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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Historical Wednesdays Halloween Countdown - Columbus Day

Columbus monument in Phildelphia.
"Naturalist" = student of nature.
Many Americans get confused because the official holiday always falls on a Monday, but true Columbus Day commemorates October 12, 1492 (Julian calendar), the day of first landfall somewhere in the modern Bahamas. I just love this holiday because it brings into current dialogue the period in history that signifies for me the dawning of the modern age, and the results are so controversial. People can get het up about the mysterious figure of Christopher Columbus the way they can about no other.

There are a lot of scary elements to Columbus Day, not least of which is the unprecedented way the world changed after that meeting of cultures. Today I'd like to focus on the fear of the unknown that must have plagued most of the crew members.

Imagine yourself as a regular seaman aboard one of the caravels. Many had been conscripted to take this wild journey against their will. While most European sailors of the day stayed within sight of the coast, on October tenth, no one had seen a lick of land for three months since leaving the Canary Islands in August. If they were unsure about Columbus's experience and calculations when they left Spain, imagine the growing terror after so many days of endless water. While no one really feared sailing off the edge of the world, they might have dreaded sailing so far south, into areas long theorized as so hot they were uninhabitable. Columbus had to play psychological games, fudging distances and times and making up reward systems like the CEO of a failing company, and still had problems managing the reluctance of his crew.

There might have been less fear aboard the Pinta and the Niña, which were captained by the trusted Pinzón brothers, who could have turned back and abandon the Santa María to certain death if obliged by their crews and their better judgment. No one aboard the cramped ships had a very clear idea of who Columbus was or what his intentions were, so they couldn't quell their fears by focusing on a charismatic leader. I haven't read any fiction based on the first voyage of Columbus, but the passage itself has the makings of a thrilling psychological horror story.
Replica of the Pinta in Philadelphia. Living on the caravels was not
for the faint-hearted -- or the claustrophobic.
Please also see the Top Five Misconceptions about Columbus.