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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/11/2010

Stuff you should know about Columbus

By Valerie Strauss

A lot of what people think they know about Christopher Columbus is myth. Here are some things about the explorer who didn't discover America that may surprise you:

*Little is known for certain about the early life of Christopher Columbus.

Many historians believe he was born in Genoa, Italy, and his name was Christoffa Corombo or Christoforo Colombo, or one of several other names.

Some historians, though, believe there is evidence to show that he was born on the island of Corsica (though it was then part of Genoa).

And some historians argue that he was actually a member of the Colom Jewish family in Ibiza and Catalonia.

*School kids have long been taught that people in Columbus’ time thought the world was flat and they feared he would fall off the edge of the Earth when he sailed in 1492. Not so.

Historians say there is no doubt that the educated in Columbus’ day knew quite well that the Earth was not flat but round. In fact, as early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras--later followed by Aristotle and Euclid-- wrote about Earth as a sphere.

Ptolemy wrote Geography at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Columbus sailed, and considered the idea of a round planet as fact. “Geography” became a standard reference; Columbus owned a copy. The big question for Columbus was not the shape of the Earth but the size of the ocean he was planning to cross.

*On his first, famous 1492 trip across the Atlantic Ocean, he took ships now known as the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. The Santa Maria was also known at the time as La Gallega, meaning The Galician." The Niña is now believed to be a nickname for a ship originally called the Santa Clara, and the Pinta was probably also a nickname, though the ship's real name isn't clear.

*Columbus never actually set foot in North America.

He and his crew found a number of islands in the Caribbean on four separate trips. He became viceroy and governor of all them, but was later accused of cruelty and atrocities against the native populations.

*Columbus learned about tobacco and the pipes used to smoke it from the native peoples he met and returned to Europe with both the pipes and the tobacco.

*He did not die penniless in 1506 as some believe, but rather passed away in Spain as a fairly rich man. Nobody but his family took note when he died, as he was not a beloved figure.

*The first Columbus Day celebration recorded in the United States was in New York on October 12th, 1792.

That first event was to honor Italian-American heritage. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937 proclaimed October 12th to be Columbus Day a national holiday. In 1971, the holiday celebration date was changed to the second Monday in October.

For various reasons, many places have changed the name of the holiday. Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992 to honor the original inhabitants of the islands where Columbus landed.

In 1989, South Dakota started calling the holiday Native American Day.

Alabama celebrates a combination of Columbus Day and American Indian Heritage Day.

Hawaii calls it Discovery Day.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 11, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  1492, christopher columbus, columbus bio, columbus biography, columbus day, columbus facts, discovery day, explorers, facts about columbus, history, native people  
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It makes no difference whether Columbus or the Vikings, or the Knights Templar, or the Chinese or the Polynesians, or whoever else actually were the first to land in the Americas. Columbus was the first to discover America and then not promptly lose it again -- and for that we honor him this day.

Posted by: adfox123 | October 11, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Many people found North America before Christopher Columbus. I do not think the standard of discovery should be whether nor not Western Europe knew about it. Just like how indigenous people may know about a rare species for centuries, but it is not "discovered" until someone can publicize it to Western European audiences.

And Christoper Columbus certainly did not do many, many indigenous peoples in the "New World" any good. It was genocide, and you have to call it what it was.

Posted by: yh132 | October 11, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

"he was later accused of cruelty and atrocities"

Kind of glossed over a bit, didn't you? The reason Berkeley's holiday honors the indigenous people of the islands where he first landed is because Columbus and his cronies wiped them out completely within a generation. His own diaries, and the accounts of his contemporaries, detail acts of cruelty and barbarity that outstrip the worst crimes against humanity committed by the likes of Hitler or the modern genocides in Africa. They bragged about running a prostitution service using preadolescent girls. And Columbus was not only not the first to discover the Americas, he wasn't even the first not to lose it, as a previous poster implies. His distinction is that he was the first to bring back slaves, opening Europe's eyes to the potential profit of pillaging the New World. And this is the guy we celebrate.

Posted by: Rob29 | October 11, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse


For crying out loud, it was NOT genocide. Look up the definition of genocide as well as the respected scholarship on the issue and you'll find that Columbus' behavior does NOT fit the bill.

Columbus may have done some downright evil things, but you cannot call it genocide. For atrocities to be considered genocide, one has to have the intent of destroying a part or the whole of a certain group. Columbus' intention was to exploit natives, not exterminate them.

