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On Columbus Day


Look. Walter Russell Mead is correct to note that Columbus Day, at its origins, owes almost nothing to Christopher Columbus himself (though I’m modestly surprised that Mead didn’t use the occasion to show us how Columbus Day has everything to do with Al Gore being a fat hypocrite, or something.) Here, for example, is an interesting piece from 1913 that makes more or less the same point that Mead endorses, which is that Columbus Day was really intended to highlight the contributions of immigrants to the development of the United States. Among other things, we learn that Lithuanians are “born paraders” and that Bostonians were somehow able to overcome their hatred for the Chinese by awarding them the prize for best float in the 1912 pageant. So fine.

However, so long as dingbats like Glenn Reynolds continue citing Samuel Eliot Morison to defend Columbus against the suggestion that he was anything but an enlightened rationalist, it will continue to be worth pointing out that everyone hated Columbus. The men who worked for him wanted his head on a pike; his peers loathed him, his sponsors lost their trust in him, and his political superiors eventually arrested him and his two idiot brothers for being incompetent brutes. And that’s not even considering his reputation among the locals. He was a terrible geographer, picked a shitty location for the first Spanish town in Hispanola and watched as hurricanes leveled it twice by 1495 — which was just as well, since the soil in the area was completely unsuited to food production, and the farmers under Columbus’ harsh direction were unable to produce enough to keep their inhabitants from losing their minds with hunger. Always a religious zealot, Columbus grew increasingly so as Reiter’s syndrome enfeebled him at a relatively young age, wracking his body with arthritic pain and causing his genitals to howl with agony every time he had to take a leak. In the frothingly weird book of prophecies he published a few years before his death, he aimed to show how his efforts in the West Indies had set into motion three of the four essential preconditions for Christ’s return. And amid all of this, he spent his last days yammering to anyone who would listen that the Spanish crown had never really paid him appropriately for all his troubles — an argument that his family would carry on, to great public annoyance, for decades after he improved the world by taking leave of it.

Columbus wasn’t a misunderstood hero whose reputation needed a few centuries to season. He was properly regarded as a towering douchebag by the people who knew him best. So the hell with him. Immigrants everywhere — born paraders or not — should be embarrassed by the association.

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  • shah8

    Orson Scott Card still loves him, though…

    Pastwatch, baby!

    • Hob

      Are you serious? Did you actually read that novel? It’s really, really not pro-Columbus… yeah, he’s not portrayed as the 100% horrible fuckup that Dave is describing, but the book shows his effect on history as overwhelmingly negative and suggests that the only way for him to become a halfway decent guy would be by intervention from time travelers. Card’s politics are generally horrible, but this book was a rare outburst of humane hippiedom.

      • shah8

        /me giggles…

        /me laughs some more…

        /me wipes tears away…

        yeah, I’m serious.

        eeeeehhh, may as well…

        1) CC was put where he was to stave off a naval barbarian horde (Shootin’ Hitler as a babe styel), so he wasn’t *totally* an overwhelmingly negative outcome.

        2) Pastwatch depicts CC as someone who is substantially more rational and conscientious than Columbus actually was. This is because CC *is* a 100% horrible fuck-up who never should have been born. Compared with someone like Cortez, who is as Magnificent Bastard as they come, CC is… well, he is who he is, and depicting him the way Card does is a substantial fiction beyond science fiction.

      • firefall

        I’d have to 100% disagree – a lot of Cards books are good to beautiful, esp the earlier work .. and this was a horrible excresence on the body literate, like a boil begging to spray muck all around

  • Slybrarian

    Thank you! I really can’t understand how Columbus could have so many apologists when just about everyone hated him and thought he was an idiot. It’s not even a matter of us looking back and saying, “You know, by modern standards the guy was a genocidal monster.” Its people from the fraking 16th century thinking he was a murderous thug, which is saying a lot.

    The only thing worse is the people who don’t seem to understand that everyone knew the world was round, that they knew he was wrong about being able to reach China by going west, and that the only reason he didn’t get strung up by his own thirst-crazed crew was because he accidentally hit an extra continent.

