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By Jim Rhodes
Next Monday is Columbus Day, October 11. It is a federal holiday in America honoring Christopher Columbus, about whom countless kindergarteners of my generation merrily chanted:
“In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two
Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue.”
Christopher Columbus, as we all know, sailed westward from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding a direct and shorter route to the riches of the Orient (at that time the only way for Europeans to conduct trade with the Far East was by camel caravan across the Asian continent or by ship around the coast of Africa). Instead, he found a New World.
Columbus has been hailed for more than five centuries as the “Discoverer of America.” Actually, he never saw the North American continent, but he did explore the islands of the Caribbean and the coast of South America in the course of his four voyages.
Of course, we now know that the eastern shores of North America had been explored and temporarily colonized by Vikings from Iceland and Greenland centuries earlier. And to be fair, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that the real discoverers were the early humans who crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia some 15,000 years ago and ultimately populated the hemisphere.
A measure of the public fascination and veneration for Columbus in America through the years is the many hundreds, if not thousands, of places named for him, including our nation’s capital, a country in South America, a province in Canada and countless cities, towns and counties as well as schools, universities, libraries and other institutions, not to mention streets, avenues and public parks, as well as fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus. I believe it’s safe to say that only George Washington had more American places named for him.
In recent years, Columbus and his ilk have been demonized at the hands of revisionists who rightly note that the European invasions of the American continents, which so vastly enriched the invaders, came at unspeakable costs to the unhappy native people, who were conquered, enslaved, butchered, robbed and decimated by diseases like smallpox against which they possessed no immunity. Statues of Columbus have been defaced or toppled in many public squares, and in many places, October 11 has become “Indigenous Americans Day.”
While I concur with the inescapable logic of this unhappy historical verdict, it’s hard for me not to admire Christopher Columbus as one of history’s greatest mariners and explorers.
By Columbus’ time there was general agreement that the Earth was a sphere, so you can just forget all that flat-earth claptrap about sailors fearing they might fall off the edge. There was little doubt that the Spice Islands of East Asia could be reached by sailing directly westward across the unknown ocean. But how far? How long? And what lands, shoals and dangers might lie between? And who would be brave enough to be the first to try?
The state of the art in marine navigation in Columbus’ day was imprecise at best. Most ocean voyages out of sight of land were taken in relatively short hops. Hence his feat of sailing thousands of miles across an unknown and uncharted ocean with no reliable way to fix his position other than guesswork — and his ability to navigate safely back to Europe, and to repeat the same on three successive voyages of exploration — is to my mind a source of endless amazement. His detailed maps and sailing directions for the coastal waters he explored are stunningly accurate.
This subject is very personal to me. I went to sea as a young navigation petty officer in the U.S. Navy more than 50 years ago. We steamed all the way across the Pacific Ocean from Panama to the Philippines with virtually no modern electronic navigation aids. At sea we fixed our position by taking observations of the sun and stars with sextant and chronometer, and we estimated our progress between fixes by dead reckoning, precisely logging every speed and course change, not unlike the techniques employed by Columbus in the late 15th century, albeit with better and more precise tools.
It appears from his journals that Columbus relied almost exclusively on dead reckoning, estimating the ship’s position by keeping an accurate log of magnetic courses steered and speed of advance across the water, and carefully noting the effects of wind direction and currents.
Columbus’ plan was to sail down to the Canary Islands, which had previously been colonized by Spain and had roughly the same north latitude as Japan. From there, he would sail due west until making landfall. Accordingly, his fleet of three tiny ships put out to sea from the port of San Sebastian in the Canaries on September 6, 1492. They sighted the island of San Salvador in the northern Caribbean Sea on October 11.
I won’t bore you with all the details of Columbus’ subsequent adventures. If the subject interests you, there are plenty of excellent books on his four voyages of discovery to the New World. The best by far is the masterful biography Admiral of the Ocean Seas, by Samuel Eliot Morrison, published in 1942. It’s very readable and accessible history at its best. Morison, as you may know, was best known as the author of the indispensable multi-volume History of the U.S. Navy in World War II. He also was a lifelong sailor and a student of the art and science of navigation. In researching his biography, he meticulously retraced Columbus’ voyages in and around the Caribbean on his own sailboat.
All seriousness aside …
Every year I observe October 11 by sitting with an appropriate medicinal beverage and listening to Stan Freeburg’s insanely funny spoof on Columbus Day as a wacky musical comedy. It was recorded in 1961. Listen and laugh.