Think You Know The Real Christopher Columbus?

Columbus Day is a national holiday, celebrated with parades and songs. While most Americans know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, many of the facts surrounding the voyage remain misunderstood. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with historian William Fowler to set the record straight on some of the popular myths surrounding Christopher Columbus and his voyage.

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TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we go to the West African country of Liberia as the country prepares to head to the polls. Many are watching to see whether the current president and modern Africa's first female head of state will stay in power. That's in just a few moments.

But first, today is Columbus Day, a day that schoolchildren across America celebrate the arrival of the man who was credited with discovering our country. But since 1492, we've learned a lot about what really happened. And today, we wanted to do a little myth busting about Christopher Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS IS ITS NAME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) In 1492 Columbus took his cruise and he bravely sailed away.

COX: New York and Chicago will mark this day with parades and celebrations of Christopher Columbus' voyage and his Italian heritage, and some will protest the day calling for a reconsideration of the impact that that voyage had on Native American communities. So, why the conflicting stories?

Well, we wanted to take this opportunity to brush up on some of the facts about Christopher Columbus that we may never have learned or have forgotten from school. With us now to set some Columbus Day myths straight, we have William Fowler, a distinguished professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston. Bill Fowler, welcome to the show.

WILLIAM FOWLER: Well, thank you, Tony. It's a pleasure to be here.

COX: Let's jump right into it. I want to get into some of the myths. Here is the first one.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "CHRISTOPHER ROCKIN' BIOGRAPHY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One day, a mapmaker named Christopher Columbus had an idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) Do you know what? I think the world isn't flat at all. I think it's round like a ball.

COX: So, Bill, he didn't really think the Earth was flat, right?

FOWLER: No. In fact, Tony, it's a bit of mythology. Columbus' contemporaries, virtually every educated European, understood that the world was round. No one thought the world was flat. The thing that Columbus proposed to do, though, was to actually sail around the world. And that, the experts thought, was impossible. And actually, the experts were right and Columbus was wrong.

COX: So, he was, in a sense, trying to find this new route to Asia, is that correct? And he sort of got off the task?

FOWLER: That's right. Columbus thought that if he sailed down to the (unintelligible) Islands and then headed directly west. And in about 2,400 miles, as he figured it, he would be in Japan. Well, of course, that's not quite accurate.

COX: No, it's not.

FOWLER: It's more like 11,000 miles and in between you have something called North America and the Pacific Ocean. Of course, he didn't know either about North America or the Pacific. So, Columbus grossly underestimated the size of the Earth. And the experts, when he went to visit in England and France, the experts in those countries told Columbus that your calculations are wrong, and in fact the experts were right.

COX: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

And we're talking about Columbus Day. We are busting some Columbus Day myths this year with history professor William Fowler of Northeastern University. And by the way, those clips that you heard earlier, if you're interested in hearing more on them, the first ones from Mel-O-Toons' "Christopher Columbus Is Its Name." The other one by Ben Stifle called, Christopher Columbus Rocking Biography. Now, to those myths, here's another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) Columbus set out on his trip to the Indies on perhaps the three most famous sailing ships in all the world today, the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.

COX: God, that takes us back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: What kid in American school doesn't know the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria? But I understand those weren't necessarily the real names of those ships?

FOWLER: Oh, get ready, Tony. Santa Maria that is the correct name, but sailors in Columbus' time, like sailors today, often nickname their ships. So, they didn't call the Santa Maria the Santa Maria. She was built in the province of Galicia. And so, her nickname was La Gallega. Now, as far as the Nina goes, that wasn't the name. That was the nickname for the vessel. The real name of the Nina was Santa Clara.

She was nicknamed Nina because her owner was a man named Juan Nino. Now, as far as the Pinta goes, well, we really don't know. Clearly, Pinta was her nickname, but what was her real name, that's uncertain.

COX: I suppose, Bill Fowler, that the biggest myth of all is the one we should address next. The biggest disputed one that Columbus, quote, unquote, "discovered America." Now, it was more than 500 years ago, but what do we know now about where he actually landed and how he happened to pawn what is now the U.S.?

FOWLER: Well, Tony, first, I'm always uncomfortable we use the word discovered with Columbus. The people in the New World, the Native Americans, didn't think they were being discovered. And so, he encountered these cultures. He sailed across the Pacific, across the Atlantic, very fortunate by the way. He sailed at a time when hurricanes were common, but he didn't encounter a hurricane. And he came up into what we know today as the Bahama Islands.

It's likely - and again there's some uncertainty. There's no uncertainty that it's the Bahama Islands. Some uncertainty as to precisely which one of those islands, most likely Watling's Island or San Salvador. And he did indeed, this part of the story is quite true. He did indeed land on October the 12th.