    • mpowell

      It’s a weird cultural thing. The apologists for Columbus don’t know anything about him and don’t really care. They perceive the assault on Columbus as an assault on the eventual European project of colonizing the Americas. Defending Columbus is about defending this project. They perceive it that way because the colonization project involved a lot of indefensible practices which have gotten a lot of criticism. And they know that there was a lot of nasty stuff done, but they think it was worth it because in the end: America, Fuck Yeah!

      They’re not even paying attention to you when you point out the even in the context of glorifying the European colonial project, Columbus was a despicable man.

    • Halloween Jack

      You can blame Washington Irving for the whole flat-earther nonsense, actually; he just sort of made it up.

  • Bill Murray

    Here in South Dakota this is Native American Day. While we have many faults, like electing John Thune to the Senate, we don’t celebrate Italian jerks.

    As dickipedia (http://www.dickipedia.org/dick.php?title=Main_Page)) says

    Christopher Columbus’s greatest achievement in dickery, however, is his legacy. Despite leading a life of racism, slavery, and barbaric acts against natives so heinous that he was arrested and jailed, the only thing American children are really taught about the man is that “in fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” With similar historical airbrushing, schools could also accurately teach that “in nineteen hundred and forty two, Hitler gave free showers to lots of Jews.” He did. Look it up.

    • wiley

      Thanks for that. So, funny—and it says so much—what an apt analogy. I had to tell my friend immediately. We’re cracking up over it.

  • c u n d gulag

    The Vikings were here first.
    The Chinese might have been here before, or after, the Vikings – really! Maybe…
    And before the Vikings were here first, so might the Phoenicians have been here first.
    And even before them, so might the Egyptians have been here even firster.
    What does everyone think the legend of Atlantis might have been based on?
    But we do know with certainty that the Vikings were here centuries before Christopher “Wrong Way” Columbus.
    The saddest thing is that his arrival here eventually wiped out entire countries, cultures, and societies, and millions and millions of people.

    • ajay

      Interesting side question: why did the Viking arrival in Newfoundland not have the same effect in terms of epidemics, population collapse etc? Was it just too isolated and brief a contact for the diseases to really get a grip in the New World? Because I get the impression that they spread pretty fast after 1492.

      • Dave Haasl

        I’d go with the briefness of contact coupled with good fortune on the part of the locals. I don’t recall the Greenland Norse installing any permanent settlements. But someone better versed with the history, might have a better answer.

        • Dave Haasl

          Oh and I think most (if not all)of the Norse-local interactions were violent. No social interactions might go a long way explaining the lack of disease.

          • c u n d gulag

            Personal hygiene may have had a roll.
            The Spanish, English, and other people of that time period were notorious non-bathers – mostly for religious purposes. They were filtlh, and stunk. Some royals only bathed once or twice in their lives. If I’m not mistaken, and it’s been awhile since I read anything about this, Isabella, who sent Columbus on this mission, was only bathed when born, right before her marriage, and for her funeral. And Queen Elizabeth was pretty funky, too, bathing rarely, or almost never.
            If you look at the Northern European cultures, they believed in cleanliness whenever possible.
            And the Aztecs also believed in being clean.

            Also, the Plague that killed off so much of Europe was post-Viking. So, they may not have carried any vermin carrying diseases that the crews had grown immune to.
            As for syphlis rates, we don’t know.

            As a matter of fact, we really don’t know what happened after the Vikings came. For all we know, there may have been a lot of deaths, but it was contained in relatively uninhapbited parts of Easten coastal Canada and the US.
            The Spanish, when taking on the Aztecs, were attacking, if not THE largest city in the America’s, certainly ONE of the largest. And it was a trading post for what we call Indian tribes from the Southwest, maybe even into the Midwest, and dealt with groups from Central and South America. So that diseases spread much more quickly than they would nave in small villages in Nova Scotia or Massachusetts.
            Maybe someone who knows more could fill us in?

