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Columbus Day No More

The Oatmeal has a great thing up about Columbus Day. Go read it, I’ll wait.

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.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Without delusions, we would have no history at all.

And it's about here that we realize that education isn't about imparting knowledge to children; education is about social control. And being annoyed with teachers fostering the status quo is like being annoyed with munition factory workers producing munitions. The control factors are way beyond their reach.

We didn't get the Salem Witch Trials over and over again (only once in high school, and that was mostly in English class while we were reading The Crucible). So I guess in that respect we were lucky. And I got to memorize a bunch of Native American tales in 2nd grade. Columbus was mostly a gloss-over.

Instead, we got the God-*&#@ed Donner Party. The Donner Party and how important it was to local history and how important it was to the Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny (it really wasn't) and blah, blah, blah wasn't it horrible how these people had to EAT EACH OTHER in order to survive. Over and over and over, every damn year until I wanted to scream for something about WWII instead.

My Dad, who grew up in Jersey, tells me he got the same treatment with the Revolutionary War instead. I think this one of those foibles that tend to be specific to a certain region. And now re-reading this I have realized just how damned strange education is in this country.

The Donner Party sounds like it would be more of a Home Economics topic.

Great line, "...Genghis Khan’s great feat was popularizing the yurt."

I also went to the "Oatmeal" piece, and appreciated their effort to replace Columbus with Fray Bartolome -- including the actual origin of our infatuation with Cristobal Colon. (Hispanic LatinoAmericanos call it Dia de la Raza -- "Race" not being as loaded a word ther as it is here, and connoting a "cultural" connection, NOT a racial one.)

Thanks, Justine

I'm probably 20 years older than you, and the textbooks when I was in school were even worse than what you describe. Bartolome was not mentioned. Cortez was a mighty explorer and brought civilization to the native savages. The African slave trade was 'an economic necessity' - bad, but, you know, money. The founding fathers were flawless beings, nigh unto godlike. You get the picture. I, who love reading history, HATED every single American history class I took in school. Somehow, we all knew it was a load of bullshit- this was about the time things like that were beginning to be examined, when Black Pride was forcing a closer look at American slavery and stories about trade blankets as deliberate vectors of disease were circulating. It has been interesting seeing truth come out over my lifetime. And just as interesting to wonder why the fuck we still have Columbus day.

Being from the Netherlands, I never really realized how glorified Columbus was in the United States until I watched Disney's 'So Dear To My Heart'. (In case you are not familiar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ2cEYQpCgI --The art is gorgeous though!)
I don't recall they mentioned too much about Columbus in school so I am not sure if the knowledge I had of him as a child came from school or from my own books, but it was basically this: 'Christopher Columbus was the Spanish guy who discovered the land that is now the United States. He was kind of stupid though and though it was India, and called the people there Indians. Also, he made 'Columbus's egg' by tapping the egg on the table and letting it stand upright.'
Can't say all of the history lessons here are better though, we celebrate our questionable heroes as well and the Netherlands definitely has some history not to be proud of.

By the way, since I just added you to my friendslist on LJ, a short introduction: I'm Henrieke, a 23 year old girl who tries to make a living as an artist. We met before, I got a sketch commission from you at FC 3 years ago or so, you drew me my lemur holding a turnip. I doubt that you'd remember but... hi!

Yeah.. there's this... drive.. to cast the creation of our nation as a pure, blessed event, untainted by the sins of other lands, a shining beacon of prosperity and freedom. The fact of the matter is, we have just as much blood on our hands as everybody else... we just got ours a lot faster.

It's closely related to the urge to believe in the myth of American Exceptionalism..

At my (English) school we skimmed over 90% of world and British history in a rapid leapfrog of, "Egyptians, Romans, Vikings, Normans, Tudors & Stuarts, French Revolution, Victorians, WWI, WWII," and then spent forever learning about the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.

Apparently it was not important that we learned anything about the world beyond Europe, events after 1945, or anything at all about the British Empire aside from when it disbanded, but by God, just ask me anything you like about crop rotation, the Enclosure Act, Jethro Tull's seed drill and his book Horse Hoeing Husbandry, Jedediah Strutt's stocking frame, Richard Arkwright's water frame, the Spinning Jenny, Davy lamps, bell pits versus drift mines or the Factory Reform Acts of the early 19th century.


I should note that the only thing I learned about the British Empire was the American Colonies. I had to read Rudyard Kipling to learn that the British had some vague connection to India. (Insert any historian weeping gently here.)

Our European History class (and I did take one!) was pretty much All French Revolution, All The Time. Also something about the tragedy of the commons. If you mapped my class's understanding of Europe, it would have been something like "Charlemagne caused the French Revolution, which lasted for a thousand years and led to "A Modest Proposal" and Adam Smith. The end."

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My research for vaguely medieval LARPs has led down some fascinating paths. People make so many assumptions and generalizations. There was a lot of regional variation in so many things. I don't mind if we fudge some things for safety, comfort, feasibility and narrative. Just so long as people aren't trying to claim it's accurate. That annoys the hell out of me.

Sure, it's supposed to be Northern England in the early 13th century. But I don't mind if someone serves potatoes with dinner or uses a fork to eat it. Not a big deal. Now if someone shows up wearing what the media portrays as a 19th century pirate, I'm going to feel all stabby. (Yes, we've had some seriously anachronistic costuming, even though we allow anything even remotely regionally appropriate from c. 900-1400 AD, which is a pretty wide range.)

Hm, I ended up more than a bit off topic...

Back on topic, Columbus was a horrible person and ever since I learned just how horrible, I've been pissed off that the US celebrates Columbus Day. I much rather would celebrate Bartolome Day.

"one if by land...". For a long time I've had a painting in my head (since there's no way I have the skill to put it on canvas) of a Charleston militiaman looking across the river by spyglass at three lanterns in the church-tower. NExt to him, holding his horse, is a lad, looking upwards, slackjawed, at the dirigibles with union-jacks.

That would be pretty freakin' AWESOME.

Oh my goodness, I just looked these up, and the guy who wrote them is the same person who wrote "Who Moved My Cheese?", the highly beloved "imaginography" used by middle managers to teach you to be a more manipulatible wage slave.

Just an Interesting Bit of Trivia:

Johnny Appleseed's main motivation was a law promoting settlements that gave away land to whoever cultivated it. He planted non-native crops (apple trees) darn near everywhere and then applied for ownership of half the wilderness. Not such a great plan, as it turned out: He got laughed out of court.

The only reason I know this is that my wife is his great (great?) grand-niece and her family had quite a few of his personal papers.

I grew up in Northern Virginia. In primary school history classes, certain things like slavery and the Civil War were hardly touched on at all- tension between the highly liberal and northern-emigre local population and the state school board, I imagine.

Strangely enough, I first heard about the expulsion of Jews from Spain from a made-for-TV movie about Columbus. I mean, Mel Brooks and Michael Palin taught me about the Spanish Inquisition, but neither mentioned the expulsion of Jews, or were very specific about the time frame. Seeing Columbus try to get funds from Spain in one scene and the Jews forced to leave in another put the two together in my mind very thoroughly. When watching that movie, I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition.

"And why was Louis Pasteur, who was French, injecting people with tiny British soldiers to kill rabies?"

He was actually trying to kill those tiny Englishmen perhaps?