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The Untold Story of Christopher Columbus

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 19, 2023 3:01 am

The Untold Story of Christopher Columbus

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 19, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, for generations, students in American elementary schools were taught Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to discover America in 1492. Today, that lesson is changing in schools across the suburbs and country. Here to tell the story of Christopher Columbus is Laurence Bergreen, who wrote the definitive biography Columbus: The Four Voyages. 

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Dive in deeper at Bose.com forward slash iHeart. And we continue with our American stories. For generations, students in American elementary schools were taught that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to discover America in 1492.

Today, that lesson is changing in schools across the country. Here to tell the real story of Christopher Columbus is Lawrence Burgreen, who wrote the definitive biography, Columbus, the Four Voyages. Let's take a listen. Hello, my name is Lawrence Burgreen and I've written a book about Christopher Columbus, Columbus, the Four Voyages. Of all the books I've written, I think this has been the most challenging and the most controversial because Columbus's reputation has been changing almost by the month. He's a figure that we all know about and he's been devalued almost beyond recognition, torn down from statues, discredited over and over as if it were the first time. But as I discovered, the criticism of Columbus, intense criticism, was there almost at the beginning, it seems to get rediscovered with each generation.

He's been hated, considered a genocidal monster. I would like to discuss Columbus in three dimensions, if you will, to give a sense of what he was really like as a person with his flaws and all, the flaws were huge, but also so were his accomplishments. There's a reason why we remember Columbus. He tied together with his Four Voyages, the old world and the new. First of all, who was Columbus? Christopher Columbus, Columbo, was born in Genoa in 1451.

He was the son of a weaver. He went to sea at 14, which was common, and he had a very rough beginning. He sank in a bottle off the coast of Portugal.

He managed to paddle safely to shore on a piece of wreckage. And as a Genoese, he joined a colony of expatriate Genoese sailors in Portugal. Later on, he was exploring the coast of West Africa and actually aboard another ship, made it all the way to Iceland. So, even as a young person, Columbus had been around, mostly as what we would call a merchant marine.

And he worked carefully with his brothers, especially his brother, Bartholomew, who was a map maker. This was kind of interesting because conceptions of the world at that time were, by our standards, faulty and misleading to an almost comical extent. Bartholomew's maps and other maps of that era reinforce the belief that China, and all the riches that Columbus eventually went to seek from China, lay just to the west of the Americas. That the Pacific Ocean was not the largest body of water on the planet, but could be traversed in maybe a few days. So, the idea was that if you could only get to the beginning of the Pacific, to its western edge, that you would be able to get to China very quickly.

This was, of course, a huge mistake. Columbus, if he had known the reality of it, and how difficult it was to get to China, probably would never have undertaken the voyage. There were a couple of other sailors and navigators who did. They were all lost. So, the fact that he was emboldened to undertake it was based on a series of faulty misconceptions.

It's just one of the many ironies. He spent a lot of time getting backing for the voyage. He was in Portugal, wouldn't back him.

He finally went to Spain. And by that time, he was no longer a young man. He was 40.

40 in those days was late middle age. So, he was in a way what seemed like the quote back nine of his career. On the other hand, Columbus had some gifts. And his main gift as a mariner, as a navigator, was what we call dead reckoning, sailing by the seat of his pants. If he wanted to estimate time and distances, he used very simple devices, such as a rope, or a buoy, or a landmark, timing the distance it took to move from one end of his ship to another.

If it sounds primitive, it was, but it also worked. So, he wasn't dependent on technology or intellectual constructs that were beyond his skin. He also paid close attention to tides and to wind, to the color of the sea, the composition of the clouds. These mattered a lot more to him than the mathematical calculations of the era's leading cosmographers. They generally had never gone to sea, but Columbus had.

And in his long apprenticeship, he had acquired a great deal of experience, which turned out to be very helpful, especially in an era of all these faulty maps. And he also had this conviction that he could sail from the western coast of Spain to the eastern coast of China without much of a problem. He was not familiar with the astrolabe. He did not steer by the stars.