There are lots of evils in the world and genocide might be the worst among them. Calling any and all violations of human rights and atrocities "genocides" is an injustice to true victims of genocide.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 11, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

To the posters' earlier point, check your history.. he didn't just "exploit" those people... The man has diaries that are out there... If he were alive today, he'd be charged for "war crimes against humanity." Let's stop with the "sugar-coating".

Posted by: richardsmithgq | October 11, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

As for those who would celebrate "Indigenous Peoples Day" or other variations to honor native peoples....

If celebrating Columbus is wrong given the atrocities he committed, isn't it also equally wrong to revere natives who committed atrocities against each other?

It doesn't take a historian's expertise to do a little investigating on the nature of some of the tribes of the Caribbean (the Caribs, for example). Enslavement, oppression, extermination, etc., existed in the Caribbean long before Columbus arrived.

When Berkeley and others celebrate the original inhabitants who were so abused by Columbus instead of Columbus himself, what they are actually doing is trading in one group of people who committed atrocities for another.

Why there is such great criticism of how Columbus is depicted inaccurately in pop culture and schools, but the same degree of criticism is not applied to the inaccurate depiction of native peoples?

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 11, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

The myths of Columbus, like the myths of the Bible were written by people much later.
Facts...Cruel, atrocities, slavery, exploitation. Even if he didn't actual land on U.S. soil
we certainly followed his lead over the years, still doing so.
Took over land from original inhabitants, pushing them further and further into reservations just like a current mideast country!

Posted by: gany1 | October 11, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Not the best column(ette?) when it's titled "Stuff you should know about Columbus" and then the first few "facts" are preceded by the admission that "Little is known for certain about the early life of Christopher Columbus" and the next few lines are qualifiers that say that either "some" or "many" historians believe a certain way. If they don't "know" how are those items things I should know?

Posted by: delray | October 11, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

"Facts... cruel, atrocities, slavery, exploitation... Took over land from original inhabitants."

And native tribes did all these things before Europeans arrived.

Why do Americans insist on holding tightly to these false notions of a pre-Columbian utopia?

If you want to be outraged about Columbus, then be outraged. But then you should be equally outraged at the treatment of native peoples at the hands of other natives.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 11, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse


You are assuming something not in evidence. No one has said anything excusing or minimizing the acts of the natives, although the level of their acts don't begin to rise to the level of barbarity of Columbus and his colleagues. None of them exterminated whole peoples in the span of just a few years. While they carried out the same kinds of wars and exploitation that humans always have done, Columbus and his pals carried out a regional orgy of slaughter and depravity on an epic scale.

But that's still not the point. The point isn't whether Columbus was worse than the natives, it's that he is hardly worthy of praise, irrespective of how good or bad the natives were. We don't excuse the slaughter that the NAZIs carried out in the Soviet territories simply because Stalin was every bit as bad. And that's not just because the NAZIs lost; we don't excuse Stalin's atrocities either. To celebrate Columbus, virtually all of whose supposed good acts were fiction and whose bad acts were some of the worst in recorded history is just wrong, no matter what the natives did to each other before he got there. The man simply is not worthy of our praise in his own right.

Posted by: Rob29 | October 11, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with you. Columbus is not worthy of our praise and evils acts by natives neither justify nor excuse his behavior. You'll notice that I repeatedly stated that what Columbus did was horrible.

You're missing my point.

I am not making an argument regarding whether Columbus' behavior or that of the natives represents the greater evil.

You said "No one has said anything excusing or minimizing the acts of the natives." In this article, that is true. Articles such as these, books such as Lies My Teachers Told Me, and scholars and historians consistently attack the contemporary presentation of who Columbus was and what he did. The criticism is absolutely fair and it is justified.

My complaint is that scholars, educators, and pundits do not apply the same degree of criticism in trying to correct other misrepresentations of history.

If you really think no one is minimizing the acts of natives, I would encourage you to look into how public school teachers present them. The myth of the noble Indian is pervasive in public school culture (I am a high school teacher). I didn't learn until I was in college that some native tribes fell somewhat short of the "live in harmony with the earth" utopia that I was presented throughout my education.

Again, I am not defending Columbus and I am not attacking native peoples. I am only arguing that we should apply the same standard of accuracy to ALL of history, and we clearly do not do so.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 11, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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