Since about 1984 I have been interested in the Columbus myth. I think I was one of the last generations who learned what I call the ‘Columbus two-step:’
Step #1: Columbus-as-hero. You know the rhyme: “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…,” discovered America and disproved the flat-earth myth. Thanks to him, here we are: not just as Americans, but as savvy modern people who go out and challenge myths with exploration and experimental science.
Step #2: Columbus-as-villain. First of all, the very existence of Native Americans meant that Columbus did not ‘discover’ the Americas. Second, Europeans knew the world was a sphere; the prevailing estimate was from Eratosthenes, at about 24,000 miles–within 10% of our 21st-century opinion. Columbus did indeed reject the prevailing opinion of his contemporaries, by arguing that the voyage from Portugal to the spice islands of southeast Asia was less than 4,000 miles. In fact it is about15,000 miles; and Columbus and his crew would have died from dehydration if they had not found Caribbean islands about 1/4 of the way to Java.
Furthermore, Columbus enslaved Arawaks whom he insisted were ‘Indians,’ and forced them to search for the gold that he promised his funders. Those funders, Ferdinand and Isabella, were launching the Inquisition to wipe out Jews and Muslims in Spain. Meanwhile, Columbus was inaugurating a European colonization that would exterminate 95% of Native Americans, destroy their cultures, and dispossess them of all the valuable land in the Americas.
Many of my fellow Italian-Americans grudgingly try to defend Columbus Day, but I think it is a doomed cause.
The thing that mystified me was: the problematic aspects of Columbus were common knowledge among adult Americans from the early 20th century onwards. So why were we exposed to this two-step introduction to Columbus at all?
By about 1998 my tentative answer was this: propaganda for the cause of science. First, Columbus is set up as the Hero of Science; the one who proved that the earth was a sphere through empirical testing, rejecting the blind superstition of medieval, Catholic, doctrinaire knowledge. Then schoolteachers knock him down to promote skeptical, critical thinking about history itself–but only after we are indoctrinated as little children about the ‘rightness’ of science itself.
I think the historical model for this ‘Hero of Science’ was Galileo Galilei, who pushed Copernicus’ heliocentric model at risk of censure by the Church. But Galileo was a tainted hero. Giorgio de Santillana (The Crime of Galileo, 1955) argues that Galileo was to abrasive and politically tone-deaf to the pressures of his friend and supposed ally, Pope Urban VII. In a semi-fictionalized account, Bertold Brecht suggested that Galileo was busted for claiming that he invented the telescope in 1610. In any case, the story of Galileo is less dramatic, less tied to the immediate conditions of Anglos living in the New Republic. He actually got in trouble for advocating Copernicus’ concept of heliocentrism, which Copernicus had published in 1553 with no controversy. Galileo used his (much-improved) telescopes to show the shadows of mountains and craters on the moon, to show that the moon is also a sphere; to show the phases of Venus; to show the moons orbiting Jupiter. It seems that the Papal astronomers were going to accept the heliocentric model eventually; they were just waiting for the old astronomers to retire and die off. It was a politics of patience. But Galileo would not wait; and so his jealous peers had him censured by the Inquisition (1616). That teaches the wrong lesson: that jealous political schemers and scholars obstruct the advancement of knowledge–even scientific, ‘objective’ knowledge–to protect their own reputations and privileged positions.
This last year (2011) my daughter Sophia acquired a strong distaste for Columbus as antihero. Her fourth-grade teacher is pretty adamant about the injustices and violence of the Europeans against Native Americans. It piqued my interest again; and with current technology, I put the old rhyme into an internet-query and found that the earliest match was a comment in the Yale Literature Magazine (vol. 6, p.139) in 1841. Wikipedia authors, citing early 21st-century research, point out that in the 17th and 18th centuries, Anglo-Americans (including Thomas Jefferson) were apparently unaware of Columbus. 18th-century Americans seem to assume that Amerigo Vespucci had discovered the New World, which would explain why Italian and Spanish geographers called it ‘America.’ But in the early 1800s, a new United States needed a hero, and Washington Irving wrote the Life and Voyages of Columbus in 1821. Irving (author of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle) began the myth that Inquisitors had challenged his spherical-world view. So somewhere between 1821 and 1841, the “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rhyme became common knowledge among American schoolchildren.
However on Monday (March 12, 2012) I taught the infamous Johnson v. M’Intosh case to my students at San Francisco State. This 1823 Supreme Court decision deprecated the right of Native Americans to sell land to Anglos by deprecating their right to claim the land they controlled. The opinion in the case was given by Chief Justice John Marshall, whose 34-year tenure as Chief Justice (1801-1835) substantially defined the role of the U.S. Supreme Court and American jurisprudence. In his long and rather appalling opinion on the case, Marshall establishes the “Doctrine of Discovery,” arguing that European powers established territorial claim to land through the principle of first discovery. He acknowledges that Native Americans were here already, but dismisses their claim because 1) they were heathen, and Europeans compensated them by bringing Christianity; 2) they were uncivilized, did not build permanent settlements, and did not cultivate the land as farmers. In its older usage, peoples who did not cultivate quite literally did not have ‘culture’.
I expect that even the most reactionary 21st-century Americans would object to Marshall’s justifications for his opinion in Johnson v. M’Intosh. But the case still stands in American statutory law. If it were overturned, the basis for most (but not all) American private property would be thrown into question: first in the parts of Indiana and Illinois cited in the case; and then most of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi because of the following, equally heinous Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia decision in 1831; and then most areas westward of the Mississippi River. Not all the land of the western U.S., but at least half of it. So Marshall’s ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ still stands as the basis for several trillion dollars worth of property from Fort Wayne, Indiana onward. Mormons actually treated (and treat) Native Americans far better, and have more legitimate claim to Salt Lake City, I think; and the American claim to California/Nevada/Arizona/New Mexico is via right-of-conquest (jus belli) against Mexico–although the legitimacy of the prior Spanish claim might also rest on this ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ if the question were pushed.
Marshall gives a very detailed account of the sequence of discovery of North America, but does not name Columbus. Marshall cites the English King (Henry VII) who issued letters patent to John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) in 1496 “to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians” [Biggar (1911), the precursors to Jacques Cartier, 1497-1534]. This was the basis for the English claim to the Atlantic seaboard, which after several failed attempts began to stick with the commissioning of the Virginia Company in 1609 and the Plymouth Company in 1620. Though he doesn’t mention Columbus, Marshall does argue that the Spanish used the same principle of First Discovery as a basis for their claim to territory. Whether Spanish monarchs in 1500, 1600, or 1823 would agree with that governing doctrine is uncertain. But Marshall argues that England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands all used the same principle of first-discovery to assert their claims against each other, and that all these Christian powers disregarded the Native claims to the territory, especially as full property rights. Marshall argued that native usufruct (right-of-use) was acceptable until Europeans were able to subdue the locals, plant crops, and settle permanently.
Marshall’s opinion, in 1823, comes only two years after Washington Irving published his popular and semi-mythological account of Columbus challenging the ‘received knowledge’ of the late-medieval Catholic intelligentsia. Thus, I believe, sometime between 1823 and 1841, the “In 1492” doggerel was inserted into American schooling and consciousness for several reasons. First, I think the Hero of Science aspect did play a role, at the end of the Age of Reason and the beginning of the technologically-focused Industrial Revolution. But behind that, and more importantly, I think the Columbus-as-hero myth supports Marshall’s Doctrine of Discovery. Thus it supports the very basis for American property-claims west of where the Wabash flows into the Ohio River.