Friday, October 11, 2013

Why Columbus Day?

Chris never set foot in North America. Seems like Leif Eriksson Day or even Amerigo Vespucci Day would be more to the point

One should also consider that Columbus died in denial, maintaining to the end that he’d landed in Asia. And forget the myth perpetuated by everyone from author Washington Irving to Bugs Bunny: Columbus wasn't at all concerned with the roundness of the earth. Pythagoras proved that back in 500 BC, collaborated two centuries later by Aristotle. By 1492 most educated people knew they weren’t living on a pancake.

So what was his motivation? Money. What else? Spices were the hot commodity of the day. Figuring a faster way to get them would amount to winning a multi-mil lotto. 

But where he actually landed was Hispaniola. Crashed, rather. That’s where the flagship Santa Maria ran aground and sank. His treatment of the natives was barbaric enough to make even his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella, cringe. On CBS “Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood, I learned that the aboriginals, realizing the Europeans intended a permanent colony, despaired of their future and committed mass suicides.

Nor was Christopher Columbus the first to find the new world. For openers, the natives they encountered obviously got there considerably sooner. Maybe they displaced even earlier inhabitants. This planet has been around awhile, you know.

Leif Ericksson siting the New World
But the fact is, Norse Viking Leif Eriksson probably landed in present-day Newfoundland around 1000 A.D., almost five centuries before Columbus set sail. Some historians claim that Ireland’s Saint Brendan or other Celtic people crossed the Atlantic even ahead of Eriksson.

So…why is the New World called the Americas instead of, say, the Columbias? Did no one consider it a New Leif? Ah, kiddies, Grandma will tell you.

Enter Amerigo Vespucci. Mr. V was born in 1454 to a prominent family in Florence, Italy. As a young man working for local bankers, he was sent to Spain in 1492 to look after his employer's business interests. Being a voracious reader who collected books and maps, he was at the right place at the right time. Thus inspired, Amerigo began working on ships, going on his first expedition as a navigator in 1499. This voyage found the mouth of the Amazon and continued exploring the coast of South America – or whatever they called it at the time.
Vespucci wrote detailed letters describing the culture of the indigenous people; their diet, religion, and sexual, marriage, and childbirth practices. The popular letters were published in many languages and proved a much better seller than Columbus' own diaries.

So writing a best-seller was enough to get two continents named after him? Not quite. There’s one more character in the mix: a German clergyman/scholar Martin Waldseemuller, who liked to make up names (including his own).
Leif Ericksson statue in MN
In honor of Vespucci's discovery of the new fourth portion of the world, Waldseemuller printed a wood block map (called "Carta Mariana") with the name "America" spread across the southern continent of the New World. Thousands of copies of the map were sold across Europe. Within a few years, Waldseemuller changed his mind about the name for the New World but it was too late. The name America had stuck.

Still wondering why we celebrate Columbus Day? Politics. It was declared a federal holiday in 1937 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was courting Italian American votes. Nowadays quite a list of states have knocked it off their official calendars, though it’s still an occasion to save up to 40% at furniture stores.

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