History Q & A: Columbus Day Myths

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

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IN FOCUS: COLUMBUS DAY 2011 Q&A

Columbus Day: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

As today’s Columbus Day celebrations begin, marking Columbus’ 1492 arrival in the New World, here are some little-known facts about the explorer celebrated by Italian-Americans across the United States.

1.   When the  Columbus Day Holiday Began

In the U.S., it’s sometimes reported that the national holiday began in 1971, but that’s actually the date when Congress changed Columbus Day to the second Monday of October. In reality, Columbus Day became a national holiday much earlier, in 1937.  At that time, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the holiday would take place on Oct. 12 (the date Columbus first landed in the Bahamas).  But the first known Columbus Day celebration in the U.S. took place in New York City in 1792, long before it became a national holiday.

2.   Columbus’ Journal Was Intended for an Audience

When historians examine primary sources from Columbus’ voyages, they aren’t reading private diaries. They’re evaluating correspondence intended for the explorer’s sponsors, those he refers to as the “Most Christian, High, Excellent, and Powerful Princes, King and Queen of Spain.”  In that sense, it’s entirely possible that these journals were embellished, with some facts manipulated in Columbus’ favor.

3.   Columbus’ Bones Are Still Shrouded in Mystery

It’s still unclear where Columbus’ bones were finally laid to rest.

When Columbus died in 1506 his remains were taken to a family mausoleum in Seville, Spain. But nearly 40 years later his son requested that the remains be placed in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the capital of the Dominican Republic, where he intended to be buried. In the late 1700s the bones moved to Cuba, and 100 year later they returned to Seville. But in 1877 bones marked as those of Columbus were found by cathedral workers in the Dominican Republic.  Those bones have since been interred in the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo.

In  2006, the year of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ death, a forensic team found DNA from bones buried in a cathedral in Seville matched the DNA from Columbus’ brother, Diego. But at the time, the director of the Columbus Lighthouse insisted Columbus’ remains had never left the Dominican Republic.

4.  Pope Rejected Bid for Columbus’ Sainthood

In 1882 the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s fraternity, supported Italian Americans who rallied for Columbus to be recognized as a saint because they said he had brought Christianity to the Indians. Pope Leo XIII, however, rejected that request because Columbus had an illegitimate son with Beatriz Enríquez de Harana, his mistress.

5.   Columbus Brought Citrus to the New World

The history books note Columbus forcibly scored a lot of loot from the islands he visited, making off with gold, parrots, spices, and human captives from Haiti, an island he later named Hispaniola.  The “riches” pleased his Spanish sponsors, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, who were funding the voyage.  During the process, Columbus also carried European items to the New World.  In 1493, the year of Columbus’s second voyage, he brought citrus fruit seeds to the West Indies and the trees ended up in the West Indies, Mexico, and Florida.

Think You Know The Real Christopher Columbus?

Columbus Day is a national holiday, celebrated with parades and songs. While most Americans know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, many of the facts surrounding the voyage remain misunderstood. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with historian William Fowler to set the record straight on some of the popular myths surrounding Christopher Columbus and his voyage.

TONY COX, host: I’m Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we go to the West African country of Liberia as the country prepares to head to the polls. Many are watching to see whether the current president and modern Africa’s first female head of state will stay in power. That’s in just a few moments.

But first, today is Columbus Day, a day that schoolchildren across America celebrate the arrival of the man who was credited with discovering our country. But since 1492, we’ve learned a lot about what really happened. And today, we wanted to do a little myth busting about Christopher Columbus…..

COX: Now, Professor Fowler, not everyone gets a day named after them. Martin Luther King comes to mind, George Washington, Abe Lincoln had days named after them at one point, which have since been combined into what we now know as President’s Day.

But there are controversies about some of these holidays, particularly around Martin Luther King and now to a certain extent we’re talking about it today. In fact, Christopher Columbus, we have celebrated Columbus Day forever, you know. One hundred years, for sure, and then there was a break and then another 100 years before that with only some modern opposition to the holiday. Why do we, as Americans, hold the story of Columbus in such high regard still?

FOWLER: Well, in looking at history, Tony, people love certainty and they love heroes. And so, here we have the combination. We have a certain date, October 12, 1492 and we have a heroic figure, Columbus. So, you combine those two and it sort of just energizes people. It’s a very romantic concept. And then, of course, it is true that Columbus changed the world. That what Columbus did was to make a greater change in the world than any man had done since the days of Julius Caesar. That is what opened the door. So, Columbus did in fact play that extraordinary key moment, key time, a great heroic mission.

COX: One of the other things that he is given credit for, which I’m assuming is correct and you being the history professor can set the record straight for us, is that he did open new trade routes from Europe heading toward Asia, although he never actually got there, I think. And that he also was responsible for the trading of or the introduction of certain food stuffs and certain spices from one continent to another.

FOWLER: Yes, that’s absolutely true. This is sort of what historians sometimes refer to as the Columbian Exchange, and that is that products clearly travel from Europe and from Africa to the New World, and New World products traveled back to Africa and to Europe, as well.

So this is the beginning of this great exchange, much of it beneficial, some of not so beneficial, particularly when we talk about diseases. Of course, the European diseases that arrived in the New World just wreaked tremendous damage to the native peoples. So, much went back and forth now across the Atlantic.

COX: Professor Fowler, one of the things that has happened in modern time, as we mentioned in the introduction to this story, is that people are starting to push back on this myth of Christopher Columbus. When did the controversy begin and when did people begin to, you know, question, really, whether or not Columbus did what the history books told us he did?

FOWLER: Well, Tony, for hundreds of years following Columbus’ voyages, the story of Columbus is one of celebration, of discovery and of conquest. And I think in recent times, certainly in the 20th century and certainly today in the 21st century, thankfully, we’ve become much more sensitive about indigenous cultures and the harm, the wreckage that the European arrival here in the New World visited upon those people.

And so, I think, as we reflect on that and the cost to native peoples here in this world, the damage that was done, I think that sort of mellows the way we might be thinking about Columbus, not suggesting we blame him individually. I don’t think that’s correct. He was a man of his times. But there was great evil that was done when the Europeans came. Today, perhaps, we think of discovery. We might also think of the word, invasion, and the result of that. Much good has happened, clearly, but much evil happened, as well.

COX: Well, you know, it’s been a long time, Bill Fowler, since you or I was in elementary school reading about Christopher Columbus in our textbooks. What do they say today? Do you know?

FOWLER: I think that the textbooks, at least the ones that I have used and you see, are ones that are much more sensitive and do indeed talk about the harm done to indigenous peoples, and try to put the Columbian experience into a notion of cultural encounter, what happens when two alien cultures encounter one another. That’s something from which we can learn a great deal. What does, in fact, happen when alien – different cultures encounter one another, that’s a lesson for our own times.

COX: I suppose, to end, we should say that, eventually, maybe the poem – in 1492, Columbus sailed the blue – is going to have to be revised a little bit.

FOWLER: Oh, I have no hope that it will make wide public acceptance….

COX: William Fowler is distinguished professor of history at Northeastern University. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Professor Fowler, thank you very much for the information and the lesson.

FOWLER: Thank you, Tony, and happy Columbus Day.

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