Columbus Day No More

The Oatmeal has a great thing up about Columbus Day. Go read it, I’ll wait.

This was rather relevant to me today because I’ve been on planes a lot, and was reading A Voyage Long and Strange by Horwitz, which is about the stuff that happened in America between 1492 and the Pilgrims.

Spoiler: There’s a lot of it.

Every time I read anything about American history, I want to go back to high school and punch my teachers in the head. (Although they are largely not at fault, given that they have tests to work to. But they could have at least said something to the effect of “By the way, this ranges between misleading and blatantly untrue and we are leaving out whole centuries.”)

Mostly this era in question involves the Spanish doing impressively horrible things. And we did indeed get a few minutes on Cortez and Why He Was Bad, which passes for enlightenment in the public education system, but the things they glossed over…

Dear god, that they reduced De Soto’s horrifying, bizarre, doomed trek all over hell to “Discovered the Mississippi.” Which is kind of like saying that Genghis Khan’s great feat was popularizing the yurt. And I would have been fascinated and horrified by De Soto the way that I was fascinated or horrified by very little in my American History class. Maybe if that sort of thing were taught, we would have learned something useful about How Being Imperialist Dicks Means Lots Of People Die Horribly, instead of spending a week trying to memorize the first three stanzas of “Paul Revere’s Ride.”*

And the Salem witch trials were interesting and cautionary and all, but did we need to rehash them three times over the course of my education, at a week apiece? Leaving aside that there were other American witch trials, one of them involving a relative of mine, we spent more time on Salem than on smallpox. I do not question that mass hysteria is bad, but seriously, smallpox.


Well, anyway. Columbus. Most of what I knew about Columbus was from a series of books called “Value Tales” which I had as a little kid, which gave all these historical figures an imaginary friend and told a bowdlerized version of their life. Columbus’s was called “The Value of Curiosity.” (I think his imaginary friend was a talking seagull. Can’t recall.)

They kinda glossed over the bit where he started dragging natives back to Spain as slaves, and all the people he killed looking for gold. Also the bit about how everybody knew the earth was round already. Also that he got his math from the Bible.  Also the bit where he went to his grave thinking he’d found India. Definitely the bit with the full boatload of atrocities, rape, murder, dismemberment and genocide.

Lots about the Sargasso Sea and how everybody was scared of sea monsters and sailing off the edge of the earth, though. Plus, y’know, talking seagull!

This was still arguably more than I got out of school. Make of that what you will.

Bartolome de las Casas, incidentally, got two lines in my history books. (One more than De Soto!) He was a priest and he advocated better treatment of the natives, but ha ha, he initially advocated for the African slave trade, so what a jerk, right? (They conveniently left out the bits where he recanted that and began advocating against slavery of any kind. Presumably they needed more room to talk about the Salem witch trials.)

As your products of European Imperialism go, not remotely perfect, but a helluva lot better than most of the other historical figures at the time.  If you were looking for someone European to celebrate from that era of American history, I doubt you’ll find anyone better. Certainly better than Columbus. But there are people currently serving time for armed robbery who are better than Columbus.

I don’t know. About all I know is that I actually looked up the Value Tales books for the first time in years, and man, those things were kinda messed up. Giving Marie Curie a talking X-ray for her imaginary friend seems…um…a little awkward, given how she died? And Johnny Appleseed should have been “The Value Of Making Hooch.” And why was Louis Pasteur, who was French, injecting people with tiny British soldiers to kill rabies?

Let’s not even start in on the one about Cochise. Or Sacajawea. Christ. (I think she had a talking raccoon or something. Cochise might have had a vulture. Maybe it was supposed to be an eagle. The artist was not great with birds.)

I must have read those books a dozen times apiece. Sigh. Of such small things are our later disillusions made…


*One if by land, two if by sea,
Three if by TARDIS, four if you’ve run out of lanterns and will send a note.

12 thoughts on “Columbus Day No More

  1. dester'edra says:

    Time like this, i’m really glad i went to a little Quaker school whose approach to must subjects could be pretty unorthodox. In middle school i remember a very popular class called “wayback machine” where we all had to write three stories about going back in time and visiting a different time and culture, and of those, they had to be distributed across two spectra: time period (pre-1066, 1066-1800, 1800-present), and geographic area (asia, south america and africa, north america and europe). We did the research ourselves with some guidance and were scored equally based on quality of story and quality of historical information.
    I’m still finding holes in my historical understanding all the time–holy frackin’ maroney, how did i miss the history of muslim-occupied spain?–but compared to what it could’ve been…

  2. Liddle-Oldman says:

    What my teachers never mentioned, that later stopped me in my tracks — and frankly still does — is that after de Soto’s trek ninety percent of the people in North and Central America died of imported diseases. That’s apocalyptic on a scale I can’t (or don’t want to) imagine. It’s also, apparently, why the Europeans found it relatively easy to move in — there weren’t that many people to oppose them any more. (Remember, the Vikings, dedicated colonists, were actually forced back off the continent a few hundr3ed years before that.)

