False Foundations: Part One, Discovery

By Chris Cronin
Staff Columnist

Virtually every people have a creation myth—the story of the beginning of the world and how it came to be peopled. Through a symbolism-laden narrative, ancient humans tried to explain the unexplainable: their purpose, the proof that humanity was a special creature and not just an unusually hairless mammal. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have the book of Genesis, where God created the Earth from nothing and man in his image. The Maya believed that the gods created man from maize, their staple crop, after previous attempts at creating man from mud and wood were met with failure.

Virtually every nation has its creation myth as well, a swirl of half-remembered history and heroic deeds which combine to prove that that nation is exemplary and special. The Romans, for instance, believed their capital city was founded by twin brothers raised by wolves.

These myths are not the purview of ancient peoples. Although it seems odd, given that the founding of our nation was philosophically the product of the Enlightenment, the United States of America has its own creation myths. After all, the Enlightenment, a wave of ideas which swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized reason and empirical study and created the basis for modern historiography and scientific research. How can there be room for myth, when our country was built on such a rational and empirical foundation?

With this series of articles, which will be published monthly, I hope to prove not just that we have a national myth, but that our entire national consciousness is rife with half-truths, falsehoods, political distortions and inaccuracies. This series is not, however, just about bad history. Numerous historians, better trained and qualified, have written columns on how history can be distorted and misremembered. I hope to show how our poor national memory of the past has affected our present.

Our national politics are deadlocked, as politicians raised on false assumptions and failed ideas continue to fight the battles of yesterday. One must only look at our high unemployment, waning national influence, failing social programs and the complete inability to legislate important laws to see that the time has come to question our political assumptions. And to question these assumptions, we must expose the false ideas upon which they are based.

The very “discovery” of this country is based on myth. I remember being taught in school about 1492, Christopher Columbus, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But Christopher Columbus did not discover anything—there were people already in America, including the great empires of the Maya, the Inca and the Aztec. It would not even be accurate to call Christopher Columbus the first European to discover America, as a succession of Norse expeditions in the tenth and eleventh centuries had already landed on North American soil.

Regardless of the discovery itself, Columbus was certainly not worthy of the praise which Americans have given to him. He instituted a brutal tribute system on one of the first tribes he encountered, the Taino, requiring each native over the age of 14 to bring him a piece of gold approximately every three months. If they failed, Columbus had their hands cut off and left them to bleed to death. He also instituted a brutal feudal government, involving the systematic enslavement of native peoples, and deliberately delayed baptizing them so that he could sell them as slaves. His tenure as governor of the West Indies was so tyrannical that Columbus was eventually recalled to Spain in shackles.

And yet, beginning in 1906 in Colorado, Columbus Day has been an officially recognized holiday. In 1937 the day was adopted as a federal holiday, and continues to be celebrated yearly in all but three states (one of those states, Hawaii, has adopted “Discovery Day” in its place, celebrating the Polynesian sailors who first landed on the islands).

But even more important to our modern understanding is the legacy of what Columbus brought. When Columbus settled in America, he brought war, disease and disaster upon the indigenous populations there. The arrival of the Spanish toppled empires and saw millions killed or sold into slavery. This legacy developed into a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing visited on the native population of this continent and upon South America that endured in the United States of America until the 19th century and perhaps even beyond.

The cataclysm which Europeans visited upon the original inhabitants of this country cannot be understated, and yet Columbus Day is but the first way in which we celebrate aspect of that legacy. Next month, we will discuss another.

False Foundations: Part One, Discovery is the first installment of a series and will continue in November.

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