A Yankee Notebook

October 12, 2015


MONTPELIER – Columbus Day. National Holiday. No mail, no bank; schools optional, but maybe not taking it off as a hedge against snow days. As far as I know, everybody else is still working. It’s a holiday that over time have lost a bit of its luster– as has its honoree’s, as well. Poor old Columbus has in recent years become less the adventurous explorer, fighting mutiny in his crew with the desperate order, “Sail on!” and more, nowadays, a rapacious slaver and con artist whose unexpected arrival in the West Indies was for the native Americans the harbinger of a catastrophic change in their lives and culture.

Still, it’s an institution, and we current Americans don’t easily let go of institutions, even if they’ve become meaningless, impractical, or unsubstantiated by history. Witness “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which almost nobody can sing well and whose context few are aware of. To suggest an alternative, however, like “America, the Beautiful,” is considered heretical. Various cities in the United States, notably Seattle (named for a Native American chief and built upon the site of a native village), have – over the vehement protests of Italian-Americans – changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, in honor of the folks who were here first. I predict short shrift for that one, mainly because so few of us can spell “indigenous” or know where to put the apostrophe. Canada has a better alternative, with “First Nations.”

Who of us can forget the heroic first voyage of Columbus as described in our grammar-school history classes?  He may have been the only man in his fleet of little ships who believed the earth was a globe and that there was no precipice at the far end. It was about all he could do to allay the fears of his crew and persuade them to continue westward into what appeared to be a an infinity of open sea. Land-based sea birds and bits of floating weed finally indicated the proximity of land, followed by the cry of “Land ho!” as the ships reached what the captain thought were the islands off the east coast of India. How we thrilled at his example of perseverance!  I can still see in my mind the paintings we were shown, of the intrepid explorer, dressed in his finest court clothes, the Spanish standard in one hand and a broadsword in the other – while cringing natives peered from the bushes – claiming the land for his patrons and the Kingdom of Spain.

The late Flip Wilson had a slightly different take on the event. In his telling,  Columbus’s most persuasive argument for government funding wasn’t the promise of riches, but the fact that Ray Charles might be in America. When the doughty Spaniards finally pulled up near the beach at their first landfall, Columbus spied a party in progress on the beach. “Hey, yall!” he cried.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Cris Clumbus. I come to discover y’all.”

“You better discover yo ass outta here!  We havin’ a powty.”

I don’t think the Syracuse Board of Education would have approved that as an acceptable alternative to the cumbersome, satin-caped ceremonial landing we were taught.

Columbus, of course, wasn’t the first seaman to reach what became known in Europe as the New World. Icelanders get a little testy when we mention Columbus Day. Their Viking ancestors, restlessly questing ever westward, reached Greenland and North America about 500 years before that first corporate expedition. They settled briefly; but their diplomatic skills, such as they were, failed them in their dealings with the natives, and their weapons, state of the art in Europe, were no match for the thrown spears and bows and arrows of the Skraelings, as they called them. They sailed home, leaving behind in Newfoundland a few tantalizing clues for future archeologists.

The Portuguese and the Basques ventured westward in unrecorded antiquity, and there’s some evidence that Columbus had seen a sketch map of a coast with an island just off it looking very like modern-day Newfoundland. However it was, he was the first to believe he could reach India by sailing west, even though astronomers had assured him it was probably a bit farther off than he imagined. (“Turn right!  Turn right!” Flip Wilson shouts. “Watch out for the edge!”)

Columbus made four voyages in all, none of them producing the precious metals he’d promised his royal sponsors – let alone Ray Charles. He did eventually reach the mainland, but never north of the Caribbean. It remained for other sailors, like Amerigo Vespucci (who gave his name to the whole New World), Giovanni da Verrazzano, and John Cabot to cruise the coasts and report to Europe. When the Spanish finally reached South America and the Isthmus of Panama, the promised gold began flowing homeward in the fabled galleons, which wreck-hunters are still finding today. The problem was, and remains, that it was looted gold, and its original owners were either extirpated or enslaved. Those are the seeds of the current growing opposition to the celebration of Columbus Day. It’s become a holiday with a cloud hanging over its head.

I read recently a brilliant idea that’s bound to create strong opposition among the elderly white guys interested in keeping to a minimum the voting of the lower classes. Bernie, in fact, has already proposed it: Make Election Day a national holiday so that nobody has to take off from work to vote. In addition, considering its proximity to a controversial and fading holiday, hold our elections on what’s now Columbus Day. What’s not to like about that?

Photo by Willem lange