Central Iowans help us uncover the true story
of Christopher Columbus
By Marci Clark
Dibbet, 8th grade history teacher, gives
her class a more realistic version of Columbus
but doesn’t elaborate on some of the more
vicious attacks of Columbus and his crew
stating that junior high students still
aren’t capable of completely processing
that information. |
When Heidi Dibbet teaches her eighth grade
Southeast Polk Junior High School class about
Christopher Columbus, she broaches the topic
with one thing in mind: letting her students
formulate their own opinions about the explorer.
“I start by presenting them the question of,
“Should Christopher Columbus be remembered as
a hero or a villain?” Dibbet said.
Many Americans still don’t consider this a legitimate
debate. To them, Columbus is, and always will
be, the brave and courageous explorer who “found”
Perhaps it is denial of the reality that our
government would honor a man who admittedly
sold Native American girls as sex slaves, stating
in a journal in 1500 “those from nine to ten
are now in demand,” or a refusal to let go of
the amazing adventure that was sold to us as
Whatever the reason, the neatly woven stories
of Columbus and his voyage across the Atlantic
have begun to unravel, and the horror of the
man and his misdeeds are causing young people
to take a second look at our history and what
“What you learn in elementary is just to get
the information out there,” said Lyle Fedders,
school improvement leader for East High School
in Des Moines. “If you told an elementary kid
that Columbus came over and pillaged the villages
and raped the women, you’re going to scare them
a little bit.”
But rape and pillage he did, and so much more.
“He’s worse than Hitler and the Holocaust in
the terms of the amounts of Indians that died,”
said Matthew Plowman, associate professor of
history at Grand View University.
The Native Americans weren’t the only victims
who suffered at the hands of Columbus. When
the natives began to die off, mostly due to
exposure to European diseases, it was Columbus
who suggested to the Spanish royalty that Africans
be brought over to fill the void of slave labor.
“It was actually his son who brought the first
shipment of black slaves,” Plowman said.
According to Plowman, Columbus wasn’t just a
rapist, slave runner and destroyer of entire
civilizations. He was also a genuine “flunky”
whose attempts at getting a fleet to carry him
across the ocean were literally laughed at by
other countries before the Spanish, mostly out
of desperation, entrusted him with a mere three
So how did such a man discover anything, let
alone be bestowed with his own holiday and countless
cities, rivers and schools named after him?
Fedders, school improvement leader, East
High School, says he doubts that Columbus
Day will ever go away, but he hopes that
one day it will be used to recognize the
true history of Columbus and how he conquered
Plowman, who relies heavily on James Lowen’s
book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” while teaching
the history of Columbus, said the explorer was
highly trained as an apprentice for successful
navigators, giving him the experience and the
basis he needed to take on the task of finding
a faster way to the Indies. All he needed was
a country willing to give him a fleet and a
Columbus first went to the Portuguese. Standing
in front of a board of navigators, he presented
his plan of going to India. The Portuguese,
who were seasoned travelers and had already
sailed around Africa numerous times, rejected
Columbus’ plan because he had miscalculated
the circumference of the Earth by thousands
While Columbus had learned his navigation skills
as an apprentice, the Portuguese had some of
the best scholars in the world with extreme
mathematical and navigational skills, so Columbus’
naivity made him appear too incompetent to charge
“The equivalent today would be like handing
a person an aircraft carrier battle group,”
Plowman said. “Do we really want to hand it
to an idiot?”
Turned down by the Portuguese, Columbus took
his plan to the Spaniards, playing on their
fear that the Portuguese were creating a monopoly
in the spice business.
After manipulating King Ferdinand and Queen
Isabella into funding his voyage, Columbus headed
due west. Many people believe this decision
was made by the process of elimination. Columbus
had been on a failed expedition to the north
and knew there was nothing but an icecap, and
the Portuguese had already established a route
around Africa to the south, leaving only the
However, Plowman believes Columbus knew exactly
where he was going.
“There is a funny turn in his path, a triangle
that proves he was getting off his line to triangulate,”
Sailors use this method to find where they are
by getting off course using a compass and measuring
back to that point to form a triangle. By using
geometry, they can determine if they are on
“If he didn’t know where he was going, he wouldn’t
do that,” Plowman said.
