I remember as a kid sitting in my sixth grade social studies class listening to Mr. Branch teach us about Columbus. Here are some things I learned back then:
- Columbus was a great navigator
- Columbus discovered the world was round
- Columbus discovered America
In my college years, Columbus suddenly shifted from a benign and heroic figure to a rapist, colonizing madman. He killed the Indians (of course, he erroneously named them "Indians"). He massacred their culture and replaced it with Spanish imperialism. He paved the way for slavery in the New World.
In the third phase of my reintroduction to Columbus, I find myself falling somewhere in between the naivetee of my childhood and the militancy of my early adult years. It turn out everything I ever learned about Columbus was only a half truth. Columbus was not a great navigator. In fact, he was wrong in his calculations most of the time. He was a visionary, but the careful, meticulous work of navigation often proved too tedious for him. Columbus certainly did not discover that the world was round. Early Greek philosophers and scientists had already theorized the world was round--and they even had the mathematical equations to prove it. By the time Columbus was traipsing through Europe in search of a benefactor for his expedition, every self-respecting, educated person knew the world was not flat. And Columbus did not discover America. Credible evidence exists to show the Vikings found and left America long before Columbus. Even more spectacular, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima made the case for a pre-Columbian African presence in America in his ground breaking work They Came Before Columbus.
But none of those facts can change the transformational nature of Columbus' voyages. He changed the course of human history in a way no one else before him had ever done. For a trade scholar like me, it is indisputable that modern trade history began with Columbus. In his search for a western route to India and China, he reconstructed the modern trading system in a way that continues to resonate to this day. It's impact can still be felt all over Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. As a Haitian-born "West Indian" woman, I certainly continue to feel the impact of Columbus' voyages in my own life (I have written a series of essays on the point, which can be found here.)
In the face of all that, I find it impossible to not at least acknowledge this day. Happy (?) Columbus Day.