I hesitate to deprive my American friends of one of the few national holidays they are allowed to celebrate, but the upcoming festive remembrance of the discovery of America of course makes no sense at all. Columbus Day and Columbus Day Weekend should be removed from the national calendar for at least two reasons. I am truly sorry, but I really have to say this.
One: as you well know, it wasn’t Columbus who first discovered America, and what he did discover in 1492 were only parts of the island chain we now call the Caribbean; while on subsequent voyages the only places where he set foot on continental land were in what we now call Central America. The beauty of its landscape and the magnificent climate made Columbus conclude this other world was the Garden of Eden and didn’t dissuade him from believing he was in the Far East, “somewhere south of China.”
Two: what his voyages set in motion is, as we all should know, not much to be proud of let alone to celebrate; before he’d returned to Spain thousands of the people he called “Indians” had died during an unprecedented genocide, with many more to follow. The policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of “his” Garden of Eden already in 1492. Of the 300,000 original natives of what was Hispaniola one-third were killed by 1496 and fifty years later not even 500 remained. Even his own chronicler, Bartolomé de Las Casas, wrote of Columbus and his crew: “Observe the humanity of the Indians toward the tyrants who have exterminated them,” thus delivering clear proof that the contemporaries of Columbus knew and understood the later appointed “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” well, just as they also recognized that genocide and slavery were evil.
This year America will celebrate Columbus Day on October 8 although the “real day” of the discovery is said to be October 12, the day of the first landfall, even if the land was an island. Samuel Eliot Morison once wrote: “Never again may mortal men hope to capture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492 when the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.” Her virginity indeed, see below.
While living in the U.S. I was not the only one having serious hesitations about the sensibility of the yearly celebration of Columbus Day (Weekend). Now, safely living in Portugal, I no longer hesitate to declare the whole Columbus story a hoax. Today the U.S. would do better to spend the barbecue money on relief for Puerto Rico, one of the islands Columbus in fact did discover and whose population he decimated. It would help today’s Puerto Ricans not just to recover from last year’s destructions, but it would offer, though disgracefully late, recognition of the terror and crimes to humanity his landing initiated.
Columbus was not a bad navigator but he really didn’t know what he was doing in 1492 and during three subsequent exploits of what he was sure was India or maybe Asia; until the day he died he believed he had accomplished what he had set out to do, find the shortest passage to the Far East. Yet the mainland of North America, just as South America somewhat later, was discovered by Portuguese explorers. There are indications that Portuguese fishermen not just sailed the seas of the Canadian and American North-East, but hit the mainland well before Columbus hit the offshore Caribs. Of course some 450 years before the Portuguese it were the Vikings from Norway and Denmark who sailed into the area, but the first serious steps on land were set by Portuguese. Columbus Day should be renamed as Corte-Real Day, after João Vaz Corte-Real who reached the continent in 1473, nineteen years before Columbus sailed. If Corte-Real Day is too complicated a name, let’s settle for Portugal Day.
The man who had great influence on almost eight years of my life by luring me to Chase County, Kansas is William Least Heat-Moon, the author of ‘Blue Highways’, ‘River-Horse’ and more. In the early 1990s and then still living in the Netherlands I read his “deep map” of this small, scarcely inhabited county and got intrigued enough not to forget his descriptions of this alluring “Heartland” area dominated by tallgrass prairie. After moving to the U.S. and while exploring the western part of the country extensively, I made sure to include this “PrairyErth” (the old name that became the title of his book) in my itinerary. Eventually I stayed to live happily there in 1996/97 and from 2009 to 2016. I was reminded of Heat-Moon when, in Portugal, I learned of the endeavors of the Portuguese sailors who hit the eastern seaboard of what they did know was not the passage to India in 1473. I was reminded because Heat-Moon in his 2002 book ‘Columbus in the Americas’, however well researched (for what a precise chronicler he is), did not mention any Portuguese discoverer.
I don’t blame Heat-Moon, because he set out to write the fullest possible tale about Columbus, the man and the discoverer. He succeeded marvelously; he could fall back on piles of literature including logbooks, diaries and the very extensive writings by Bartolomé de Las Casas, who knew Columbus well and had possession of his diaries and notes and of letters and more logbooks from the period. Heat-Moon chose to write about Columbus and his journeys, not about the controversies that have entered the debate about the discovery of the Americas ever since. That these controversies continue into the 2000s and probably will continue forever has a reason. While the journeys of Columbus are well documented, the exploits of others before him, including the Portuguese, are less so. The Portuguese explorers initially set out not to discover new lands but, like the Vikings before them, rich fishing grounds. They succeeded. Curiosity and happenstance and the right winds drove them on to make other discoveries, more than 600 miles along the eastern seaboard and even inland.
