This was rather relevant to me today because I’ve been on planes a lot, and was reading A Voyage Long and Strange by Horwitz, which is about the stuff that happened in America between 1492 and the Pilgrims.
Spoiler: There’s a lot of it.
Every time I read anything about American history, I want to go back to high school and punch my teachers in the head. (Although they are largely not at fault, given that they have tests to work to. But they could have at least said something to the effect of “By the way, this ranges between misleading and blatantly untrue and we are leaving out whole centuries.”)
Mostly this era in question involves the Spanish doing impressively horrible things. And we did indeed get a few minutes on Cortez and Why He Was Bad, which passes for enlightenment in the public education system, but the things they glossed over…
Dear god, that they reduced De Soto’s horrifying, bizarre, doomed trek all over hell to “Discovered the Mississippi.” Which is kind of like saying that Genghis Khan’s great feat was popularizing the yurt. And I would have been fascinated and horrified by De Soto the way that I was fascinated or horrified by very little in my American History class. Maybe if that sort of thing were taught, we would have learned something useful about How Being Imperialist Dicks Means Lots Of People Die Horribly, instead of spending a week trying to memorize the first three stanzas of “Paul Revere’s Ride.”*
And the Salem witch trials were interesting and cautionary and all, but did we need to rehash them three times over the course of my education, at a week apiece? Leaving aside that there were other American witch trials, one of them involving a relative of mine, we spent more time on Salem than on smallpox. I do not question that mass hysteria is bad, but seriously, smallpox.
Well, anyway. Columbus. Most of what I knew about Columbus was from a series of books called “Value Tales” which I had as a little kid, which gave all these historical figures an imaginary friend and told a bowdlerized version of their life. Columbus’s was called “The Value of Curiosity.” (I think his imaginary friend was a talking seagull. Can’t recall.)
They kinda glossed over the bit where he started dragging natives back to Spain as slaves, and all the people he killed looking for gold. Also the bit about how everybody knew the earth was round already. Also that he got his math from the Bible. Also the bit where he went to his grave thinking he’d found India. Definitely the bit with the full boatload of atrocities, rape, murder, dismemberment and genocide.
Lots about the Sargasso Sea and how everybody was scared of sea monsters and sailing off the edge of the earth, though. Plus, y’know, talking seagull!
This was still arguably more than I got out of school. Make of that what you will.
Bartolome de las Casas, incidentally, got two lines in my history books. (One more than De Soto!) He was a priest and he advocated better treatment of the natives, but ha ha, he initially advocated for the African slave trade, so what a jerk, right? (They conveniently left out the bits where he recanted that and began advocating against slavery of any kind. Presumably they needed more room to talk about the Salem witch trials.)
As your products of European Imperialism go, not remotely perfect, but a helluva lot better than most of the other historical figures at the time. If you were looking for someone European to celebrate from that era of American history, I doubt you’ll find anyone better. Certainly better than Columbus. But there are people currently serving time for armed robbery who are better than Columbus.
I don’t know. About all I know is that I actually looked up the Value Tales books for the first time in years, and man, those things were kinda messed up. Giving Marie Curie a talking X-ray for her imaginary friend seems…um…a little awkward, given how she died? And Johnny Appleseed should have been “The Value Of Making Hooch.” And why was Louis Pasteur, who was French, injecting people with tiny British soldiers to kill rabies?
Let’s not even start in on the one about Cochise. Or Sacajawea. Christ. (I think she had a talking raccoon or something. Cochise might have had a vulture. Maybe it was supposed to be an eagle. The artist was not great with birds.)
I must have read those books a dozen times apiece. Sigh. Of such small things are our later disillusions made…
*One if by land, two if by sea,
Three if by TARDIS, four if you’ve run out of lanterns and will send a note.