Columbus Day Rant, by Dan Coffey | Columbus’s Biases are So Strong, They’re Almost Cute

Dan Coffey, international writer

As I sit here in my   house in Paraguay, I have been playing the piano music of Chopin and Satie, and reading about Columbus’s voyage of discovery, when he thought he had arrived in China but was actually in the Bahamas. The human brew on this planet has certainly become a lot more mixed in the 500 since the fast-talking Italian convinced the queen of Portugal to finance an expedition from Spain to find a new route to Asia.  

Columbus felt pressured to convince his sponsors that there was gold aplenty in these parts of China, and in his diary he would go to great lengths to describe how much gold the natives wore, though he admits at most times that they were blissfully naked and quite pleased with the little red hats and glass beads that he gave them. 

The discovery voyage turned out to be a bad deal all around. Even Columbus didn’t fare well after his visit. Within five years he was forcibly returned to Spain in chains, having proved himself a cruel and incompetent governor of the lands he had “discovered.” And, it could be argued, the poor inhabitants of these islands fared even worse, especially those impressed to return to Spain as living specimens. Many of those specimens failed to remain alive.

In his journal, Columbus describes the people he meets as happy and healthy and unworried about pressing their advantage in trading with him. When he visits a larger island where the women are clothed, he is impressed by the fact that they know how to weave and that they drive harder bargains when trading, another trait of which he approves.

He was especially pleased to find that the natives were not ferocious. When he showed them his sword, they grabbed the blade, cutting themselves in the process and thus betraying their ignorance of weapons.

The life on the Bahamas islands that he describes truly seems blessed. The waters are clear, the vegetation, lush, the people healthy and happy. He assures Isabel that they practice no religion and would make good Christians, that they are quick-witted and could easily be taught to speak. I guess by that he means “speak Spanish.”

At first, he begins to name the islands he encounters after Isabel and Ferdinand, and then starts in with Catholic holy names, Our Redeemer, Holy Spirit, etc. After he tires of this, he seems to notice  that the natives already had named their islands, but he proudly lists the new, improved names he has given them.

I love the fact that he seems completely unaware of his self-centeredness. His cultural biases are so strong they’re almost cute. He seems to have no interest in the language or culture of the locals, and only speculates of how much gold they have and how easily they will submit to religious conversion and slavery.

On board the ship, they had brought along a possible interpreter. In addition to his native Spanish, this man spoke Greek, Chaldean, Arabic, and German. Guess he ended up not having much to do.

After Columbus returned home, the Pope got involved and divided the New World (which they thought was China and Japan) between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  To this day, in Brazil they speak Portuguese, and most of the rest of South America speaks Spanish. The English, French and Dutch were unimpressed by this Papal declaration, and vowed to divide the world up without his help or approval.

In his diary, Columbus writes on one of his first nights on land that he is happy to be in China at last and listening to a nightingale sing in a nearby tree. Of course, he had no way of knowing that nightingales are unknown outside of Europe, and that he wasn’t in China. Ignorance can often be bliss. The great explorer deserved a few nights of peace after the stress of fund-raising for the voyage and keeping a mutinous crew subdued for the 32-day journey.

Note to Hollywood: Columbus was always worried about finding a harbor for his ships that wouldn’t scuttle them, but that’s exactly what eventually happened to the largest ship, the Santa Maria, of which he was captain when it ran aground. He was forced to abandon 59 men on the island. By the time he returned the next year, they had all been killed. What had these men done to incur the wrath of the otherwise peaceful natives? One can only assume it had to do with scantily-clad young women.    

For more humor from Dan Coffey, see his travel blog Geezers Abroad.