As it turns out, Columbus had inherited a map
from his father-in-law, a Portuguese royalty
who told him there were lands that had been
described as warmer areas with dark-skinned
people. Columbus believed this land to be India.
Plowman, associate history professor, shares
a much different Christopher Columbus with
his students who grew up believing the explorer
was a hero. Plowman says that many of his
students are “pissed” when they realize
how misrepresented American History has
Following the map, Columbus and his three ships
landed in the Bahamas, which he called the Indies
because he believed them be the islands that
other explorers had described from their voyages.
The people he found there, the Arawak tribe,
were darker skinned, matching the tales he had
heard. The people were also speaking a language
he presumed to be native to India.
Columbus then made his way to Cuba, which he
thought was Japan, because the island was just
beginning to appear on the Portuguese maps.
Since it was a new discovery, there was no clear
idea of the size or shape of the island, but
because he thought he was in the Indies, the
only logical explanation at the time was they
had landed on Japan.
Seeing the natives on this island adorned with
bits of gold, Columbus wrote in his journal,
“I could conquer the whole of them with fifty
men and govern them as I pleased.”
When the expedition returned to Spain with
approximately 20 kidnapped natives, seven still
alive, as well as animal specimen and gold trinkets,
Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus back with
17 ships and 1,500 men armed with cannons, crossbows,
guns and attack dogs.
Upon his return, Columbus had one objective:
conquership. To subdue the natives, Columbus
used “punishment by example,” having the ears,
hands and noses of those who challenged him
and his crew cut off, sending them back to their
villages to prove the power of the Spaniards.
Part of the reason it was so easy for Columbus
to brutalize the Arawak people was because they
were a peaceful civilization. So peaceful, in
fact, that Plowman said they didn’t have a word
for “war,” and the society was based on equality.
Men and women held the same status, and there
was no system of chiefs and warriors.
There was also the destruction of the culture’s
religious system. The Indians believed they
were being visited by gods, so when Columbus
and his crew began committing atrocities on
the people, they were forced to begin questioning
their own beliefs.
“Because of the religion that the Aztecs and
Incas practiced, they thought the explorers
were gods, and they gave them stuff to appease
them. And the next thing they know, they were
being taken over,” Fedders said.
When the Arawak did attempt to fight back in
March 1495, Columbus reacted in a horrific way.
“He chose 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry,
with many crossbows and a small cannon, lance,
and swords, and a still more terrible weapon
against the Indians, in addition to the horses:
this was 20 hunting dogs, who were turned loose
and immediately tore the Indians apart,” crew
member Bartolome de Las Casas described in his
According to Plowman, Columbus knew by his second
trip that he hadn’t found another route to India,
but he kept the truth to himself, not willing
to admit his mistake out of fear of losing his
funding. The Spaniards, however, were demanding
he return with spices. But the new land did
not have the same spices found in India, leading
Columbus to go in search of gold and silver
Throughout this time, Indians were required
to perform at least three months of forced labor,
during which they were regularly beaten and
raped. If they did not perform the work, they
would have a hand cut off.
According to Lowen’s book, women began aborting
pregnancies with herbs or committing infanticide
rather than having their children live through
the systematic death, adding to the drastic
decrease of the Native American population.
This decimation of the native people is what
prompted Columbus to request Spain send Africans
to fill the void in his newly created world
Who really ‘found’ America?
Fellow Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci,
openly stated that this land was not the Indies
and first put “Nuevo Mundo” (New World) on a
map. When German mapmakers added the land masses,
they named them North and South America after
“The continents were named [America] because
Columbus was lying,” Plowman said. “That’s not
something Americans admit to.”
“I bet you could walk out on the street right
now and ask who Christopher Columbus is and
people are going to say he found American,”
Fedders said. “They don’t remember all the bad
stuff, which is probably why he has his own
But even the assumption that Columbus “found”
America is historically wrong.
