For centuries after his accidental discovery of the Bahamas, Christopher Columbus was a true hero of history. But then the alternative histories were published, and the colonization of the New World was revealed to be a nightmare of atrocity and terror. Still, we can learn something from this stubborn idiot who insisted until the day he died that Cuba was part of Asia.
Ships were pouring out of European harbors in the 15th Century, so someone was going to open trade and immigration routes to the Americas. What's still amazing is that an absolute moron like Columbus managed to get there before hundreds of smarter, better sailors.
This is the true lesson of Columbus Day: Even a cruel-hearted simpleton occasionally changes the world.
Cristoforo Colombo was a Genoan sailor who washed up in Portugal, literally, after a shipwreck. (French pirates attacked and burned his ship; he swam to shore.) Columbus was obsessed with the "Ocean Sea"—the Atlantic—and that may be why he stayed in Portugal instead of heading home. But the Portuguese king wasn't interested in funding his dream voyage to China, so he ambled over to Spain and eventually got the Castilian monarchy to fund his bonkers mission. No sane sailor or astronomer believed Asia was only 2,300 miles from the Iberian coast. because the size of the world and rough placement of its continents was well known at the time.
Still, like so many world leaders who embrace wrong ideas, the Spanish monarchs said "fine, give it a try" because they were desperate to plunder new lands before Portugal got them all. The many years Columbus had spent crazily writing "The Ocean Sea!" in the margins of his nautical books had finally paid off, and he bravely filled three little boats with sailors who would all die on the way to China, which was more than 12,000 miles away from Spain.
It is important to remember that this was a suicide mission. His three-ship fleet only had enough water and food to get the crews to a watery grave. Making landfall on the previously unknown islands of the Bahamas was a ridiculously lucky accident, as if that infamous bozo who tied a bunch of helium balloons to his lawn chair accidentally bumped into an alien spaceship filled with money.
Convinced he had reached the Cathay Islands, Columbus and his sailors came ashore like a band of filthy dwarfs and greeted the tall, clean and handsome islanders with their tasteful golden jewelry. Gold! Columbus proclaimed himself king and proceeded to the next islands, eventually deciding that Cuba was "the Indies," or the Asian mainland. Disaster struck when one of his ships, the Santa Maria, crashed and fell apart offshore. To Columbus, this was just like Christmas, somehow, so he made his men build a few structures from the wreckage, and this miserable settlement was named Christmas Town.
And what did Columbus think about, as he watched other people build the first European settlement in the New World? Oh, he was just crazy with rage because the third ship, the Pinta, hadn't been seen for six weeks. He wasn't worried about the crew's safety, he was worried that the Pinta had deliberately headed off—either to a secret place where all the gold was hidden, or back to Spain to tell "lies" to the king and queen about Columbus' awful behavior, stupidity and cruelty: Among other crimes against humanity, Columbus had refused to follow Queen Isabella's rule against enslaving the natives, and was plucking natives from every island to bring back to Spain as trophies.
The Pinta had simply gotten separated, as wind-powered vessels will do. Upon the Pinta's arrival at the dreary new settlement of La Navidad, Columbus yelled at the captain for hours. Columbus was forever furious at the Pinta's crew for spotting land before he did, and he later insisted that he had somehow spotted the island first—being the "first man" to see land guaranteed a lifetime government pension, according to the expedition's contract with Ferdinand and Isabella.
When Columbus returned to "the Indies" with another expedition the following year, Christmas Town had been demolished and his men had all been killed by the disgusted locals. After his third voyage financed by the Crown, Columbus was arrested and brought back in chains. Everyone hated him, because he was mean and he was an idiot.
Like many mean idiots, he spent the rest of his life as a megalomaniacal religious fanatic, constantly scribbling his fantasy apocalypse stories and trying to win back control of his accidental kingdom. He was allowed a final voyage to the lands he still insisted were in Asia, even though all the other explorers had long since figured out it was a Novus Mundus, a New World with two new continents to pillage. Then he came back to Spain and raved like a lunatic until he finally dropped dead, to the relief of all who knew him.
In many ways, Christopher Columbus is the perfect American. He was loud, ignorant, greedy and evil, and his intolerance was fueled by his religious extremism. His life's work was stealing wealth, bamboozling the government, and crushing the little people—whether his own shipmates or the Caribbean natives. The best person to play Columbus in a Pirates of the Caribbean-style comedy-adventure would be Alec Baldwin doing a Ted Cruz imitation.
The lesson here is that we cannot all be Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein or Louis Pasteur, obviously, but we should not give up completely just because we lack any special qualities. While the common slob has about as much chance of discovering a New World as winning the Powerball lottery, it is still mathematically possible for a nobody to achieve notoriety, as Richard Nixon proved.
And that is the American Dream right there: It's all but guaranteed that you'll never be more than you are right now—just another schlub barely getting by and blaming the wrong people for everything—but there remains a very tiny snowball's chance in Hell that you'll make history, in spite of yourself.
Ken Layne's American Almanac marks the beloved holidays on our nation's Google Calendar. Halloween is almost certainly coming up next. Image by Jim Cooke; photo via Getty.