The Day That Dare Not Speak Its Name!

Warning: This blog contains information about events that happened over 500 years ago.  It acknowledges their existence and does not apologize.  This blog contains humour, satire and ideas that could provoke thought and is intended for a sophisticated audience.  Therefore, it may not be suitable for university sophomores or adults who act like them.  Reader discretion is advised.


Shhh!  (I wish my computer had a whisper font, but anyway…)

Yesterday was Columbus Day.

[Serious Silence!]

I know, I know: I’m pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, but that’s just the way I roll.  Besides, I have a burning need to set the record straight before Chris disappears from the North American landscape.  (I’m lookin’ at you, Columbus, Ohio!)  Here’s the deal.  In my lifetime, Christopher Columbus has gone from being a determined, visionary explorer, willing to put his life on the line to expand the collective knowledge of the world to being – uh – an asshole.  It’s a spectacular fall from grace.  Unfortunately, the social justice lynch mob who dragged the guy off his pedestal and put the boots to him got the wrong man.  Saying Columbus is responsible for the last 5 centuries of Western Hemisphere history is like saying a person who bought a ticket to get into the stadium is responsible for the football game.  That’s idiotic!

First of all, Columbus only crossed the Atlantic four times, he probably never set foot on South America and sure as hell never get north of the Rio Grande.  Secondly, the boy was basically lost.  He always insisted that India was just over the horizon and had no idea there were two gigantic continents in the way.  (It’s a good trick to be a total dick to millions of people when you don’t even know they exist!)  And finally — and here’s where the vegan ate the liverwurst — the guy died in 1506.  That was 10 years before Cortez showed up in Mexico, over 20 before Pizarro and his band of cutthroats visited the Andes and over 100 (that’s an entire century!) before Powhatan turned to Pocahontas and said, “You stay away from those Europeans!  Mark my words, young lady: they’re going to be nothing but trouble!”  The truth is Columbus was out of the rape and pillage business before it ever even got started.

So, how did Columbus become the supervillain of America history?  One simple reason — convenience!

Deny it or not, in the 21st century, we’re wading in the shallow end of the intellectual swimming pool.  Most people don’t know enough history to fill a mouse’s ear.  Names like Coronado, De Soto and Mendoza mean nothing, and people are perfectly content to live with that ignorance.  (After all, it’s a lot more fun to take a Facebook quiz about Disney Princesses than read a boring essay on dead Europeans!)  However, there is one dead European everybody knows: Christopher Columbus.  Meanwhile, when the good folks of North America recently found out that the indigenous people of this hemisphere have spent the last few centuries getting screwed, they started looking around for someone to blame.  (In our video culture, the villains are clearly marked.)  And take one guess who they looked at first?  The only one they knew: Christopher Columbus.  Ipso facto, he must be the bad guy.

So, so long Christopher Columbus; it’s been nice knowing you.  In a few years, you’re going to be as forgotten as Olaf the Ugly, that unknown Norseman who actually got to North America.

Christopher Columbus — Five Point Two Oh

Like it or not, on October 12th, 520 years ago, Christopher Columbus showed up somewhere in the Caribbean and changed history.  He didn’t exactly discover America — it had been here all along — but he did reveal it to a less-than-curious European population.  Actually, for the longest time, our European ancestors didn’t care much about the Western hemisphere.  They just thought it was a great lumpy bit that kept getting in the way.  After all, Columbus had convinced the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to give him a boatload of money for a passage to India.  He wasn’t about to admit he’d miscalculated the distance by several thousand miles.  So, for a generation or so, Chris and his Spanish compadres dicked around in El Caribe, insisting that untold riches were just over the horizon and playing poor cousin to the Portuguese.  The Portuguese had gone the other way, by the way, with Vasco da Gama in 1498, and had actually reached the spice emporiums of India where they were making nothing but money.  It wasn’t until Cortez, one of the most enigmatic figures in history, discovered gold around the necks of the Aztec nobility in 1519 that the big boys back in Spain, France and England sat up and took notice.  What happened next was nearly five centuries of relentless worldwide imperialism that ended in 1956 when French and British paratroopers landed on the Suez Canal in the last wheezing gasp of European hegemony.  That’s a pretty bold footprint for the son of a weaver out of the ‘hood in Genoa.

Actually, that’s the gist of it.  Despite the fact that Columbus was just one of literally hundreds of ambitious men seeking their fortune in an expanding world, he’s the guy everybody latches on to.  For the last fifty years, he’s been taking the hit for every dirty deed ever perpetrated on the indigenous peoples of our world since he weighed anchor on August 3rd, 1492.  His name is now so blackened by revisionist history that people who’ve never heard of Francisco Pizarro look the other way when it comes up in polite conversation.  It’s gotten so bad that even historians forget what he was doing here in the first place.  So here’s a quick and dirty history of why Christopher Columbus — without all the “ain’t it awfuls” everybody is so much in love with these days.

