My son came home from school on the Friday before Columbus Day – no doubt like kids in many places in America – carrying a little art project about Columbus and having a story to tell about the explorer. As he told me what he had learned, which basically followed the longtime tale that I heard as a kid, I felt compelled to talk to him about it, but I wanted to handle it carefully because I know he is young and certain things would not be appropriate to say at this time.
Columbus Day follows a tradition that has gone on for a long time now, as it has been officially recognized since 1892 when President Benjamin Harrison marked the day to be celebrated on the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Bahamas. It became a federal holiday in 1934 thanks to Italian-Americans pressing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make it official. In 1970 President Richard Nixon approved the day being celebrated on the second Monday of October.
Over the years since then some states have notably changed the day to be one of observance for Native Americans, or as in the case of Hawaii it is known as Discovers’ Day. There is a trend to look at Columbus as not some great explorer but rather a plunderer, an enslaver, and a murderer. That is not a story you want to tell a five-year-old, but then there is the opposing view that glorifies Columbus as brave adventurer on a mission to spread Christianity and European civilization. That is difficult, however, for Native Americans who can make the case for having developed an advanced culture of their own, not needing Colombus’s religion or civilization.
So as you stare into the innocent face of your child, what can you say about Columbus that will not dampen his or her enthusiasm about what was learned in school but still touch upon some of the truth you know? Well, for one thing, I explained that Columbus came from the same city in Italy as my father’s ancestors. My son liked the word “Genoa” very much and kept repeating it. I also said that Columbus was very brave to take small ships out on a vast ocean, and that there is great truth in the notion that his “discovery” changed the world forever.
I also went on to tell him about the Native Americans whom Columbus mistakenly called “Indians.” I explained that this was their land, that they welcomed Columbus but didn’t expect him to take what was theirs. I gave him an example: what if some strangers came to our house and we welcomed them, but then they decided to not only stay but also to push us out of the house? He said, “That wouldn’t be fair.” And, of course, that is more than true.
We then looked at a couple of things online, and I showed him some pictures of Columbus, like this one of him landing in the “New World.” I tried to explain that the Native Americans had lived here for thousands of years before Columbus came, and that they were friendly until they realized that Columbus wanted gold and more gold, that some of their people were taken as slaves, and that they were taught a religion that they never wanted or needed. This, of course, would lead to battles between both sides, and some people would say that the “Indians” were bad, but many people would consider the situation and think the men that kept coming after Columbus were the bad ones.
We left it at that and went on to other games to play and stories to read. I treaded carefully because I didn’t want him going back to school and disputing anything that his teacher had said. I did feel obligated to tell him a little something more because I want to be honest with my children, and I always consider parents as their children’s first teachers, so it is my obligation to set him straight not only now but for the rest of my life.
As adults we can have conflicted feelings about Columbus ourselves, and why not? We can see him as either a daring explorer who set out like a 15th century Captain Kirk to go “where no man had gone before,” or we can see him as an inept navigator who grossly underestimated the size of the earth and the distance across the ocean. Columbus did want to spread Christianity and felt it was his call to do so, but he also sought gold as tribute and brutally enslaved Native Americans (though some would argue that he exclusively did this with the Carib tribes that were cannibals and brutal in their own right).
So do we look at Columbus as the guy who gallantly went before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and wooed them with an orange (or apple depending on the story) to prove the world was round? Or should we see him as the precursor of the explorers to follow that would rampage across the Americas, murdering, spreading disease, and plundering the wealth they found? Was he so totally incompetent that he insisted on calling the natives he encountered “Indians,” even though he must have surely known that he had never reached the shores of India; or did he know what he was doing – setting the stage for more extensive colonization of this new land and acquiring wealth and fame in the process?
One thing I have done to get to know more is reading a collection of Columbus’s journals. Surprisingly, Columbus was quite a fine writer; very florid and descriptive language captures the time and place so very well, so assiduously, that I had trouble stopping myself from reading. It is hard to argue that Columbus did not think he was doing the right thing as I read his own words, especially as he starts out the journal with the words “In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is clear that he felt he was on a divine mission of some kind, but we also know that some of the worst atrocities in history have been done in the “service” of religion.
So talking to our kids about Columbus and other figures in history can be daunting, but there is also an obligation we have to make sure they know different stories than what they are taught, no matter how inconvenient it may be to tell them. Depending on their ages, kids can handle more than we think, and it’s about getting the conversation started at the appropriate level. We are always our children’s first teachers, and we owe them more than standard history lessons – we owe them the truth.
Photo credits: christopher-columbus.eu, armchairgeneral.com
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