João Vaz Costa-Real made land first in Greenland, then in Newfoundland. In the annals of those days, his discoveries were called “Terra Nova do Bacalhau” (the new lands of the codfish). Bacalhau after 1473 entered the Portuguese menu and never left. João and his sons Gaspar and Miguel kept returning to the rich seas of the American North-East; later, his sons made trips farther south and inland as well. They discovered goods they could make profitable if taken to Europe; they even may have travelled far enough inland to discover chile, a spice that could not have been found in the East-Indies, and the seeds of which they took to Africa (Costa-Real the Elder was appointed “Captain” of one of the Azores islands in honor of his discoveries). The spicy product now known as piri-piri entered the markets in Europe. Not wanting to attract competition, the Costa-Reals kept their discoveries a secret, and were supported at such by their rulers and financiers. The Portuguese, the leading explorers of the time, had trouble enough already with keeping other seafaring nations far from their discoveries that offered such a rich trade. Therefore, for instance, they kept the discovery of Brazil also a secret for more than two years before coming public in 1500.
Of course this story, as most history, created controversy. Spain, a leading conqueror competing with Portugal, kept pushing its own version of history and, as always, the loudest mouths won. The king and queen of Castile and Aragon, who had financed the explorations of Columbus years after he had been refused support by the Portuguese because they already knew what would be found in the West, honored Columbus and boosted up his image by appointing him “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. They boosted up their own image and their cash boxes as well by claiming most of the Americas. The rest is history.
Only on August 14, 1502, Columbus had at last set foot on the American continent to stake the Castilian claim, again to what he did not know. He was probably the first European to do so in the specific area, what is now Panama. In October 1502 Columbus thought he had finally found a passage that would allow him to sail farther west. But he was misguided once again. At Christmas, Columbus reached Limón Bay, the eastern end of what is now the Panama Canal. He spent the first days of 1503 less than fifty miles from the Pacific Ocean and the sea route to the true Indies that he’d given his life to finding, wrote Heat-Moon.
To the disgrace of Columbus was his ignoring his queen’s disapproval of the slave trade and his establishing an economic system of ruthless exploitation. There is a pile of logbooks, letters, reports and so on that give testimony of the genocide, rape, torture and other crimes and misdemeanors. In a shameless letter home one of Columbus’ officers, Michele de Cuneo, wrote: “While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman whom the Lord Admiral gave to me, and with whom, having taken her to my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. … She did not want it and treated me with her fingernails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. … I took a rope and thrashed her well. … Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”
In 1493, the king and queen of Castile and Aragon stood on the palace steps in Barcelona to welcome and congratulate Columbus, who presented them with Caribbean exotica and unhappy Hispaniola “Indians”. In the words of Simon Winder (in ‘Danubia’), over the following decades it became clear that humankind’s entire mental experience was about to be hit by a flood of slavery, sugar, gold, silver, genocide, pirate ships, monkeys and toucans. “The old world suddenly seemed a bit old-fashioned once Aztec and Inca gold and silver started arriving in uncontrollable quantities, and downtrodden Castilian peasants and Flemish bureaucrats found themselves being shipped off to the New World and pushed into behaviors, foods, and sights of which there were no precedents.”
What the ninety sailors with Columbus did not know was they would open not only a place new to them but also a new era that would slowly and occasionally catastrophically reach the entire planet. They were initiating blindly but with highly materialistic motives new conceptions of civilization, and would redefine what it means to be human.
The “Indians” had fallen on unbelievably hard times. Yet it is good to recognize that in the countries of their origin the Europeans did not behave much differently to their own subjects: in scenes more familiar to us in descriptions of the West-Indian or African slave auctions, Serb or German men would be stripped naked and whipped across Belgrade’s main square to demonstrate their fitness to potential buyers. Slave-raiding, frontier warfare and terror tactics of a kind used in the Caribs, Mexico and Peru were inflicted in Europe as well upon, for instance, Austrians, Poles, Anatolians and Rumanians. Entire populations were sent to Istanbul as slaves, or slaughtered in front of Vienna during several wars; rape was an accepted part of the European fighting men’s day, as was pillage. The excesses experienced in Europe and the subsequent poverty of the masses eventually helped to motivate many Europeans to duck for cover in unknown far-away lands, such as where now Columbus Day is celebrated. They only had to remove the natives.
Before Costa-Real and Columbus there was Neptune, right? Above, a detail of a tile tableau in Constáncia, Portugal (photo: Irene van der Winkel). Anyhow, my friends: I wish you a happy Portugal Day Weekend!