Under Analysis: The man who did not discover America

Charles Kramer, The Levison Group

By now, virtually all Americans know that Christopher Columbus was not the first non-native American to discover America. In fact, he never reached North America at all, and knew quite well he had not discovered a new continent, but merely revisited known far off destinations. Still, we love our holidays, and so we continue to celebrate Columbus day, apparently because it would be too difficult to keep the holiday and rename it “Discovery of America Day” (possibly because people would abbreviate it to D.A.D. and get it confused with Father’s Day). As lawyers, we should probably be outraged at this misrepresentation and lack of transparency, but it’s not like Columbus himself would mind. Christopher was known to play free and loose with the truth when it suited him, after all. For example, although Columbus was not on the boat that discovered the Bahamas, when he found out that there was a prize to be claimed for its discovery, he dispatched his crew member who had captained the boat in question to another venture, stayed behind, and claimed the prize.

So, why do we celebrate the grand charlatan at all? Perhaps it is because he discovered that the world wasn’t actually flat. After all, we have all been taught that when Columbus set sail in 1492 to find a new route to the East Indies, it was feared he would fall off the edge of the Earth. That reason wouldn’t hold water either, however. Turns out, the lies of our teachers are not a reason to celebrate either. The discovery that the earth was a sphere predated Columbus, and was known as early as the sixth century B.C. Pythagoras, and later Aristotle and Euclid, to name but a few, all wrote about Earth as round. European scholars say there is little doubt that the educated in Columbus’s day knew the Earth was round. 

The reality is that Christopher Columbus really isn’t worth celebrating. It is documented that the discoverer tricked many a Native American into sailing back to Europe, not telling them they’d be slaves once they arrived, and that he was a brutal, heartless governor and viceroy in the Bahamas. Columbus, it seems, believed in organized labor, putting together teams of Native American workers to search and dig for gold. The slaves had no unions, however, and Columbus not only didn’t give them rest periods, the workers were often simply killed if they didn’t work with appropriate “diligence.”

Although Columbus was not the geographical discoverer of America, he was our unfortunate forerunner in one regard. Columbus was a materialistic expansionist, an egotistical man obsessed with wealth. He did not sail for the adventure of it, but rather for Gold and Glory. His questions about potential transoceanic voyages were not “how far” or “how dangerous”, but rather “how much.” It was all about the gold.

Today we know that, in his search for gold, Columbus killed many people and almost wiped out an entire civilization by himself. His trips began as quests for riches, but quickly transformed into efforts to keep himself “afloat.” Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand did not commission Columbus’ voyages; rather they lent him the money expecting a return. Columbus had to pay the queen and king back and it was that need to do so that propelled Columbus’s voyages from one Caribbean island to the next, stealing anything of value and killing or capturing Native Americans.

So, next time one of your workers asks you why they have to work on Columbus Day, even though it is supposed to be a federal holiday, ask them why Columbus Day is a holiday to begin with. I’m not sure anyone will be able to tell you. 


Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Charles Kramer is a principal of the St. Louis, Missouri law firm Riezman, Berger, P.C. You may direct comments or criticisms about this column to the Levison Group c/o this newspaper, or direct to the Levison Group via e-mail, at comments@levisongroup.com.

© 2013 Under Analysis L.L.C.