3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

Summary: Columbus was an interesting dude, but what you think you know might be completely untrue. And that whole world-was-flat thing? Read on.

TOPICS: Browser

Every second Monday in October, we celebrate Columbus Day in honor of the day Columbus "discovered" America. Without a doubt, it was a great accomplishment for 15th century Europeans and everyone likes a good holiday.

But is what we teach kids about Columbus the truth? Was the man we celebrate worthy of celebration? Columbus was an interesting dude, but what you think you know might be completely untrue. And that whole world-was-flat thing? Read on.

1. His name wasn't Christopher Columbus

Let's start with a simple item: his name. Columbus' might not have had an Italian name. Instead, he might have had a Genoese name.

This actually becomes an interesting discussion of the self-referential nature of the Web. If you do a search on Columbus' name, you'll find that his father's name was apparently Corombo. But if you keep digging, you'll find that Wikipedia, referencing "Rime diverse, Pavia," written in 1595, states that Columbus' name was actually Christoffa Corombo.

The question is: was it? Interestingly enough, a Web search on "Christoffa Corumbo" shows a lot of references, including mainstream media reports, using that name. But there's not a single scholarly reference to Christoffa anywhere (well, unless you consider the game Assassin's Creed II to be scholarly).

He's also been refered to as Christoff Columb, and a variety of other variations. The real truth is we don't know his real name, but it was almost undoubtedly not Christopher Columbus.

2. Columbus wasn't a great leader, he was a brutal one.

You may not know it, but Christopher Columbus (or whatever his name was), spent six weeks in jail. Eight years after landing in the New World, Columbus and his brothers were thrown into jail by Ferdinand and Isabella.

According to Consuelo Varela, a historian at Spain's Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas and reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Columbus was a tyrant during his time as governor of Hispaniola.

He was apparently a big fan of using torture and slavery to keep his constituents in line (insert poor-taste joke about Congress here). Apparently, the level of brutality was so great that the rulers of Spain had enough, slapped him in chains, and threw him in jail.

Given that Ferdinand and Isabella were the warm, gentle folks who started up the Spanish Inquisition, you'd have to think that Columbus had to be pretty nasty to even begin to show up on their radar.

3. He didn't think the world was flat.

We've all been taught that 15th century sailors thought the world was flat. One of Columbus' biggest contributions to modern thought was the conclusion, based on his adventures, that the world was, in fact, a giant ball.

According to Paul Boller who wrote Not So!:Popular Myths about America from Columbus to Clinton, most educated people of Columbus' day thought the world was spherical.

They weren't sure about the size, Boller says, but the roundness was accepted and had been for centuries.

Apparently, it wasn't until Washington Irving wrote his book about Columbus in 1828 that we all started believing that they all believed the world was flat.

What's true?

Time fogs our understanding of what really happened. Archeologists and academics are hard at work trying to truly understand who Columbus was and what he really accomplished.

In the meantime, as you celebrate Columbus Day, remember that not all is as you've been taught, not all is as it seems, and not everything those in positions of power, authority, or influence tell you is true.

Keep that in mind when you vote next month.

Happy Columbus Day, and I'll grill a burger for ya!

Topic: Browser


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Paying tribute to Christopher Columbus

    is the equivalent of paying tribute to Adolf Hitler. It is too bad that most schools only teach the castrated version of history on Christopher Columbus.<br><br>And he cannot even be attributed with discovering the New World, as Scandinavians have been known to have been as far inland as modern day Minnesota, hundreds of years before Columbus was even a twinkle in his Fathers eye.<br><br>Education history books should regard him as genocidal maniac who is single handedly responsible for killing millions of Native Americans. Turns out Native Americans didn't make good slaves...<br><br>Edit:<br>Howard Zinn covers Columbus and his genocide pretty well, citing journals of a priest that bears witness to Columbus' genocide, in a book called "A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present"<br><br><a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=OpRRM6wnZxkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=howard+zinn&source=bl&ots=NEH68Lz6LE&sig=eLU0dYPZtvR7nrJ_4W-xGoWAdJA&hl=en&ei=qS2zTOv_N4GxnAeAyanuBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://books.google.com/books?id=OpRRM6wnZxkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=howard+zinn&source=bl&ots=NEH68Lz6LE&sig=eLU0dYPZtvR7nrJ_4W-xGoWAdJA&hl=en&ei=qS2zTOv_N4GxnAeAyanuBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false</a>
    • Actually his real name was Cristobal Colon

      Italians refer to him as Christophorus Columbus because some state he was born in Genova. This is where Colombia got its name. And the English version of the name.<br><br>But Spanish historical records show him as Cristobal Colon, died in: Valladolid, Spain, May 20th, 1506.<br><br>He was not the first to discover America, as the Chinese had done so many years before even Scandinavian adventures.
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus


        That's what Menzes claims in his book. But it was debunked long ago. The Chinese never discovered America, they had no clue we were here. The Phoenicians did, but they forgot! Their 'discovery' had no lasting import on history.

