The Truth About Columbus Day

Legend has it that when Christopher Columbus was 10, he looked at a map of the world and said something profound, though no one understood what it was, because he spoke some weird Genoese dialect of Ligurian. But what everyone does understand is that today -- a day in which Americans logically celebrate an Italian man accidentally crashing into Haiti -- is the perfect time to dig deeper into the life of this mysterious explorer, colonizer, ladies' man, and sadist. After all, who was Christopher Columbus, really? Scholars don't know. Historians don't know. Owls do know, but selfishly refuse to tell humans. So, armed with only a few oaky glasses of chardonnay and a trusty Compaq Presario CDTV920 (w/ Intel Overdrive), Thrillist's Historical Investigations Squad (T.H.I.S.) went about the task of sorting it all out. Enjoy



Our story starts in 1473 when Christopher was 22, mostly because the stuff that happened before that was boring. That year, Chrissy took an internship as a "business agent" for several important Genoese families. The job of "trader" was essentially that era's business consultant, and so, for a decade, he traveled all over Europe, doing important stuff like learning languages other than Ligurian, and doing less important stuff like marrying the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, whom he produced a child with, then ditched for a 20-year old Spanish orphan mistress named Beatriz.

Fast forward to the 1480s: Europeans can no longer travel safely over land to Asia because the Mongol Empire lost part of their Risk board to the Ottoman Turks. But Asia has silk boxers. And drugs. Afraid of going back to wearing woolen undergarments and not being high, the Euros are desperate for a new solution. Enter Columbus and his cartographer brother with the best name ever, Bartolomeo. They're all, "we can reach the Indies (aka Southeast Asia) by sailing west across the Ocean Sea, which is what we hilariously call the Atlantic." The Columbi thought that A) Eurasia was even more giant than it is, B) Japan was also gigantic, and waaay east of China, and C) there were tons of islands even further east of Japan that would sell them opium, silk boxers, and black market DVDs of Panic Room. They estimated that they needed to travel 3,000 "Italian miles" (don't ask), when in fact the correct figure was closer to 12,000 "Italian miles" (19,600k). How does one make such a huge, crazy error? Well, as historian Edmund Morgan put it, "Columbus was not a scholarly man."

Not everyone was drinking the Columbus Kool-Aid. Rational humans of his day thought him insane. He originally submitted his proposal (which included the totally small request he be made "Great Admiral of the Ocean") to those sexy sail maven Portuguese, and they were like, "Dude, you can't carry enough food and fresh water and Luna bars for such a long journey. You are going to die so hard, and we won't even be able to tell you we told you so, because you'll be so very dead."

Undeterred, he pitched his own nation, but they called him something bad in Ligurian. Then he pitched England, and was again rebuffed, but likely in a more polite fashion unless the English were drunk at the time on medium-dry cider. Either way, his crazy plan was going nowhere, and by all accounts he was very upset no one was calling him Great Admiral of the Ocean.

Luckily for Chris, the good ol' Catholic Monarchs -- Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II -- laughed in the face of rationality. They'd just spent, like, $67 American dollars (all the money in Europe at that time) on a Reconquista war in the Iberian Peninsula, and were willing to try anything to get money. And since Junior Mafia wasn't around then to explain that a large part of that involves f***ing b*tches, after three years of toying with his emotions they decided to grant him a deal at the very last second. Literally as he was leaving town all sad on a mule, which is like a sterile horse for poor people.

Izzy and Not-Franz Ferdinand gave him his crazy rank, promised he'd be Governor of whatever land he found, and agreed to give him 10% of all revenues from said lands for life. Though according to almost everyone (including Columbus's own son Diego, who still spoke to his father despite being abandoned for a 20 yr old orphan lady of the night, and being named Diego) they mostly agreed to this stuff because they believed he would most definitely die. But that didn't faze ChrisCo, who, the night before he set sail, wore a shirt he'd had made that read "Eurasia? More like MYasia!"


His fantastic voyage

On August 3, 1492, in front of a modest crowd who'd been falsely led to believe they were going to see a hanging, Christoph shipped off from Palos de la Frontera. He was traveling with three ships that everyone should know from nursery school songs, though the Nina was actually the nickname of the Santa Clara, which is a safety school for people applying to college from Gunn High in Palo Alto.

