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Nov 24, 2011
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Hero or heathen?

Central Iowans help us uncover the true story of Christopher Columbus

By Marci Clark

Heidi 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” the Americas.

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 children.

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 it means.

“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 ships.

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?

‘Finding’ America

Lyle 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 the Americas.

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 crew.

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 of miles.

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 a fleet.

“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 west untraveled.

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,” Plowman said.

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 course.

“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.

Matthew 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 been.

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.”

Taking over

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 journal.

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 instead.

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 of slavery.

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 Vespucci.

“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 holiday.”

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 American coastline.

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 Americans.

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 said.

Changing history

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 written.

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



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