If he had done that, again, he probably would have never set out on this voyage because he would have realized how faulty his assumptions were. But he did have a sense that God wanted him to do this. At times, he even thought that God was speaking to him.

That wasn't that uncommon in those days. Many people felt that God was directly speaking to them about what they should be doing in life. When I say speaking, I don't mean a mild, prompting, and intuitive one.

I mean actually hearing a voice. And we know that Columbus had this experience of God speaking to him because he wrote down what he thought God actually told him at critical times. What was so remarkable about all this was that when he set out on this voyage the very first time, the one that we all study about in school in 1492, he went across the Atlantic with three ships.

And it's the first time we know that Europeans had done this with no loss of life. This is really remarkable considering the dangers that he faced and his lack of specific knowledge. And he made this voyage three more times, each time improving based on hard-won experience until on the last voyage, he was able to cross the Atlantic in only 16 days.

It was incredible. Of course, the shorter the voyage, the less dangers you faced. There was less danger of storms, less danger of dehydration, less danger of mutinies at sea.

So this worked in his favor. His crew on these voyages was very problematic because he sailed on the first voyage just the day after the Spanish Inquisition became the law of the land. That was intended to drive Muslims out of Spain, but it also had ripple effects across Europe and all the way to Portugal and was really an important watershed in history. It was the brainchild, if you could call it that, of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella.

Because Columbus was not able to get backing in Portugal, he was able to get sort of backing from them, I'd say it was tentative. His first fleet was three cramped, leaking, fragile vessels. They were old and falling apart, we would call them rust buckets, except they were made out of wood. And they were small.

The Santa Maria, which was the largest, could hold only 40 sailors. And you've been listening to historian Lawrence Burgreen tell the story of Christopher Columbus in a way you've probably never heard it before. It's complicated and it's nuanced. And like any human being, this man had his flaws, but my goodness, his virtues, his talents, you're hearing about some of them. By the way, if he had not known how difficult it was to be a sailor, if he had not known how difficult it was we learn to get to China.

Of course, they were looking for a shorter route. He probably would have never embarked on the voyage in the first place. The irony of ironies. And he's 40 years old when he tries to get the backing to do this.

And 40, as Lawrence pointed out, is the back nine of your career back in the late 15th century. And of course, how he knew what he was supposed to do. Well, he knew it because he'd heard from God. And I mean, he thought he literally heard from God. And that's what he wrote in his own journals and memoirs. A really spectacular part of Lawrence's book is hearing about those messages from God from Columbus himself.

And of course, that first voyage and those three sort of rickety ships, you're going to hear more of the story of Christopher Columbus with Lawrence Burgreen as Our American Stories continue. For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. Now, another one of Columbus's, it seems, almost comical misconceptions was that he was going to sail to China in these ships. Therefore, he brought translators with him ready to interpret Chinese once they reached Asia. Where did he get these ideas from? Well, like everybody in Europe at that time, he got them from Marco Polo's popular travels. Marco Polo went over land rather than sea, for the most part, and dictated a very popular account of his adventures. Some of it was embellished.

Some of it was drawn from other accounts that he'd heard that he included in his own. In general, it painted a picture of this mythical China or Asia that Columbus thought he was reaching as a place of great luxury, of gold, and sensual gratification. The idea was he would go there and bring back spices, which were very important and easy to transport.

Gold, a little more difficult because it had to be mined or stolen, and much, much more ominously, slaves. Slavery at that point was very common throughout Europe. He also had another mission, which partly contradicted this one, was that he wanted to bring, and he was quite serious about this, Christianity to what he called the idol worshipers of the East. He felt that his name, Christopher Columbus, meant Christ bearer, and he had a messianic sense of this.

Now, this didn't square with the idea of slavery because if you had slaves, they wanted to convert people. They couldn't be Christians, but nobody really bothered at that time to think it through until he actually went out on the voyage. He also planned to meet Kublai Khan. He had official letters from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The only problem was that Kublai Khan had died decades ago.

