09 October 2017

The Columbus Enigma

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, 1995, Excerpts

People from other continents had reached the Americas many times before 1492. In 1005 the Vikings intended to settle Vineland, their name for New England. A map found in Turkey dated 1513 based on material from the library of Alexander the Great includes coastline details of South America and Antarctica. Ancient Roman coins keep turning up all over the Americas, causing some archaeologists to conclude that Roman seafarers visited the Americas more than once. Native Americans voyaged east millennia ago from Canada to Scandinavia or Scotland. Two Indians shipwrecked in Holland around 60 B.C. became major curiosities in Europe.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed in from the blue. American history books present Columbus pretty much without precedent, and they portray him as America’s first great hero. In so canonizing him, they reflect our national culture. Indeed, now that President’s Day has combined Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, Columbus is one of only two people the United States honors by name in a national holiday. The one date that every school child remembers is 1492. Columbus, like Christ, was so pivotal that historians use him to divide the past into epochs, making the Americas before 1492 “pre-Columbian.”

The 1847 painting by John Vanderlyn Columbus Landing in the Bahamas”, the first of eight huge “historical” paintings in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, illustrates the heroic treatment of Columbus in most textbooks.  His theme was Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492, glorifying the arrival on this West Indian island of the historical figure who was regarded as the founder of the white and Christian Americas. His Indians crouch like wild animals, frightened and puzzled, and some of the explorer's Spanish sailors crawl on the ground, already hunting for gold.

Theodore de Bry’s woodcuts, created around 1504, based his engraving on accounts of Indians who impaled themselves, drank poison, jumped off cliffs, hanged themselves, and killed their children to avoid the horror of the newcomers.

Artist John Vanderlyn, 1847: Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492

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