As the country’s annual salute to Christopher Columbus approaches, it makes me stop and wonder how we as a nation came to choose the captain of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria to be the official founder of America. Not only were there natives already on our shores at the time Chris crossed the Atlantic, but he really never set foot on the mainland of the current United States. (Our country wasn’t even named after him. That honor went to Amerigo Vespuci, a contemporary of Columbus who also never came ashore in North America, but spent his time at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro (or something like that). Moreover, there are many who have suggested over the years that Vikings, other Europeans, and even Romans might have made land long before Columbus.
Given all those possibilities and more, I’m thinking we ended up feting CC and Company because he had a better Public Relations firm than all those other earlier explorers. The Roman society died out, nobody really cared much for the habits of the fierce Vikings, and the British Empire basically didn’t get cranked up until the late 16th century, which left Spain and Italy pretty much dominating world events, culture, and exploration at the time of Columbus’ trips.
The PR story that has come down to American schoolchildren over the years has been a really effective one. Harken back to elementary school when you first heard the tale of Columbus buying into the Greeks’ “the Earth is round” idea and trying to convince Portugal’s and Italy’s monarchs to fund his voyage before successfully lobbying for support from Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain.
Our history lessons say he was looking for a shorter route to India versus going all the way around Africa to get there. One report indicated Chris thought his target was maybe 2300 miles or so west across the ocean, even though several centuries earlier those who studied such things thought the circumference of the globe was more like 25,000 miles. Of course, they didn’t know about a significant landmass in the way at the time that was sure to slow a ship down considerably.
At some point in time, Chris’ PR team also cranked out a poem for kids to remember. You know at least the first stanza: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” (Heck, without that ditty, many of us couldn’t remember the correct year to write down on our test papers.) But did you know the In 1492 poem actually has 14 stanzas? At least, the one I found does.
Toward the end are these three:
“October 12 their dream came true,
You never saw a happier crew!
“Indians! Indians! Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.
“But ‘India’ the land was not;
It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.”
It’s the words at the poem’s end, however, that make my point that Columbus may not be the guy we should be celebrating so much:
“The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”
There’s no argument that Chris was a daring fellow, and definitely deserves recognition for his discoveries. However, over the years, some radical theories have suggested not only Leif Erikson and his band of merry men came before, but also Polynesians and Chinese. (There are two coasts, you know.) And recently, there have been discoveries of what appear to be Roman artifacts in Canada.
There’s also another possibility. (And being of Welsh heritage, I’m partial to it.) Legend has it Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd set sail in 1170 from the North Wales Coast, headed west, and landed in Alabama . . . Mobile Bay, to be exact. He went home once, came back to the same place, and never left. (The weather had to be a whole lot nicer than what he was used to.) Side note: There is no mention in history books as to whether the first question the natives asked Madog upon arrival was, “Are you a War Eagle, or do you pull for The Tide?”
Madog et al. headed up a river or two and dispersed. Several indications remain that they were on our turf, including a report in 1799 by Governor John Sevier of Tennessee that mentioned “the discovery of six skeletons encased in brass armour bearing the Welsh coat of arms.”
So, should we be celebrating “Madog Day” this time of year? Perhaps. But it’s probably best to leave well enough alone. Hey, it’s a holiday for many. Why mess with a good thing?
©MMXVII. William J. Lewis, III