Christopher Columbus In America

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: There's something to be said for popular heroes, no matter how misplaced they may be.

The Long Version: The American fascination with the Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian, has never quite made sense to me. Doing a Google search on the word "Columbus" tells me that there are cities named after him in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Nebraska, without even going past the second page of results. While Canadians do have a few things named after that particular explorer, it doesn't come close to the mythical hero-figure of American culture.

(And rumour has it that the name 'British Columbia' was chosen by Queen Victoria because 'New Caledonia' was already taken. The 'Columbia' part is after the Columbia river, which was named by Robert Gray after his boat. Incidentally, Grey was an American.)

As a Canadian, it astounds me how much energy and emotion Americans invest in this particular individual. It ranges from the background of place names and public holidays all the way out to the extreme fringe of historical revisionist nationalism. "Christopher Columbus is a carrier of Western Civilization and the very values attacked by terrorists on September 11," says the Ayn Rand Institute, which is somewhat surreally quoted on a Bahamian tourism and investment website. "Did Columbus 'discover' America? Yes--in every important respect."

There are plenty of sources that will argue that Columbus did not 'discover' America, and an abundance of others to insist that he did. The crucial difference between these views is the question of whether or not the people who were already here - sometimes still archaically called 'Indians' in Christopher Columbus's honour - matter or not. It just boggles my mind that people never notice that the fundamental premise is flawed. Apparently geography isn't an important part of discovering something.

Here are some maps: Voyage #1, Voyage #2, Voyage #3, Voyage #4. He never came within sight of Florida, Puerto Ricans don't get to choose between Obama and McCain, and if Guantanamo Bay was part of America then they wouldn't be putting their detainees-of-war there.

But a popular myth is a good myth. Searching an exact match of "columbus discovered _____" returns 132,000 results for "america," and only 710 for "cuba" or 460 for "hispaniola", even though he actually went to the last two places. 

And Americans get a day off work in his honour, which is more than us Canadians have managed. Good for them.


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