I always remember the famous words of a former prime minister of the Bahamas when discussing which one of the Bahama Islands might have been Columbus' landfall. and his response was that he really didn't care which island is it was as long as it was still in the Bahamas.

COX: And you know, the Getty Museum in Southern California had a recent exhibit about Cuba and there is a photograph in that exhibit that claims or maintains that this is the spot where Columbus landed in Cuba.

FOWLER: Well, Columbus did land in Cuba, Tony. One of the things that often is not recognized is that Columbus actually made four voyages to the New World. And so, he did but it was not his first landfall. He did set foot in Cuba. That's quite true. He also set foot in the Island of Hispaniola. First landfall was quite clearly the Watling's Island in the Bahamas.

COX: Now, Professor Fowler, not everyone gets a day named after them. Martin Luther King comes to mind, George Washington, Abe Lincoln had days named after them at one point, which have since been combined into what we now know as President's Day.

But there are controversies about some of these holidays, particularly around Martin Luther King and now to a certain extent we're talking about it today. In fact, Christopher Columbus, we have celebrated Columbus Day forever, you know. One hundred years, for sure, and then there was a break and then another 100 years before that with only some modern opposition to the holiday. Why do we, as Americans, hold the story of Columbus in such high regard still?

FOWLER: Well, in looking at history, Tony, people love certainty and they love heroes. And so, here we have the combination. We have a certain date, October 12, 1492 and we have a heroic figure, Columbus. So, you combine those two and it sort of just energizes people. It's a very romantic concept. And then, of course, it is true that Columbus changed the world. That what Columbus did was to make a greater change in the world than any man had done since the days of Julius Caesar. That is what opened the door. So, Columbus did in fact play that extraordinary key moment, key time, a great heroic mission.

COX: One of the other things that he is given credit for, which I'm assuming is correct and you being the history professor can set the record straight for us, is that he did open new trade routes from Europe heading toward Asia, although he never actually got there, I think. And that he also was responsible for the trading of or the introduction of certain food stuffs and certain spices from one continent to another.

FOWLER: Yes, that's absolutely true. This is sort of what historians sometimes refer to as the Columbian Exchange, and that is that products clearly travel from Europe and from Africa to the New World, and New World products traveled back to Africa and to Europe, as well.

So this is the beginning of this great exchange, much of it beneficial, some of not so beneficial, particularly when we talk about diseases. Of course, the European diseases that arrived in the New World just wreaked tremendous damage to the native peoples. So, much went back and forth now across the Atlantic.

COX: Professor Fowler, one of the things that has happened in modern time, as we mentioned in the introduction to this story, is that people are starting to push back on this myth of Christopher Columbus. When did the controversy begin and when did people begin to, you know, question, really, whether or not Columbus did what the history books told us he did?

FOWLER: Well, Tony, for hundreds of years following Columbus' voyages, the story of Columbus is one of celebration, of discovery and of conquest. And I think in recent times, certainly in the 20th century and certainly today in the 21st century, thankfully, we've become much more sensitive about indigenous cultures and the harm, the wreckage that the European arrival here in the New World visited upon those people.

And so, I think, as we reflect on that and the cost to native peoples here in this world, the damage that was done, I think that sort of mellows the way we might be thinking about Columbus, not suggesting we blame him individually. I don't think that's correct. He was a man of his times. But there was great evil that was done when the Europeans came. Today, perhaps, we think of discovery. We might also think of the word, invasion, and the result of that. Much good has happened, clearly, but much evil happened, as well.

COX: Well, you know, it's been a long time, Bill Fowler, since you or I was in elementary school reading about Christopher Columbus in our textbooks. What do they say today? Do you know?

FOWLER: I think that the textbooks, at least the ones that I have used and you see, are ones that are much more sensitive and do indeed talk about the harm done to indigenous peoples, and try to put the Columbian experience into a notion of cultural encounter, what happens when two alien cultures encounter one another. That's something from which we can learn a great deal. What does, in fact, happen when alien - different cultures encounter one another, that's a lesson for our own times.

COX: I suppose, to end, we should say that, eventually, maybe the poem - in 1492, Columbus sailed the blue - is going to have to be revised a little bit.

FOWLER: Oh, I have no hope that it will make wide public acceptance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: I believe you're absolutely right.

FOWLER: I think you and I could probably have this conversation again next year.

COX: William Fowler is distinguished professor of history at Northeastern University. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Professor Fowler, thank you very much for the information and the lesson.

FOWLER: Thank you, Tony, and happy Columbus Day.

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