My account of American History begins with Christopher Columbus. The planet's, however, does not. Especially the United States portion of the planet. Columbus had nothing to do with that.|
The heap of earth that would eventually give rise to the careers of people like Jose Canseco and Tony Danza was never once trod by the probably-hobbit-looking feet of Christopher Columbus. He never even saw it. Not even at a distance, through one of those expandable pirate mononuclear sets.
The closest "land ho!" ever brought Columbus was Cuba (where Jose Canseco was born). And even then, he was convinced it was Asia (where Tony Danza, prompted by a floundering career, once hosted a TV show).
But, "in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." So that's where I begin.
"Christ Bearer" (so his name says) was an Italian born weaver's son (who managed to do a little weaving himself in his early years).
When he decided he didn't want to weave anymore, he became a sailor. Almost immediately after making that decision, we find the first recorded failure by Columbus: he enters Portugal via shipwreck.
At this time, Portugal was fertile ground for high adventure, meeting all the semi-measurable criteria to be the world leader in exploration.
So (after marrying a woman, impregnating her, and watching her discharge a son and some placenta1), Columbus made a proposal to King John II (i.e. Portugal's king). It went something like this:
"If you hook me up with some ships, I'll figure out a way to get to the Orient2 by sailing west. Then you won't have to sail around Russia or Africa to get your spices. Trust me, it's a good idea."
John, thinking this was a terrible idea, said no.
So Columbus said something like "fuck you!" (in much older vernacular), packed up some shirts and his son (though leaving Seth behind), and moved to Spain, where he immediately proposed the exact same thing to Ferdinand II and Isabella (the king and queen of his new country).
Whether the prior hearing with John gave Columbus practice enough to better craft his proposal, or if Isabella just found him charming, they said yes.
Technically, it was mostly Isabella who did the succumbing (suggesting charm bore the greater influence). But the promises Columbus made in his hearing weren't un-enticing either... the central promises being the spread of Christianity (what better candidate for this job than "Christ Bearer"), and the return of riches.
By riches, gold and silver definitely counted, but spices were the serious commodity. And if Columbus could find that direct route to Eastern Asia (which the English coined "the Northwest Passage"), Spain could begin stealing them under the operational guise of "the spice trade."
Thus, in 1492, with Spain's blessing, Columbus set out on his first voyage (out of four), where he led three ships: The Nina, The Pinta, and The Santa Maria (i.e. the mother-ship).
If he was hoping to lead these ships through the esteemed passage, he was doing so very south-westernly3. Granted, Columbus didn't have much in the way of a Northwest Passage map. In his day, global geography was comprised mostly of guesses.
The only maps that were taken seriously were those the Vikings had made (which, in retrospect, should not have been taken seriously, as there were made up islands all over the place).
It's quite possible that Columbus took these maps very, very seriously.
I'll talk about that later though (in the next installment). For now, let me just say that it would be a bit unreasonable to expect Columbus to have fulfilled any of the promises he made on his first voyage. Though, having said that, a passage to the Orient (and its spices) weren't the only things Columbus failed to discover4.
First, he definitely didn't discover that the world was round. If anyone had thought the world was flat when Columbus set sail, they wouldn't have let him sail west to find the east (unless he was the only one aboard and he owned the ship... but neither of those was the case). So, obviously, Columbus didn't discover any shapely quality of the planet; he just realized (as a personal epiphany) that the world was much, much larger than he had anticipated.
Secondly, Columbus didn't discover America. Countless thousands (technically it's countable, but it's tens, maybe hundreds, of millions) of people had discovered the Americas before him. They just didn't call it the Americas.
And neither did Christopher Columbus. The name America came from Amerigo Vespucci, the most important nobody in continent-naming history.
Vespucci, like Columbus, never once stood his hairy, shire feet on any piece of real estate that would eventually belong to a nation that would eventually elect a Kenyan born in Hawaii its president.
And also like Columbus, Vespucci was Italian. Except unlike Columbus, he wasn't in charge of his ship. He was just a chandler, who once upon a time worked for Columbus. And then later upon a time (1499) was on board a Portuguese ship that landed in Brazil (claiming it property of Portugal 5. He wasn't the captain of that ship either. But he pretended he was in letters he sent back to Italy.
His gigantic lies (about being the captain of a ship that discovered a new world) made him much more famous than Columbus was in his day. And liars always prosper, evidenced by two continents being named in his honor.
How two continents were named in his honor: in 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, a German map maker who was very inspired by Vespucci's letters, decided to name the "New World" after him (except changing Amerigo to the feminine form: America).
Then, in 1513, having learned Vespucci was a liar, Waldseemuller regretted his nomenclature and tried to un-name America, producing more maps with the name removed. But nobody liked those maps. They liked his earlier ones. Thus, America.
Okay, back to Columbus.
The closest Columbus ever got to North Amerigo was in his first voyage. After that, he just sailed around places like Panama and Trinidad. And by his third voyage, having failed every time to fulfill any of his promises (and after receiving tons of complaints about how terrible he was to Spanish officials), a royal governor was sent out to return him to Spain in shackles.