The Mongol Empire, which he led, was fading into oblivion. So, it could be said that, I think with some fairness, that Marco Polo's travels, which in many ways were accurate, misled rather than inspired Columbus. And he spent his entire career, four voyages, in a futile effort to discover this maritime route to China. Okay, in the process, he stumbled across what we know and now and now called the New World, and that was the beginning of what we also call globalization. Now, we can debate endlessly whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, but once Columbus had started this process of going back and forth between what we now call the Americas and Spain and Europe, there was no stopping it. And it wasn't just trade, and it wasn't just geopolitics, it was also what we call the Columbus Exchange. But the Columbian Exchange involved livestock and seeds and germs and other things that could not be undone because what you left behind stayed and transformed the landscapes of both the Old World and the New. On the first voyage, his initial contacts, this was the 1492, this was the 1492 voyage, were tentative and respectful.

He wrote and he was a big letter writer. I hope to win them to the love and service of their highnesses, by which he meant Ferdinand and Isabella, and the whole Spanish nation. They have no religion, but they are not idolaters. They believe that power and goodness dwell in the sky and are firmly convinced that I have come from the sky with these ships and people. This is because they are not stupid. Far from it, they are men of great intelligence, for they give a marvelously good account of everything.

But they have never before seen men clothed or ships like these. Columbus was probably talking about one of two tribes in the Caribbean. The Taino was probably the most likely, and they were fairly sophisticated as he realized, and they were not particularly hostile to Columbus's arrival.

Some of them were very curious and welcomed him. However, some of the behavior of Columbus's followers or those who came after him was so outrageous that what we think of as the atrocities that we attribute to Columbus were actually perpetrated by those who came afterwards, sometimes in his name and sometimes independently. Some of the worst of them, for example, one of his lieutenants, Michelle DeCunio, wrote about capturing and raping a beautiful indigenous woman whom he claims the Lord Admiral that was Columbus gave to him. And then he writes about how she was unwilling and scraped her with his fingernails so that he wished he had never laid eyes on her.

Finally, he got a piece of rope and punished her with it. These kinds of letters were circulated around Europe and sensationalized this voyage. So the impression of it went from being one of trade and a religious mission to one of complete exploitation. Columbus also decided that one of the other tribes, the Caribs, as opposed to the Taino, were cannibals. And he wrote after the second voyage that the Caribs eat the male children that they have been adopted by their women and only bring up the children of their own women. So in other words, they eat the children of a rival indigenous people.

And then to top it off, he reported that they say that human flesh is so good that there is nothing like it in the world. Well, again, these kinds of accounts electrified Europe, Spain, and not in a good way, and set off a big reaction that changed the color of everything. At the same time, while this was going on, unknown to Columbus and his sailors and Europe, something maybe more important was going on, and one that continues to this day. And that's the Columbian Exchange, which I mentioned earlier.

This was first identified by Alfred Crosby at the University of Texas at Austin. And it indicates the exchange and commingling of bacteria and plants and animals between the old world and the new, beginning in 1492 and then the subsequent four voyages, when there was a cross-fertilizing of these separate land masses brought about by Columbus and his followers. And you've been listening to historian Lawrence Burgreen tell the story, the rich and complicated story, the nuanced story of Christopher Columbus, one of the great storytellers in this country, Lawrence is. His book is Columbus the Four Voyages. I urge you to get it. You will not put it down.

Get two copies, give it to a friend. We learned so much about the context and the times in which he lived. Lawrence isn't one of those historians who judge people out of context, but yet he's honest as honest can be.

The full picture, the good, the bad and the ugly. And my goodness, the international trade lanes that Columbus started, he started for better or worse, global trade. He started globalization and it changed not only the new world, it changed the old world too. Also, a great discussion, a great piece of storytelling on how Columbus viewed the native tribes and more importantly, how people used his name to do just, well, tragic and ugly things. And of course, some of Columbus's own writings and the impact they had on the native tribes that lived here before his arrival.

When we return, more of this remarkable story, this rich and complicated story, the story of Christopher Columbus here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating mi-
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-03 08:44:40 / 2023-10-03 08:54:19 / 10

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