        But this is what makes Columbus's discovery so much more interesting than all his predecessors. After he discovered America, a New World really did open up.
      • Washed up fishing boats were not on voyages of discovery.

        @Uralbas <br><br>Indian stories of people from the sea are in all likelihood based on Japanese fishing boats that got caught in the Japanese current, like all those glass floats.
        Lester Young
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        @Lester Young Not necessarily. First Nation's stories have an uncanny way of proving to be true whenever "scientific" methods can be use. Most stories can't be proven or disproven - there is a lack of evidence either way. However, when scientific evidence has survived it tends to support First Nation stories. (Much like the myth of Troy, that was discovered when the archeologist decided to believe the myths and dug a hole where Troy was "mythically" located.)

        So, don't write off their stories to quickly.

        Some of the early stories recorded by the first Europeans to meet the West Coast First Nations talk about how surprised the FNs were by the "whiteness" of the European's skin, and not that they were arriving in large boats, had strange languages, and advanced technologies (compared to the FNs).

        It's also safe to assume that if Scandinavians had managed to island hop from Orkneys to Iceland to Greenland to Newfoundland, Baffin Island, etc a thousand or more years ago, then the culture that invented Junks (a wonderful complex and advanced sailing machine that originally developed while Rome was still building her empire) would have followed their coast up to the Aleutians and back down the west coast of North America.

        Just saying, you know....
      • Having seen the actual map and....

        @mejohnsn the related dated records, the facts are there, Chinese knew something as early as 1421, over 70 years before Colon actually reached America.

        Icelandics reached Iceland and Greenland around 995 AD by Leif Eiriksson, reaching Markland (Labrador) and Vinland, now thought to be Nova Scotia. An old church in Reykjavik, Iceland has an inscription that states:

        "Leif Eiriksson Son of Iceland Discoverer of Vinland."

        Viking accomplishment are vast, but to state they discovered America is a bit far fetched.

        Brendan from Ireland is accounted for having visited Newfoundland as early as 560~ AD

        But beyond that what is really striking is David's Star. Which is seen in many Mayan drawings, the Para?ba Stone, the Bat Creek Stone, Yuchi Tribe agricultural festivals match holidays observed by the Jewish Community indicate that Mediterranean ancestors reached America, long before the Roman Empire came to life, before Viking Sagas, Chinese treks of the 1300-1400's or Colombus.

        What can be said, is that Col?n paved the way for European expansion into all America. And many commemorate this for this fact.
      • Not just the USA, we all have our CCs

        In considering this celebration and the story of the person in a historical context there will always be the institutionalised version because the politics of the day will always be looking to create strong National identities, no matter how much the truth needs to be adulterated. Here in Australia we have quietly buried our own history of the real Captain Cook and made him out to be some type of saint ? he wasn?t. Much of the traumas the native Australians suffered have been suppressed to make the English invasion here look ok. All the usual ?bringing God to the savages and heathens?, etc. But it was all about taking the land and resources because our brutal narrow minded English ancestors wanted it and the natives were not "developing the resources" which is another way of saying irresponsibly raping the land and destroying the wildlife and everything that got in their way. So they rewrote the history books, taught us mainly about English history and glossed over the local history completely. The truth was it was politically convenient to do so. The same has happened all over the world. Even today we have trouble getting governments to allow the real history to be taught, especially under the previous Prime Minister Howard, a real red neck and friend of Bush. They claim such history is not true and is just the creation of left wing teachers who they want sacked. What we hear about USA education and its versions of history sounds just as bad and maybe far worse. WWII is a case in point and Americans believe all sorts of myths about their role then and expect the rest of the world to kiss their feet for it. Take a good look where ever the USA has gone in recent decades. It is not a good look and those places rightly have a very different take on their history compared to the propaganda the US government feeds it people. The better informed already know this so I would suggest anyone who disagrees take a long slow journey of discovery outside of your borders. Then the real Colo and his history could stand up and be seen in the cold light of reality. I would say the same to Australians or anyone who falls for nation building versions of history.
    • Sigh

      People don't pay tribute to Christopher Columbus because he was a great human being, but because his voyage marked the opening up of the New World to European exploration and colonization.
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        @frgough Good point. But then I am celabrating what led to the invasion of another people's land.
      • I would almost agree with that...

        @frgough... except most if not all of the history books used in today's history classes, only mention the ol' rhyme: In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue... My point is merely that students get the castrated version of history, which makes them ignorant of history.

