Christopher Columbus, we were once taught in school, was the first European to land on American soil. But is this actually true? Was this Italian explorer really the first person who sailed across the Atlantic from the Old World to “discover” the New World in 1492? It certainly makes for a good story, and it’s one we’ve been told again and again and again. But the historically accurate version of the events that surrounded the discovery of the Americas is one that’s well worth exploring, too.
Columbus wasn’t even looking for America
Most people already know that Columbus was actually searching for a westward passage from Europe to the Far East when he "discovered" the Americas. This project was sponsored by Spanish royalty, who were anxious to find a sea passage to the East to continue a lucrative trade.
The Spanish had previously used the Silk Road for trade, but after the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople — today’s Istanbul — it became too dangerous. At that point, Spain needed another way to trade in fine goods such as silks, spices, and porcelain.
He landed by accident
So, after years of dreaming and scheming, Columbus finally set sail from the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera with three vessels on August 3rd, 1492. After stopping at the Spanish-ruled Canary Islands, the small fleet set a course westwards across the Atlantic.
They sailed for five weeks before reaching land on October 12th. At that point, the explorer assumed he’d come across some islands off Asia. But the truth was that he had arrived in the Caribbean.
Columbus struck gold — literally
Columbus and his men had made land on one of the islands in what we now call the Bahamas. Although exactly which one is unclear. The Europeans then met the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, including the Arawak people.
Noting that some of them sported gold jewelry, Columbus did what any other privileged Westerner would have done at the time: he took them prisoner, naturally. And then the explorer demanded them to reveal the source of the valuable metal.
He immediately started to change the population
Of his golden discovery, Columbus wrote in his journal, “[The islanders] ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion.” He also revealed his plans to take six Arawak back to Spain “in order that they may learn our language.”
If you didn't already, you may now understand why some people choose not to celebrate Columbus Day. Why celebrate someone who forced people to change their entire identities?