            • c u n d gulag

              Or, hygiene may have had a “ROLE,” not a roll.

            • DrDick

              While there is some debate, the best evidence is that the spirochetes bacterium was introduced into Europe from the Americas, where it had long existed as pinto and yaws (both skin diseases). It seems to have mutated into the current STD in Europe.

            • Hob

              Smallpox, measles, mumps, and typhus are the European diseases most commonly thought to have been major killers in the Americas. None of those except typhus have anything to do with vermin or hygiene.

              • DrDick

                Indeed, most of the epidemic diseases introduced are density dependent viral diseases which cannot be sustained in the population unless population densities are greater than are found among Native peoples north of Mexico (which may also explain why the Vikings did not communicate them). They are essentially consequences of urbanism.

                Importantly, it was no single epidemic or disease which caused depopulation, but rather successive waves of epidemics every 2-10 years. A single measles epidemic for instance killed over 10,000 Timucua in central Florida in the mid 17th century. Populations can recover from even massive mortality given sufficient time. Since most of these were viral diseases, exposure conferred art least limited immunity on the survivors and it would be a generation before the disease struck again. However, when populations are struck by repeated waves of new epidemics every few years, there is no time for recovery and irreversible decline sets in. In virgin soil epidemics like these, the impacts are compounded by lost ability of the population to care for the ill and to provision themselves. Repeated epidemics also compromise the immune system, making people more susceptible to other diseases that might not otherwise be lethal. Henry Dobyns does a good job of describing these effect in “Brief Perspective on a Scholarly Transformation: Widowing the “Virgin” Land” Ethnohistory 23:2.

                • ajay

                  Thanks Dr and others for those replies.

                  So it’s a combination of
                  1) there weren’t that many Norse settlers and contacts were brief, limited and not repeated
                  2) population density in the NE of North America was low enough that, even if a few skraelings did catch measles, it wouldn’t have spread very far.

                • John F

                  Parts of North America (North of Mexico) were densely populate when they had their first contact with Europeans (Spanish), particularly what is now the South and South East US. After the Spanish failed to colonize North America it was a few generations until the English and French began their sustained presence in those regions- by the depopulated.

                  The Spanish had contacted still active “mound builder cultures- when the English came later the mounds were still there, but not the builders- the English assumed that the mounds were the remains of a lost WHITE civilization (And that is where Joe Smith got the idea BTW)

                • ajay

                  The Spanish had contacted still active “mound builder cultures- when the English came later the mounds were still there, but not the builders- the English assumed that the mounds were the remains of a lost WHITE civilization (And that is where Joe Smith got the idea BTW)

                  Of course they did. “A big heap of earth? Why, surely no coloured man could have come up with such an advanced concept!”

                • DrDick

                  John F –

                  You are correct that the Spanish encountered active mound building societies in the Southeast and we now know that the cause of the demise of the Mississippian societies in the Southeast was the Spanish. It is quite likely that both the Etowah and Moundville sites were still important places at this time and DeSoto may have visited Etowah.

                  However, here was no discontinuity between Spanish colonization of the eastern US and the British colonization. They continuously colonized Florida from the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565 until the end of the French and Indian War in 1760. Spanish Florida included coastal Georgia until they were driven out by a combination of native revolts and English attacks from Charleston in the latter 17th century. They were active in the interior Southeast up through the beginning of the 18th century. The remained a powerful force in the region up until 1760.

                  The populations had already collapsed by the settlement of Charleston, though remnants of the earlier polities remained. there was even earlier documented depopulation when De Soto arrived, from the abortive Ayllon colony in coastal Georgia or South Carolina. DeSoto reports about 1/4 of the villages in the coastal region near the Savannah River were abandoned.

      • davenoon

        My best guess is that smallpox — the disease that did the most harm to native populations — was likely not as widespread among Danish populations. Smallpox really thrived in the large cities of Europe, and I’m assuming that the Vikings weren’t living in large enough communities to keep the virus in a regular state of circulation…

        • I also wonder if the cold climate didn’t have something to do with it, given that those settlers were coming over from Iceland and Greenland. Don’t know about that though.