    (No one every mentions why there’s a statue of Mary Dyer in front of the Mass. State House either — she’s one of the Quakers Boston hung on the Common. Just as good as a witch hunt…)

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    What gets me is the short shrift that is given to military history. OK; I understand that the people who run most schools these days dislike the military, and find the underground railroad much more interesting than the battle of Gettysburg. That doesn’t change that the American Civil War had a higher death toll of Americans than both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam COMBINED, and prefigured the slaughter of WWI in almost every respect.

    I’m told that school accounts of WWI concentrate on the politics in the run up and the politics of the treaty afterwards. This is absurd, since if you don’t ‘get’ how bad the actual fighting was, the history of the years between the world wars makes no sense whatsoever. If you don’t understand HOW WWI was fought, you have no idea WHY WWII was fought.

  4. RhianimatorLGP says:

    I was fortunate to have the best history teacher in my high school. People fought over getting into his class. Sure, he’d teach the bookstuff for the test standards, but then he’d add in the juicy bits that highschoolers love to hear, like all the fun Jefferson and Franklin were having in France, but Jefferson got caught at it and thrown out, where Franklin was crafty and got away with it.

    Also why there are buttons on the cuffs of suits because in the American Civil War. – They were getting low on officers and had to take men with no upbringing who tended to wipe their noses on their sleeves. So they put a whole bunch of buttons on the sleeves of the officer’s uniforms to put a stop to that. Eventually the uniforms mutated into modern suits and the two or three buttons on the cuffs are vestigial.

  5. Tymme says:

    Oh, I had that Louis Pasteur book, too!

    It’s a shame, but the cynic in me says the only difference learning any of this would make is the name you’d hear on every commercial for the week prior as the retail market whores it off as yet another promotional event.

  6. Tom West says:

    I grew up in the UK, and my biggest complaint about my history education is the complete lack of anything detailed after World War 1 (except the Holocaust), and nothing after World War 2. I had no idea how we got got from 1945 to the present day. Most of it I picked up from my parents (power cuts in the 70s! Privatisation in the 80s! The fact that stuff got nationalised in the 40s/50s!). I honestly know more about Tudor England than about 1960s England.

    I still have big gaps in my timeline of knowledge…. the bits between the Romans leaving England and the Normans arriving, the bits between the Normans arriving and the War of the Roses, from the Rrestoration (Charles II) to the Vicorians, and about half the decades in the 20th century. Plus how Wales got acquired, and anything on Scotland pre-1600, all the colonisation stuff… and that’s my own country!

  7. Ellis says:

    Man, you guys have no idea. In Canada we don’t get Canadian history, we get everyone else’s history and not a darn thing about what happened here. I was 30 some years old before I found out during world war two a german sub sailed UP THE ST LAWRENCE RIVER AND IT SUNK A FERRY FULL OF PASSENGERS!!! You would think this would have some relevance to Canadian students, but nope, not a wisp about that. All the Canadian history I learned was after I left University and of my own devising. But you think we we’re ignorant, ask today’s kids a question about geography. Any question. Prepare for a blank stare.

  8. dester'edra says:

    To others, noticing gaps in their historical knowledge: the unfortunate truth, i believe, is that it simply isn’t possible to teach every piece of history with the multifaceted depth it deserves, especially if you add in the need for us to take a multicultural view of history. So there are just gonna be some gaps in our knowledge.

    I would suggest that it’s more important that we:
    A. Teach our kids to appreciate how rich and exciting our history can be (including lots different cultures, racial backgrounds, genders, etc) as well as why our history is important,
    B. Teach our kids how to research history, which includes examining sources, looking for possible bias, comparing different perspectives, and drawing conclusions based on what they learn, and
    C. Make sure that the information we share with our kids is *accurate* and *unbiased* to the best of our knowledge.

    Unfortunately, in a lot of schools, we’re doing well if we accomplish the last, and the second is very rare indeed.

    *sighs* Yeah…Can you tell i have a bit of a problem with the US educational system?

  9. Loon says:

    I just found out that on the 12th of October, in Venezuela, they celebrate the day of indigenous resistance (Día de la Resistencia Indígena). It’s so much better…

  10. Tom Vinson says:

    Historical novel rather than actual history, but I would recommend R. A. Laffertly’s _Okla Hannali_ for an account of Indian Territory during the US Civil War.
    Having read this, it was something of a shock to me to see how abysmal my kids’ Oklahoma history classes were. Their textbook (the same one my wife had 30 years earlier) managed to make the whole thing look boring.

  11. Hawk says:

    I am only just now reading here again after a very hectic month (I help run a gaming server, and we spent every weekend for the last three feverishly repairing stuff. Ick.) …

    I agree that the explorers were horrible. Honestly the Europeans were about a hundred times as terrible as the Vikings *or* the Huns in terms of sheer scale of atrocities and horrible acts against the indigenous groups.

    History classes just don’t talk about any of it, at least not when I was in school. Mesopotamia was a lovely land full of scribes and potters: no mention of human sacrifice or slavery or war at all.

    It’s very bloodless, all of it.

    I’m rather glad that we do have access to more in-depth history, but I question the decisions made as to how we approach history. I wonder if we’re still following a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality…

    Side note: Dester’edra, I **love** your handle. 😀

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