After a stop in the Canary Islands, Columbus's posse set off for five weeks across the ocean, following the "easterlies", which are trade winds that quite possibly come from the east, though it's unclear, as our crack Historical Investigations Unit refuses to Google it. On the morning of October 12, a lookout on the Pinta named Rodrigo spotted land and let loose a ferocious bellow. Before the rest of the ship could be like, "Don't bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, Rodrigo," they, too, saw the land, so the Pinta's captain fired his cannon to alert Columbus. Ever gracious and fair, CC claimed he'd already seen said land, like, wayyyy earlier, and was just about to tell everyone, "thereby claiming for himself the lifetime pension promised by Ferdinand and Isabella to the first person to sight land"

Though the natives called it the much more awesome sounding Guanahani, ChrisCo called the island San Salvador. Aside from their considerable skill at naming things, the natives, he noted, were peaceful and friendly. So peaceful and friendly, in fact, he wrote in his journal that "they ought to make good and skilled servants" and that "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.

He then explored Cuba and Hispaniola (the island that houses Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and tricked 25 natives into coming back with him by offering to show them all the splendors that Europe has to offer. Or he just kidnapped them, and only 8 survived the trip. On March 15, 1493, he returned to Spain with said downtrodden-yet-miraculously-alive natives, who quickly became the toast of the town along with Columbus himself, as word spread of his not so pee-wee adventure. Commence with more orphan mistress sex!

His second, less-fantastic voyage

On September 24, 1493, Columbus brought 1,200 men in 17 ships to establish permanent colonies, and convert the natives into more traditionally guilt-stricken Christians. He also cruised through Puerto Rico and named a bunch of islands including Nevis (Our Lady of the Snows), Antigua (Old St. Mary's) and the Virgin Islands, though he called them Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, which will definitely be the name of an indie acid jazz band by the time you finish reading this.

Oh, and after finding his fort destroyed by the Taino people (along with 11 of his 39 men dead), Columbus evaluated the situation, then cooly, calmly, and rationally demanded that every Taino male over 14 years of age must "deliver a hawk's bell full of gold powder every three months or, when this was lacking, twenty-five pounds of spun cotton. If this tribute was not delivered, the Taínos had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death."


His third, kind of humiliating voyage

Five years later, after presumably tiring of orphan mistress sex and snorting hawk's bells full of gold powder, Columbus set out again. This time he had six ships: three were to go right to Hispaniola and drop off Nabisco Giggles sandwich cookies, Smooth California Style SunnyD, and other very-much-needed supplies, and the other three were for exploring. At this point, it should be noted that he also apparently figured out compass variation or magnetic declination or something, which is boring to explain if you're not really into learning about the angle between magnetic north and true north, or using the term "agonic and isogonic lines". Anyway, this is all to say that he eventually went to Trinidad, and then touched down on the South American continent at the Paria Peninsula in northern Venezuela, which he thought might be the location of the Garden of Eden, because, look, it's got to be somewhere

After clearly not eating from any trees of wisdom, he returned to Hispaniola to find the new colonists incredibly aggrieved thanks to his false advertising re: bountiful riches and their own non-orphan mistresses. Many of the sailors, settlers, and religious peoples returned to Spain and lobbied against Columbus, accusing him and the-far-more-satisfying-to-say Bartolomeo of management mistakes, including intentionally not baptizing natives so he could enslave them, and also treating everyone like sh*t. To prove these claims were outrageous, ChrisCo decided he needed to take decisive action. So he hung some of his crew, citing disobedience.

By 1500, the Crown had finally heard enough. They stripped Columbus of his governor title, arrested him, and brought him back to Spain. Upon arriving in Hispaniola, the new governor heard from nearly everyone -- even people who liked Columbus and played on his flag football team -- that ChrisCo did everything from torturing people and demanding outrageous tariffs to awkwardly slow dancing with people's wives during fast songs and annoyingly forwarding along chain emails. They also arrested his brothers, unfortunately including the one with the awesome name. This made Columbus sad, incredulous, and a bit of an exaggerator, as evidenced by a letter to a friend in which he claimed, "Over there I have placed under their sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe (ED: not true), and more than 1,700 islands (ED: definitely not true)... now at the end of my days have been despoiled of my honor and my property without cause (ED: except maybe cutting off everyone's hands and demanding gold-filled hawk's bells), wherein is neither justice nor mercy.