        If you ignore history, then we are doomed to repeat the sins of the past. It is just like the Texas School Board looking to castrate the slave trade historical context, to provide a more light and fluffy version to make students feel good, never mind the atrocities that people suffered.
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        @frgough mmm...Eurpoean colonization. Now, THERE's a noteworthy institution.
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        Your going to get some silly answers from the people of the likes of gtaylor2 from time to time. As I last recall the trip by Columbus was about finding new trade routes to India and discovering new sources of gold, silk, spices and other riches for the Ferdinand and Isabella. These expeditions were very expensive and the costs were not only required to be recovered from the voyages, but the incentive was to find new sources of income for Spain. And as far as the brutal treatment of the native population by the Spaniards one should not least forget the brutal treatment the Aztec Empire relinquished upon the surrounding territories. It didn't take much for the Spanish colonists to make quick friends with the enemies of the Aztec state......Besides this information, now lets just suppose Columbus didn't come to America... does anyone really believe that the eventual discover and colonization of America by Europeans (or any other race for that matter) would have eventually happened? In fact wasn't the natives of North America nothing more than migrants themselves from East Asia? Then come to think about what life would be like if it weren't for Canada's raw materials and the American firepower to help turn the tide in WWII. Perhaps we would have a different outlook if the Nazi's or Communist Soviet Union had its hand in coming to the New World.
      • Yes, he is idealized


        The Columbus character in all the goody-two-shoes history books is based on Washington Irving's fiction, not any historical source.
        Lester Young
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus


        The invasion of another people's land... I keep hearing it both ways. One, that Europeans invaded other peoples' land (something which those same peoples did to each other regularly), or, conversely, that those natives never really considered "land" as something that belonged to anyone.

        The so-called invasion of the Americas has precedent in history. Such as the invasion of Europe by Moslems shortly after the fall of Rome. The invasion of Europe by Mongols in the same era. The invasion of England and other European nations by Moslems today.

        Of course, I gladly celebrate the invasion of another people's land; the Normandy invasion. We invaded Tunisia in WWII, should we weep over that invasion? Sicily, Italy. Then there was the "island-hopping" where we invaded island after island in the Pacific.

        Then there were lesser invasions that turned out well, like the Norman Conquest.

        Compare and contrast those lands "invaded" and controlled by Englishmen, and those "invaded" and controlled by Spaniards. Then consider their respective histories, and the nations which have resulted from their "invasions", e.g. the U.S. and Mexico...

        I just love how the panderers of "victim politics", in spite of their worship at the altar of non-existent equality, insist that the "equal" people of the Americas were victims.
        They were, morally, no better or worse than the Europeans. They were just victims of their own cultures which prevented them from developing technologically sophisticated societies, and so when the inevitable conflict came up between east and west, they were hopelessly outmatched.

        I imagine 500 years from now, the Taliban will be innocent, peace loving lotus-eaters who were butchered by those slavering, genocidal maniacs of western Europe.
      • So predictable

        I knew that people claiming the history of columbus was castrated would go on to preach their own castrated history of european colonization of the new world.

        Let me help you out. The natives in the new world were not the "one with nature" peaceful utopian societies you've been told they were, and the European settlers were not the universal monsters you've been told they were.
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        Will somebody please tell @hiraghm... that the native Indians were at the moment far more advanced than the Spaniards. Will somebody please tell him that the conquest was a military strategy put forward by brutes, who slain and tortured indiscriminately.

        I know everybody conquers everybody, but comparing the Aztecs with the Taliban... well that was more outrageous than Washington Irving's depiction of CC.
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        @cosuna It is preposterous to say that the Native Americans were more advanced than the Spaniards. In pretty much every area of knowledge and technology, the Spaniards were far more advanced. Inca technology, the most advanced in the area, was Bronze Age -- a stage Columbus' Genoa had surpassed nearly 3000 years earlier.

        That's why a few hundred Spaniards were able to cross the Atlantic ocean on ships, and raise local armies of thousands of people from native tribes, equip them with weapons from the ships, and quickly overthrow empires that had brutally oppressed the local people (using ritual human sacrifice as a terrorist weapon) for over a century.

        You accuse the Spaniards of slaying an torturing indiscriminately, but actually, it was mostly native "indios amigos" who were doing the slaying and torturing, while the Spaniards planned strategy and supplied equipment.
        Xenia Onatopp
    • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

      @JM1981 "A People's History..." is a deranged propaganda piece bandied about by people with an agenda, conspiracy theorists, self loathers, paranoids, and people who can't think critically. While there are kernels of truth to much of it, far more of it is plain and simple exaggeration, factual cherrypicking, and in some instances outright fabrication. Zinn himself admitted the book was heavily laced with his own opinion and he was not even attempting to be objective. I would look for more accurate historical accounts than Zinn's and if that's the only history book you've ever read, please do yourself a favor and expand your horizons.
      • Guess what?


        Historical investigation ALWAYS carries the bias and opinions of the investigator. But you haven't substantiated that Zinn is any more biased than the propaganda that passes for "history" in schools.
        Lester Young
      • RE: 3 shockingly bizarre things about Christopher Columbus

        I hadn't heard of Zinn until our daughter had to read portions of his book in High School a few years back.

        IMHO the guy was a left-wing loon, based on my own recollections of, for example, the Viet Nam conflict. I believe now the school counterbalances Zinn with another text whose name I can't recall.