Next to July 4th Columbus day was the most sacred American Holiday in my mid-century childhood. After all, Christopher Columbus embodied the very spirit of a founding father.
Or so the story went.
Skillfully weaving fairy tales with the deftness of the Brothers Grimm, Uncle Sam spun a yarn or two himself.
Like all my uncles, Uncle Sam was a great storyteller.
Though it was my great Uncle Max, his big water eyes clouded by cataracts who first introduced me to Mother Goose and my avuncular Uncle Sol with his stinky cigar who read me Snow White, it was the fantastic tales told by Uncle Sam that stayed with me the most.
Tales of Make Believe
None was more fanciful than the story of Christopher Columbus, the great American hero, who discovered the New World and befriended the native Indian.
In the American gallery of heroes none was more honored than Columbus. Washington Irving may have started the Columbus canonization in his 1828 biography, but our American history school books kept fanning the flame long after Irving’s heroic portrait became the popular standard.
In a 1955 children’s school book called Cavalcade of Americans, that chronicled “the deeds and achievements of the men and women who made our country the great power of the free world” featured alongside George Washington, Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln, was red, white and blue all-American Chris Columbus Americas first superstar.
Columbus had become in the minds of most Americans the first real “founding father.” Any problems or controversies ( genocide, rape and slavery to name just a few ) were skillfully swept aside.
We grew up believing America was the embodiment of freedom, democracy and progress. We were, our schoolbooks assured us a tolerant people full of common sense, industrious, generous and above all peace-loving.
Just like Christopher Columbus.
In school books a benevolent Columbus never tires of extolling the docile and peaceful nature of the timid people who had welcomed him with such awe and affection to their island paradise.
Our Columbus represented the very symbol of American success… embraced as a rugged individualist who had opened the western hemisphere to the progress of American initiative.
This discover of the new world embodied all the triumphant features of an ever-growing expansionist America.
It is a story to make Disney proud, filled with singing birds, flowing waters, green leaves and multicolored blossoms, a treasure-house of precious minerals, wild animals and friendly, adoring savages.
The new world was ripe for the pickins’ just waiting to be discovered…or plundered.
It was a thrilling beginning…..as we learn in New Ways in the New World.
People of Two Worlds Meet
“The Story of America is really the story of two worlds” we learn in a school book aptly named New Ways in the New World a vintage children school book from 1960.
“On this side of the Atlantic were the American continents the home of the scattered Indian groups.”
“Across the ocean lay Europe, the homeland of Spaniards Portuguese Englishmen Frenchmen Germans Dutch and many others. For a long time the oceans kept the 2 people’s of these 2 worlds apart.”
These ‘scattered Indians’ are never given a name, apparently just a bunch of rootless folk. We never learn that islands were in fact inhabited by friendly peaceful people the Lucayans Tainos and Arawaks.
“Then the 2 worlds met. The rich vast lands of the Americas were discovered and explored by the Europeans.”
“In the Americas there was unused land- so much that no one knew how much there was. There were rich resources of minerals and forests. There were clear swift streams and deep black oil.”
“America too was a place where freedom could be won- where men could work and worship as they chose.”
In fact, Columbus and his men freely seized the land, enslaving the natives to work in his brutal gold mines.
“The New World was a new opportunity for millions. How they used that opportunity is Americas great story.”
How they used that opportunity to exploit is another great story.
The school book version of Columbus’s voyage we learned about, usually veered off the course of true factual history into the deep-sea of myths. The truths have been buried deep in the bottom of a murky sea and now like a Pandora’s box the ugly truths are out.
While Columbus was busy discovering America, The Arawak Indians discovered a very different Columbus than the one we were taught.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.