          • Fats Durston

            The Vikings that made it to North America (from Iceland and Greenland) mostly originally came from Norway and Britain (re-settlers, really). Even though they made no completely permanent settlements, L’Anse aux Meadows (in Newfoundland) is elaborate enough to suggest long stays (capacity for 80 people, an iron smithy), and timber and probably iron were extracted from North America for three centuries, so the contact was repeated.

            The only argument I’ve ever read–for the lack of catastrophic waves of disease resulting from Vikings in the New World–is that the population wasn’t dense enough in the contact zones; the Amerindians that met the Vikings weren’t farmers that far north. However, Viking trade goods (from indigenous networks or Viking trips further south) have been found into the farming zone. In addition, the first century of interaction post-Columbus in North America created a number of epidemics in what would become Eastern Canada/New England long before any permanent settlement (the trading/resource extraction interactions which–if more numerous–were similar in kind to those of the Vikings ~1000-1300).

            • DrDick

              Contact does not need to be sustained for disease to have an impact. The current evidence indicates that smallpox or other epidemics were introduced into New England and eastern Canada by Basques and other cod fisherman who dried their catch on the shore and did a little trading with the Indians long before actual English or French colonization in the region. The coastal areas were already heavily depopulated when the first settlers arrived.

              • Indeed, in “A History of Plymouth Plantation,” there are numerous references to the local populations having been decimated by plagues shortly before the colony was founded.

                • DrDick

                  The same happened at Jamestown, where the colonists viewed it as God clearing the way for them to expand.

                • Really? That’s very interesting, because Bradford and the Plymouth settlers thought it was a natural phenomenon, and mourned for the human suffering it caused among their new neighbors.

                  Naw, just joshing! God hates savages, woot!

      • AcademicLurker

        I think part of it is that in the wake of the conquests of the major South and Central American empires, large numbers of the conquered were often herded into what were basically refugee camps.

        Such camps have always been breeding grounds for disease, right up through the 20th century. The lack of pre-existing immunity was the major factor, but the living conditions probably made the death toll a lot higher than it might have been.

        • DrDick

          There was massive depopulation in what is now the eastern US while the tribes were still autonomous. the best current estimate is that the Native population in the southeastern US declined by 90-95% in the first century after contact (1539-1650). The survivors remained independent and in control of most or all of their lands until the mid-late 18th century.

          • howard

            drdick, do you have a good recent and accessible source on that? it’s not anything i know anything about, but the notion of 95% population loss in the first century after contact is staggering….

            • djw

              Dr. Dick probably has more and better sources, as he’s the expert here, but I believe the “95% in 120 years” estimate was first offered by the anthropologist Henry Dobyns. I found the discussion of Dobyns’ and other population estimates, and the assumptions/methodologies behind them, in Charles Mann’s book 1491 interesting and enlightening. (He’s fairly skeptical about all the population estimates, IIRC).

            • DrDick

              djw is correct about the original source of that estimate being Dobyns. Dobyns goes rather too far by proposing that figure for all of North America. While depopulation in the Southeast and perhaps other ares of the eastern US were likely in that vicinity, elsewhere they were much lower. Among the Pueblos, the initial depopulation seems to have run about 75-80%. In the Interior Northwest, it seems to have run 50-75%.
              Russell Thornton does a good job in American Indian Holocaust and Survival of reviewing the data and the models for estimating population and mortality. He remains my favorite. There are also some good essays in Columbian Consequences. Charles Hudson and Marvin Smith have done a lot of work on the Southeast in particular.

              • davenoon

                I forgot this issue was in your wheelhouse. Thanks for the citations…

              • Tyto

                Didn’t Verano and Ubelaker’s Disease and Demography in the Americas also cover this pretty accessibly?

                • DrDick

                  That is also good.

            • howard

              yes, thank you both for the citations.