According to Plowman, carvings of buildings
in Europe depict early contact with Native Americans
predating Columbus’ voyage. Four-hundred years
before the Americas were “discovered,” wood
was being brought from Canada to Greenland and
Europe and used to build gothic cathedrals.
He said the first Viking to return to Europe
with stories of this new land became lost in
a fogbank while traveling from Iceland to Greenland
and ended up traveling so far west he saw the
Leif Erickson bought the crew in order for them
to take him back to what they’d found, landing
in New Finland in about 1000 BC. Erikson went
between there and Greenland for several years,
as did other Vikings who brought fleets and
started to colonize, Plowman said.
“There are other artifacts that suggest that
some African cultures, particularly Mali, probably
crossed the Atlantic at some point in time.
Whether they where shipwrecked or intentional
colonies, we’ll never know,” Plowman said.
The Vinland map shows a land mass which depicts
the eastern North American coastline. Documentation
of this time talks about fights with “scalings,”
people whose description matches that of Native
The Portuguese had many charters that show fishing
areas off the coast of North America. The Japanese
got as far as Hawaii, and the Polynesians landed
on Easter Island. Sculptures and carvings on
the west coast of South America suggest Asian
influence from thousands of years ago, and the
Native Americans are from Asian descent, Plowman
The truth about Columbus reads like a horror
novel — rape, murder, pedophilia, suicide, slavery.
So why does he have his own holiday, and why
is it still often taught incorrectly in elementary
schools across the nation?
Like many things done by the government, it
comes down to politics.
“By the late 1800s, a lot of the Italians needed
to feel that their parents may be first generation.
They might be first generation, but it is now
time to make that changeover to be an American,
and they used Columbus to help make that link
to do that,” Plowman said.
Columbus wasn’t the only one to be wrongly spun
into a great hero during this time. Plowman
said with the desire to unite the country, several
immigrants spawned the inaccurate tales of Paul
Revere and his shouts that “the British are
coming” during the American Revolution, as well
as the tale of George Washington and the cherry
tree. He also points out that it was during
this time that the “Pledge of Allegiance” was
Plowman said in the 1800s most people had an
eighth grade education, so creating legends
was the only way to remember history. But now
most Americans will have high school and college
level history classes, allowing them to dig
deeper into the truth.
Dibbet said that by the time most students reach
their eighth grade history class, they are starting
to recognize that Columbus “was not a nice person,”
but she feels they are old enough to start hearing
more detailed stories.
One anecdote she shares with her class tells
of a 9-year-old boy who, in the middle of a
deadly storm, was forced to steer the ship he
was on rather than risk the life of one of the
more valuable crew members.
“Even the kids that want to believe he is a
great hero wonder how he could make a 9-year-old
steer a ship,” Dibbet said.
At eighth grade, Dibbet doesn’t feel students
are completely prepared for the whole truth.
She said there is a distinct difference in the
ability of a junior high versus a high school
student in his or her ability to break things
down and process information.
Fedders said that by high school, the sugar
coating is not necessary. The facts are presented
to the students, allowing them to make up their
own minds about Columbus and his actions.
“When you get into actual records, you go ‘Really?
This guy is kind of the scum of the earth, and
we have a day honoring him?’ ” said Plowman.
“Columbus Day is a joke. I hope we can change
the perception of his exploration.” Fedders
said while recognizing that it will probably
never go away.
Changing the world
Despite all his misdeeds, there is no denying
the positive impact that Columbus had that is
still felt today.
By officially uniting the two sides of the globe,
Columbus brought about the Columbian Exchange
in which products — including tomatoes, potatoes
and livestock — were exchanged.
“Tomatoes came from Mexico,” Plowman said. “Imagine
Italian food without tomatoes. And white potatoes
are from Peru. Imagine Ireland without potatoes,
or Russia without vodka.”
Food and animals were not the only items exchanged
and created during this time. According to Fedders,
entirely new races of people were created including
Mulatto and Mestizos.
While there is no denying that Columbus connected
the world, paving the way for the life and culture
we know today, the fact remains that he wiped
out entire cultures and was ultimately responsible
for millions of deaths.
Some may find comfort in knowing that Columbus
died in debt with the majority of those in Spain
despising him. CV