In the first part of the 15th century, an obscure group of Turks called the Ottomans was moving up the social ladder by beating up their neighbours.  In 1453, they conquered Constantinople, the last Christian bastion of the (long outmoded) Roman Empire.  For the next couple of hundred years, they pretty much ran the show in the eastern Mediterranean.   At the other end of the Mediterranean, the Christian kings (and queens) of the Iberian Peninsula had spent the last seven centuries fighting with their neighbours, the Moslem Moors, and were on the verge of sending them packing, back to North Africa.  Meanwhile, around about the same time, Europeans were finally recovering from the Black Death that had killed anywhere from 30 to 50% of the population.  It was the biggest seller’s market in history, and a whole new middle class of merchants. labourers and trades people had coin in their jerkins to indulge themselves in the finer things in life: things like ivory and silk and the hottest commodity of them all: exotic spices.  Supply and demand were about to meet in a head-on collision.

Politics, religion and economics have always been strange bedfellows.  However, it didn’t take a da Vinci to figure out that, regardless of how much people were willing to pay to put pepper in their paella, all spices came from the east — and unfortunately that window, Constantinople, had been closed.   Suddenly, between religious animosity and the cost of doing business (it was a six month caravan ride across North Africa) the price of anything but bland in Europe went through the roof.

Enter Henry the Navigator, king of Portugal.  His nautical boys had been sailing down the coast of Africa for a century, and he knew that, if you went south far enough, you ended up going east — and that’s where the spices were.  He put two and two together and decided that, instead of sucking up to the Moslems for cinnamon and nutmeg (and paying outrageous prices for the privilege) he could simply go around them.  For half a century, the Portuguese tried.

At the same time, our buddy Columbus was doing his homework.  Like all educated men of the period, he knew the world was basically a sphere, and like all sailors, he had a rough and ready knowledge of how to calculate latitude.  Besides, he’d shipped out with the Portuguese a time or two and had a hunch that Africa was a lot bigger that anyone realized.  So he did the math and, based on (very) simple ratios, he surmised that, if he sailed west instead of east, he’d find India — somewhere around Cancun.  The problem was Columbus had no idea how to figure out longitudes.  He wasn’t alone.  Longitude or east/west distance would baffle scientists and explorers for another 300 years.  Anyway, Columbus took his project to the money people of the time – royalty — and was turned down every time.  Their argument was “Look, Chris!  The world’s bigger than that!”  However, our boy stuck to his guns and kept knocking on doors.  Finally, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (who had already turned him down once, BTW) decided what the hell.  They gave him a 10% share of the profits, told him he had to raise half the money himself and agreed to name him Admiral of the Seas — if he actually got back.  My thought is they didn’t think he would.  Regardless, Columbus did the medieval equivalent of a fist pump and the next thing you know Rodrigo de Triana, a lookout on El Pinta, is shouting “Land Ho!”

That’s it — in a nutshell.  The revisionists can talk as they please about who was responsible for what — after he got here.  However, the only reason Columbus ever showed up at all is pepper was selling for big bucks on the European market, and he and a whole pile of other people wanted to cash in on the profits.  You see, history doesn’t change; the people who tell it do.

History, Bitter & Twisted October 12


1537 – King Edward VI of England, the long-awaited male heir to the English throne, was a terrible disappointment.  Henry VIII had defied God and the Pope, changed a whole country’s religion and killed at least one wife to get him.  Despite all that Edward never actually ruled England.  He was crowned when he was 9, spent the next few years being sick and finally died in 1553.  The best that can be said about the guy is his half-sister was Elizabeth I.

1875 – Aleister Crowley, a rich Victorian nutbar, the prototype of all nutbars who came after him.  Once called, “the wickedest man alive” the best that can be said of Crowley is that he may have been the “weirdest man alive.”  He loudly proclaimed that he was a warlock and practiced white, black and, probably, after he bought a house in Scotland, plaid magic.  He spent his life travelling the world and indulging himself in sex, drugs and the Edwardian equivalent of rock n’ roll.  He gathered and discarded disciples (mostly upper class women) the way you and I change our socks.  A con artist of the first order, this charlatan didn’t even have the excuse that he was conning people out of their money.  I know I’ve sugar-coated it, but this guy was a git.

1492 – Christopher Columbus became the first tourist in North America.  He loved it, even though he’d originally planned to go somewhere else.  He immediately organized a number of excursions to return to what was then called the “New World.”   Everybody loved the place.  Unfortunately, things got out of hand and before anybody in the “New World” knew it, they were being overwhelmed by a couple of hundred years of illegal immigration.


1978 – Nancy Spungen was the punk wave girlfriend of the absolute Emperor of Punk — Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols.  Nancy was found stabbed to death on the bathroom floor of their Chelsea Hotel room in New York.  There was speculation and rumour, but in the end, it was probably Sid who killed her in a drug-soaked rage.  It was the quintessential punk rock romance.   

In a different time and in a different place (September 5th, 1951 in Mexico City) Beat writer William Burroughs and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer were hanging out, drinking heavily, smoking dope and (likely) doing heroin.  According to one version of events, Joan put an empty glass on her head and Bill tried to shoot it off, William Tell style.  He missed.  Joan died later that day from a gunshot to the head.

Plus ca change…..

2002 – Ray Conniff is still the undisputed World Heavyweight Champion of Elevator Music.  Even as Walmart and Generic Gigantic Mall are turning to less lobotomizing lullabies, Ray and his “Million and One Strings” are still sucking the life out of us, every time we travel vertically through our world.  One of my biggest fears is future historians are going to think we liked this stuff.