voyages.

I’d never heard that one before. I suppose I always assumed that Europeans and Asians were dying of it long before the era of Western exploration. There are a few others, such as the idea that Columbus died in poverty and never really accomplished anything, but I’ll leave you to read those for yourself.

But to this day, people still protest the idea of celebrating Columbus with a national holiday. He seems to be somehow blamed for everything from the enslavement and overthrow of all the indigenous peoples to the burning of the rain forests. Columbus was wrong about many things, to be sure. (He still thought he’d made it to Asia right up until he died.) But what were the great evils he represents which get people so up in arms? The guy set out into the great unknown and wound up unleashing a new era in human development and enterprise. He was hardly perfect, but it still seems fitting to celebrate his accomplishments.

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