Columbus Day – Top 5 Myths About The Explorer Debunked

Portrait of Columbus. Piombo painted this in 1519, after the explorer's death.

Columbus didn’t discover America or prove the earth is round. It isn’t even his real name. Here are the top five myths about Columbus explained. Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, via Wikipedia. Piombo painted this in 1519, after the explorer’s death.

1. Christopher Columbus is not his real name.

When the famous explorer was born in 1451, his parents named him “Cristoforo Columbo,” not “Christopher Columbus.” The Columbo family were among the middle class in bustling Genoa, Italy. At age 10, Columbus wrote that he went to sea. When he turned 22, he apprenticed with a leading Genoa trading family and sailed to various cities in Europe.

In 1485, Columbus asked Portugal’s King John II about funding his voyage. He thought he’d found a new, overseas trading route to the Orient. The rise of the Ottoman Empire had blocked the old trade routes by land. Portugal had no interest in Columbus’ plan, nor did Genoa, Venice, or England. Columbus then took his proposal to Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. While the royal pair mulled things over, Christopher Columbus’ name changed to Cristobal Colon, which has a more Spanish ring to it.

As Italians became more “American,” so did Columbus’ name.

So why do we observe this holiday every year? And why do we call it “Columbus Day,” and not “Columbo Day?” It all started with our wave of Italian immigrants in the 19th century. New York City’s Italian-Americans first celebrated Columbus Day in 1866. The yearly event spread to other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, CA and Denver, CO. In 1892, Columbus was honored with a statue on New York City’s Columbus Ave., and an exhibition with replicas of his three ships in Chicago, IL.

Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day an official holiday in 1906, due to the efforts of Angelo Noce. More states followed suit, then the Knights of Columbus pushed for a U.S. holiday, and won it in 1934. As the Italians became more “American,” so did Columbus’ name.

2. Columbus didn’t really discover America.

Most won’t feel surprised to see this myth hit the road. Since Columbus found people were already living here, he clearly hadn’t arrived first. While academics hash out the details, most agree that humans came from Asia to the Americas across the Bering Straits. This land bridge between Russia and Alaska was above water at times during the Ice Age. Evidence also supports that Polynesians may have visited South America between 500 and 700 CE. How else could sweet potatoes from South America turn up thousands of miles away in remote Oceania?

Columbus wasn’t even the first European to set foot on the new world. We’ve all heard about the Viking explorer Leif Erikson founding Greenland in 986 CE. He then discovered Vinland, where the Vikings built a short-lived colony. Now, a newly discovered map shows Portuguese ships visited the new world in 1424. Sorry, Columbus. You didn’t really discover America. Not by a long shot.

3. Columbus didn’t prove the world was round.

Columbus came down in history as a pioneer who stuck to his guns, and proved the world was round, when others thought it was flat. But, this isn’t true. Educated folks in Europe already knew the world was round, and had known that for some time. Pythagoras and Aristotle from Ancient Greece knew the Earth was round. So did known western scientists like Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus.

Columbus wasn’t even so great at navigation. His planned voyage kept getting shot down because the royal experts thought his proposed distances to Asia were too short. And they were right. Columbus thought Spain’s Canary Islands were 3,000 from Japan. Oops, the real distance is 12,200 miles. When Central and South America got in Columbus’ way, he staunchly claimed he’d reached “the Indies,” despite the evidence right in front of his eyes. Columbus then oddly decided the earth was shaped like a pear.

Was Columbus our first “fundie?”

History records that Columbus was a very pious man. He believed that God singled him out to explore the new world. When he sailed along the upper East coast of South America, and saw the Orinoco River emptying into the ocean, Columbus thought he’d seen the Garden of Eden. And when facts went against his beliefs, he clung harder to his beliefs. Our hero may not have discovered America, but he may have been our first evangelical Christian.

 4. Columbus did bring syphilis home to Europe.

Records show the first outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1495, when the French army invaded Naples, Italy. The dreaded disease is passed through sexual contact, and results in sores, rashes, stiff joints, and eventually madness and death. Syphilis soon swept through Europe, and many blamed Spanish soldiers for bringing the disease from the new world. Up to five million died in the epidemic, as vividly described by Jared Diamond:

 “When syphilis was first definitely recorded in Europe in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months […] By 1546, the disease had evolved into the disease with the symptoms so well-known to us today.”

If syphilis had already existed in Europe — as some historians claim — this wasn’t your mothers’ syphilis.

Syphilis-Deniers’ Claims Proven False

In recent years, scholars denied that Columbus and others coming back from the new world had brought syphilis home with them. They claimed that history had recorded previous cases of syphilis in Europe and in the Ancient World. They just didn’t call it “syphilis” back then. In 2011, a team from Emory University debunked the syphilis-deniers’ claims, with clear evidence that Columbus’ men did bring this vile disease home with them.

Hopefully, the ghosts of countless Native Americans can take heart from this small dose of poetic justice. How can a short-lived syphilis epidemic make up for having your society destroyed by smallpox, slavery, rape, and other miseries?

5. Columbus didn’t die penniless, or in jail.

Many of us would have loved for Columbus to die poor and in chains, as many claimed really happened. Alas, this is wishful thinking from those of us who appreciate poetic justice. Columbus did run into trouble during his third voyage, when even his fellow Spaniards turned on him for being too greedy, brutal, and evil.

Things took a turn for the worst when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella banned taking slaves from the new lands. Since Hispaniola and the other islands in the Caribbean had little or no gold, our hero was kind of counting on slaves. After exploring a bit of South America, Columbus returned to Hispaniola and faced a cold welcome. His colony had fallen on hard times, and nobody was happy to see him.

Columbus accused of tyranny and hauled to Spain in chains.

Then Spain sent Francisco de Bobadilla to check on complaints about Columbus’ tyranny, cruelty and poor conduct during his time as governor. And things got worse for Columbus. A lot worse. When de Bobadilla arrived, he found truth in the all of the accusations. He clashed with Columbus, then clapped him in irons and hauled him back to Spain. There, our “hero” talked his royal patrons into setting him free. They even let him keep the wealth he’d “earned.” But Columbus lost all of his power and titles.

Columbus’ final voyage

The explorer made his last trip in 1502, in hope of finding the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. While scouting Central America, hostile natives, ship worms, and storms attacked his ships. The captain and his crew wound up stranded in St. Anne’s Bay in Jamaica for over a year, because no one wanted to rescue him. Help finally came, and Columbus sailed back to Spain in 1504. He died in 1506 at age 54, after struggling with illness, gout, and other health issues.