      • DrDick

        I think it is mostly because the Norse/Viking population was not dense enough to support the epidemic diseases and so had a lower incidence.

    • Halloween Jack

      What does everyone think the legend of Atlantis might have been based on?

      Uh… Crete?

      • c u n d gulag

        Sure, maybe – I was just throwing that out there.
        But remember, Atlantis was supposed to be a lost continent. Crete wasn’t that big, even before the eruption that totalled it as a major player.
        But I’m not sure, so your guess is as good as mine – maybe better.

        • UserGoogol

          Myth has a tendency to exaggerate.

          • Ken

            And it’s not even myth. Plato made it up as part of an extended essay (in dialogue form) on good government.

      • John F


    • jackd

      A quote I can’t be arsed to look up just now says “Christopher Columbus is famous for being the last person to discover America.”

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  • DrDick

    There is also the minor issue of the 500,000 Taino on Hispanola who had magically disappeared 50 years after his colonization.

  • Jim Lynch

    What biography of Columbus is the best? Admiral Of The Ocean Seas is one I’ve nearly bought a half-dozen times over the years.

    • davenoon

      I actually think Morison’s is quite good — it’s extremely well written — so long as you remember that he’s trying to make Columbus seem more modern than he was. What mystifies me is that Reynolds seems to think Morison was offering undiluted praise for Columbus. Reviewers at the time very commonly expressed shock at the details he revealed about the Spanish conquest. The NY Times, for example, noted that Morison’s book was a good reminder of the sort of atrocities that bad people — Nazis in particular — could inflict upon the innocent.

      • Davis X. Machina

        It’s been a long time since I read the book, but when Morison revisited the topic in The Southern Voyages he was still evidently fond of his favorite subject, but mostly qua sailor rather than administrator or gentleman-slash-hidalgo.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Fun fact. Morison was the last Harvard faculty member to routinely ride a horse to work…

        • Warren Terra

          You’d think someone from among the current crop would cultivate a reputation for eccentricity by reviving the practice.

          • Bill Murray

            does it count that Larry Summers was a horse’s ass while he was there?

  • wengler

    I never really understood why Americans would celebrate Spanish colonization. Even in parts of the US that were part of Spain, its not a terribly popular part of the history(with white anglos).

    Hell, maybe Glenn Reynolds is now in favor of the reconquista!

    • Davis X. Machina

      Hell, maybe Glenn Reynolds is now in favor of the reconquista!

      Depends on which reconquista. I’d guess he leans towards the one where gets to persecute the moriscos and marranos.

      • DrDick

        Possibly also the one where he gets to butcher and burn Pueblos.

    • LKS

      One factor is that Columbus was actually Italian by birth, and the US has a huge ethnic Italian-American population that, at least among the older generations, worship Columbus as an Italian hero. Whenever the subject of getting rid of or renaming Columbus Day comes up, the Italian-American lobby starts squealing.

      • witless chum

        Dramatized by the Sopranos, of all things.

  • Fighting Words

    I know a few people who defend Columbus Day. They are pretty much entirely Italian-American. I think they believe that Columbus Day is the celebration of Italian Americanness, and that attacking Columbus Day is akin to attacking Italian Americans.

    Also, they get pretty upset that the Irish get a parade and they don’t.

    • Warren Terra

      It’s not their fault that a century ago their community leaders they couldn’t think of a better hook upon which to hang their pride in their Italian heritage than this bungling butcher. But they really ought to come up with a better one. Hell, I‘d march in a Galileo day celebration, and my only Italian heritage is a few generations some ancestors spent there after being found insufficiently Christian to remain on the Iberian peninsula late in the fifteenth century. Right around the same time as the current bearer of the mantle of Italian-American community pride was earning his spurs, in fact.

      • LKS

        William Paca would be an excellent candidate.

        • ajay

          Hmm, maybe not. From the link: “Stiverson and Jacobsen report that spellings of the surname of William Paca’s immigrant ancestor Robert include Peaker, Pecker, Peaca, Peca, and Paka.[16] Neither “Pecci” nor “Pacci” (nor “Pacca”) are attested.”