For six weeks, the brothers Columbus sat in prison, recounting the good ol' days when they could have indiscriminate orphan mistress sex and slow dance with people other than themselves. At the end of 42 days, King Ferdinand ordered their release, which also kind of bummed Columbus out, as he'd just acquired a rock hammer from Morgan Freeman's character in Shawshank.

Then, somewhat miraculously (though not for the natives), the Columbus brothers managed to get some face time with the King and Queen, and convince them not only to restore their wealth, but also FUND ANOTHER F***ING VOYAGE. Seriously. This happened.

His fourth, and absolutely last voyage because everyone is tired of hearing about these voyages, here's the highlight reel...

1. He claimed he was searching for the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, but likely he just made up the word Malacca because it sounded like an awesome name natives would use.

2. While on the island of Martinique, he sensed that a storm was brewing and attempted to go to his old hang in Hispaniola and warn them about said storm. He was denied port by the governor, who hated his face, and ended up sheltering his ships at the mouth of the Rio Jaina, while the governor's treasure fleet sailed right into the hurricane. They lost 29 of 30 ships, more than $67 American dollars worth of gold, and 500 lives, including that of the governor, who really only sailed because he hated Columbus.

3. He then hit up Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. He got caught in another storm, and became certain he would die, writing "Eyes never beheld the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foam." He also applied for an MFA in poetry. But he survived the storm, and set up a garrison at Rio Belen...which was promptly attacked. Plus his ship got shipworms. Shipworms! Gross

4. He went to St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica and hung out for a year, drinking Red Stripe and regaling the natives with stories about lunar eclipses (one of which he predicts). Eventually lunar eclipse predictions stopped cutting it and the natives tired of Columbus and his men eating all the jerk chicken. He asked for help and provisions from Hispaniola but "The governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, detested Columbus and obstructed all efforts to rescue him and his men" as it was tradition for Hispaniola governors to hate his face. Things seemed perilous, but help eventually comes, bringing him back to Spain on November 7, 1504. Less than two years later, Columbus died. He was "probably 54".

Wikimedia/MiguelAngel fotografo


Now that we've gone down this rabbit hole of knowledge, what is one to conclude about this man for whom we raise a glass of cheap Tempranillo every second Monday in October? After all, Columbus Day has only been a federal holiday since 1937 (Colorado made it a state holiday in 1906, thanks to lobbying from an Italian dude named Angelo Noce), when the Knights of Columbus -- a Catholic organization created to help fight discrimination in the workplace during the 1800s, likely by wearing full suits of armor and smashing people with maces and sh*t -- pushed FDR and Congress to make it one. Hawaii, Alaska, and South Dakota don't even celebrate it -- Hawaii instead celebrates Discoverer's Day, South Dakota does Native American Day, and Alaska just never realized there were federal holidays in the first place, as no one routinely checks their State.Gov email address.

Regardless of what state you live in -- except, of course, Alaska --- most rational people tend to agree that Columbus, the person, kind of sucked. He was an ego-maniacal, self-obsessed tyrant, a shameless self-promoter, and a disaster in governance; he regularly took credit for things that weren't his; he exaggerated; he slept with ladies of the night that were much younger than him and not his wife; and he never seemed to repent for any of it. So... basically he was a politician.

And yes, even back then, when they regularly crushed witches under stones and publicly chopped people's heads off with extremely sharp contraptions, people actually spoke out against the atrocities that happened under his watch. But just because he was a twisted sadist doesn't mean you should have to go into your junior account executive job at JC Penny.

He did open the door to the discovery of America. He was an extremely talented sailor, as he figured out that whole magnetic declination thing you didn't learn about, and could predict hurricanes and lunar eclipses. And he basically found and named every single place you end up visiting while on a Royal Caribbean cruise with your grandparents and your uncle that drinks too much and keeps all of his money under the insole of his boat shoe.

So maybe on this Columbus Day, instead of toasting to Columbus the dickish, sadistic, orphan-sexing man, raise a glass to the American ideals that his discoveries represent: a thirst to explore the new and unfamiliar, an urge to push on even when you think you've reached your limit, and a refusal to ever learn a damn word of Ligurian.

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Kevin Alexander is Food/Drink executive editor and only celebrates Flag Day. Follow his purchase of Ligurian Rosetta Stone: @KAlexander03.