He probably deserved it. Nobody who met Columbus thought of him as a nice guy. Every single account seemed to portray him as a horrible human being. And no more bright than he was decent. If one of his men disagreed with him that Cuba was China's neighbor, and wasn't an island at all, but was actually part of Asia's mainland, he'd cut out that man's tongue. It's as if cruelty and geographical illiteracy were in a duel for his most prominent character trait.
It almost seems unbelievable, even by turn-of-the-sixteenth-century standards, that someone could have been that dumb, wandering around Cuba, swearing it was Asia... until you remember that Columbus is also the guy that named the Native Americans "Indians" (score one for geographical illiteracy).
And the guy who thereafter enslaved those "Indians" (score one for cruelty).
Technically, he named them Indios. And also technically, Columbus can't be credited with the invention of slavery. He wasn't clever enough to invent something. The Portuguese were the clever ones, starting their slavery program about fifty years prior to Columbus's first voyage. And Columbus spent just long enough in Portugal (the shipwreck, remember?) to pick up on a few tricks of the slave trade. And clearly he liked the idea. And gave it a whirl on his Indios.
What Columbus can be credited with absolutely is the introduction of diseases, against which his new-found slaves had no natural immunities (thus wiping out entire families, then communities, then tribes of his slaves).
So ultimately, it's no surprise that in shackles is how Columbus was delivered to Ferdinand and Isabella... who pardoned him, but barely. Ferdinand probably would have seen him hanged, but Isabella still had a soft spot for him.
And she apparently liked him enough to allow him one last trip (mostly for the purpose of restoring his reputation - not because she still had faith in him, or thought that the fourth time would be the charm).
So Columbus, trying his boat at China once more, ended up shipwrecked in Jamaica.
Jamaica is nowhere near China. It's really, really far away.
Columbus stayed there for a year, suffering from malaria, then eventually managed to find his way back home... this time un-shackled... because shackling is what you do to somebody when their life is worth shackling. Columbus's wasn't anymore. He was just a useless vessel, who thereafter faded into total obscurity, then died. That was in 1506 (i.e. his death). And still today, nobody knows where he was buried. That's how unimportant he became to the world.
Much more important than Columbus (and his missing corpse), is (and was) Juan Ponce de Leon (who I will henceforth refer to as Juapodon, though he never once went by that, and would probably be pissed if he knew it's what I was calling him).
When the Europeans finally "discovered" the U.S. (or rather, the landmass that would become the U.S.), Juapodon was the guy who did it. And it happened in 1513 (after Columbus's last voyage and only death)6.
That's not to say Juapodon was any more successful (or brighter) than Columbus though. On the contrary, he was probably less intelligent. At least Columbus failed to find something that actually exists. Spices are real. Juapodon on the other hand was looking for the fountain of youth, which even babies know is fake. It doesn't even sound real. But Juapodon was convinced it was. So he set sail in search of it... and found Florida instead... which I find a little ironic (in retrospect) being as this is now where Jews go to grow old.
Either way, after giving Florida its name, some of Columbus's "Indians" came along and bow-and-arrowed Juapodon to death (if only he were a gun-slinging cowboy, maybe he could have triumphed on the range).
Anyway, that's how the Europeans found the United States.
And now, because of that, we celebrate Columbus Day. This became a holiday in 1906, 414 years after "land ho!" landed him nowhere near the United States. And the world's first celebration happened in the United States. In Colorado specifically. Not Cuba. Denver.
Eleven years later, Argentina decided it was a good idea. Another four and Venezuela came on board. And in 1987, when Jose Canseco became a member of the Bash Brother tandem, and Who's The Boss reached the height of its popularity, Spain decided to start celebrating.
1) The son's name was Diego. The placenta didn't have a name. At least not one that made it into the history books. So I have decided to name it Seth.
2) The Orient refers to the whole Eastern Asia region. Sometimes they'd say "the Indies" rather than the Orient, which just implied the more southern stretches of Asia. Same general region though; the eastern side. And mostly it was just China and Indonesia they were talking about. Indonesia was actually known as "The Spice Islands" at the time. Not to Indonesians. Just to everyone else, who thought the Indonesians were better off dead (only because that would make the acquisition of their spices less problematic).
3) The first actual voyage with the purpose of "go find the Northwest Passage" happened in 1497 by Giovanni Caboto (aka John Cabot). He was commissioned by the King of England. But bad weather rerouted Cabot to Newfoundland, where he was the first European to dock in North America (in a while). And although he didn't actually manage to fulfill the purpose of the trip (i.e. finding the Northwest Passage), in his defense, the first person in documented history to sail through it was Roald Amudsen... and that was in the twentieth century. So Caboto's failure is excused (though technically the Vikings probably went through it - off the record - half a millennium before).
4) Though this was probably his biggest failure, being as it was the larger of his two major promises. And instead of returning with riches, he returned with practically nothing. As for the other promise, he didn't uphold his name and spread the living word either. I have no real evidence of this other than the fact that I've never once seen a crucifix painted on a tepee with bison blood.
5) Vespucci must not have realized Columbus had landed on that same land mass (albeit farther north) the year before, mistaking the Orinoco River's mouth for the edge of the Garden of Eden).
6) Juapodon was actually on board Columbus's second voyage (before trying one of his own).