POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Standing Up For the Real Christopher Columbus

by David Trumbull -- October 5, 2012

Today, everyone knows that Christopher Columbus did not have to persuade doubting backers that the world was round. Everyone in Europe knew the Earth was a sphere. It had been known for nearly two thousand years. Yet generations of America children, from the second quarter of the 19th century, through the middle of the 20th century, were taught that people in Columbus' day believed the Earth to be flat! How did this story start? And why should we care?

We care because on Monday we celebrate Columbus Day in honor of his historic voyages that opened communication, commerce, and migration between the Old World of Europe and the New World of the Americas. Columbus' voyages of discovery led directly to Spanish settlements the New World that became, with time, the many Spanish-speaking nations of South, Central and North America and the islands of the Caribbean. The United States, today a sea-to-sea continental nation with citizens and residents whose ancestors lived in every corner of the globe, likewise traces her beginnings to Columbus. As early as 1738 "Columbia" had entered the English tongue as a name for the 13 British colonies in North America that became our original 13 States. Yes, from the birth of our nation it was understood that it all started with Columbus. That's why Columbus matters.

So how did the flat Earth myth get mixed up with the story of Columbus? To understand, one must look, not to the history of Columbus, but to the social history of the United States. It is true that in early America Columbus was revered, however, by the 1820s, with the rise of immigration, especially German and Irish Catholics, native-born Americans --Protestant English, Scots and Ulstermen -- found Columbus an increasingly embarrassing hero. He was an Italian employed by the Spanish -- Southern Europeans considered "dirty" and stupid races in the thrall of a superstitious church. By casting Columbus as a beacon of scientific enlightenment -- practically a forerunner of Martin Luther -- rebelling against a church "stuck in the Dark Ages," he became an icon of a modern New World.

In 1828, author Washington Irving obliged by publishing A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The book became the most popular work on the subject. It held that place until Boston's Samuel Eliot Morison published his Admiral of the Ocean Sea in 1942. Irving catered (whether intentionally I do not know) to nativist American anti-Catholic bigotry by inserting in his work (Volume I. Book II. Chapter IV.) a lengthy, and largely fabricated, interview of "Columbus before the Council at Salmanca" where the navigator is forced to answer charges of error and possible heresy for denying the "Catholic teaching" of a flat Earth. Irving even throws in a threat of that favorite bugaboo of anti-Catholic bigots -- the Spanish Inquisition.

Today we are beyond that sort of blatant prejudice, however, lies about Columbus continue. Last year a public school principal in Somerville wrote of, "atrocities that Christopher Columbus committed against the indigenous peoples." Some reputable historians, when contacted by the press, set the record straight, basically saying that the school administrator didn't know what she was talking about. Still, ignorant lies about Columbus come out, and are widely publicized, every October. When you hear someone disparage the Italian discoverer of America, ask yourself, who benefits from the spreading of this calumny? For it is sure that lies are not spread unless someone benefits from them.