      • ajay

        they really ought to come up with a better one. Hell, I‘d march in a Galileo day celebration

        Yes, I’m sure that someone whose main claim to fame is making the Catholic Church look like a bunch of idiots would be tremendously popular among Italian-Americans…
        What about Leonardo or someone?

        • Anonymous

          Leonardo? Too gay . . . :)

          The holiday is really Knights of Columbus Day.

          • rea

            this was me.

          • 101

            Let’s just switch it to Colombo Day.
            Who doesn’t like Peter Falk?

      • LeeEsq

        What about John Cabot (a.k.a. Giovanni Caboto) day. Not only did he actually land in North America but he was an Italian in employment of the English. Its good for the Italians and the Anglo-Saxons. Everybody is happy.

        • ajay

          And he did it all while only speaking to Lowells.

          • Davis X. Machina

            Hella good cheesemaker, too.

            • Blessed be him, then. And all manufacturers of dairy products.

      • H-Bob

        What about Marconi — he’s a notable American ! Although then we’d get the bitching by the Tesla backers!

  • David Kaib

    causing his genitals to howl with agony every time he had to take a leak.

    Maybe I’m being overly literal, but this phrase really put an awful picture (and sound) in my brain.

  • Matt McKeon

    “towering douchbag” I’m going to be using that phrase.

  • Western Dave

    As Dr. Dick points out, the Cod fisherman were pretty active in Newfoundland. They may have been fishing there prior to Columbus. There are some very suspicious ships logs in the royal archives that appear to be rewritten from before 1492 that some historians now believe that those folks beat Columbus but were under orders not to reveal where they were getting all that fish from. Some archeological evidence and documentary evidence supports this but not enough to be a slam dunk.

    • DrDick

      I think most people working on the topic are pretty well convinced that they were there before Columbus, though it is not completely nailed down.

      • Walt

        I’ve never been clear what they understood about what they’ve found. Just an island in the middle of the Atlantic?

        • Lurker

          You know, for the national economy of England and Netherlands (the two major fishing nations of the 15th century), it didn’t really matter what was inland.

          Open-sea fishing was the big business of North Western Europe in the 15th century. The Continent and the Mediterranean region had an unlimited demand for dried and salted fish. And for the fishermen, bountiful shoals and a shore to dry their fish were the strategic resources they were after.

          The capital resources of England were such that trading or colonization expeditions inland were out of question: there was a civil war ongoing, England had very little to export to the forests of Northern America (their main export was wool) and the fishing was a business that would yield much better and surer returns than any trading expedition. Trading wool for furs was not that good business, compared to fishing.

          Columbus made a voayage or two to Northern Europe. I’d say he heard some loose talk about a shore on the Western side of Atlantic (either legends of Vikings or stories of fishermen), and got a few too hasty ideas:
          1) there is a land on the other side of the Atlantic.
          2) this must be China or India.
          3) Everyone else has got the size of the globe wrong.

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  • Aaron Baker

    In fairness to Samual Eliot Morison, he has a great deal to say on Columbus’s awfulness (and may have been the first historian to use the word “genocide” to describe the treatment of the Caribbean Indians by Columbus and the Spaniards.

    Glen Reynolds may have read the book, but he appears to have seen only what he wanted to see.

    • davenoon

      Exactly. As I pointed out upthread, at least one reviewer in 1942 thought Columbus and his peers ought to remind everyone of the Nazis.

  • Aaron Baker

    “Samuel,” not “Samual.” A Lemieux-class spelling fail.

    • Davis X. Machina

      “Samuel,” not “Samual.” A Lemieux-class spelling fail.

      Not a nuclear-powered Yglesias-class spelling fail, though.

  • libarbarian

    “What does everyone think the legend of Atlantis might have been based on?”

    There is NO “myth of Atlantis”. Plato is the 1 and ONLY source of the story.

    Aristotle said “The man who invested Atlantis is also the man who destroyed it”. ie. Plato.

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