"Columbus fearlessly sailed on"

Getting ready to challenge the Social Studies GED test means becoming familiar with the bare bones of history from, say, 1500 to the present.

It also means unlearning much of the history wacky television shows and children's authors filled us with in our tender years.

In searching Google for colourful Columbus graphics, I came across a whole slew of sites peddling bad history. Here's just one, unremarkable example. According to the site's authors, the children's book Columbus, by Ingri D'Aulaire, tells "the adventurous story of a man in quest of the treasures of the East."
Not knowing what to expect on every turn, Columbus fearlessly sailed on across the Atlantic at a time when "civilized" people believed the world was flat. He and his brave team of sailors soon discovered many islands, people, and treasure, and opened up a strange new world. The beautiful illustrations enhance this fascinating tale of one of the world's most famous explorers. Recommended for ages 4 to 11.

Isn't that swell? Presumably, after children reach the age of 12 they can be told the truth about Columbus.

Here's another version:
Christopher Columbus worked for the king of Spain, who sent him on a journey. I think he was trying to go to China. So he wanted to go @ the world. He thought it was the best way... but then he butted into a whack of land he knew nothing about. So he went back, told the king, and the king claimed it.

That's from an email I got from a learner over Christmas. It was part of my efforts to stay connected through the lay-off period. "Tell me about Columbus," I wrote, and that was her response - still pretty cheerful, but a much more accurate and useful precis.

"Tell me about Columbus" or "... Champlain" or "... World War Two" is a commonplace in our classes. At the end of the day, 10 minutes left, nothing to do, we all put up our feet, and somebody tries telling a story.

I'm a big believer in learning by doing. Anyone can listen to history. It's in the retelling, the map-pointing, the self-correcting and, sometimes, the writing that learning really takes place. It's not a test, I always tell them. If you're not sure, ask. But tell me something, anything about...

And they do.

And we learn.

We learn, sensibly, that nobody in Columbus' neighbourhood, "civilized" or not, believed the world was flat. And, contrary to the story told on this beautiful 1893 issue U.S. postage stamp, the Queen of Spain did not hock her jewelry.

Some of Columbus' costs were covered by a loan from a banking house located in Seville. Most were covered directly by the royal treasury, or indirectly by agents who owed money to the Spanish government. The ship-building city of Palos, for example, paid off part of its debt to the King by providing two of Columbus' three ships.

These ships were crazy small, by the way: about as long as a a tennis court, and not as wide as a city street. It took Columbus six weeks to cross the Atlantic. (He spent four months, after leaving Spain, hanging about the Canary Islands just off the coast of Africa). He struck land in the modern-day Bahamas, at the island of San Salvador in December 1492.

Christopher Columbus next dropped anchor off the north coast of modern-day Haiti, and left 39 men behind on a spot he called La Navidad ("the Naivety", i.e., "Christmas") while he returned to Spain. They were dead - from violence or stupidity - by the time he returned, two months later, with 17 ships and about 1200 men.

Columbus founded a second settlement farther east, in the modern-day Dominican Republic. (Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two ends of the same island.) That second settlement was called La Isabela (a rough fort built in 1493) and then Nueva Isabela (the town created over the next 3 years). It is generally considered the first permanent European settlement in the Americas. Even so, it was the next year (1502), on journey number four, that Columbus encountered a large canoe off the coast of what is now Honduras. The Spanish had finally arrived at mainland America.

Almost immediately, the local population around Nueva Isabela became enslaved and/or were murdered for gold. Wherever the Spanish went, the native peoples died quickly of various European diseases, including Catholicism and Spanish civil law. In fact, so many died that, by 1501, the Spanish decided they needed to import African slaves to work their cotton fields and newly dug gold mines.

(At this point in the narrative we begin to understand why some black people are cool toward Columbus Day celebrations. As for Native Americans, well....)

Anyway... Four years later, Columbus was dead. He'd gone through a period in jail - as the Spanish Crown tried different ways of getting out of all the contracts they'd made with him - but he was still quite influential and wealthy (not least because of the American gold his men had seized.) Oddly, at his death he still "knew nothing about" that "whack of land" he'd run into. He was convinced that he had reached the east coast of Asia - apparently that whole "New World" thing eluded him. He'd also gotten religion - or gone mad - and was hearing lots of voices.

By then, of course, the Western Sea was becoming lousy with European explorers setting out to discover New Worlds. Already, by 1497 (5 years after Columbus' first trip), Giovanni Caboto (a.k.a. John Cabot) was sailing for England's King Henry VII. He boldly claimed North America for the English King, which would lead to no end of trouble with the French who began to settle there, guided by Champlain, about 100 years later.

Anyway, like I said, GED prep includes learning and unlearning the bone structure of Canadian history. You gotta start somewhere. I always start with the story of poor, bloodstained old Christopher - murder, thief, fool. A tragic-comic sailor right out of a Herman cartoon or a Tom Waits song

sing Tom...

all night long on the broken glass
living in a medicine chest
mediteromainian hotel back
sprawled across a roll top desk
monkey rode the blade on an overhead fan
they paint the donkey blue if you pay
I got a telephone call from Istanbul
my baby's coming home today.

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