By Alisson Clark/UF News
While searching for Columbus’ landing place in the Bahamas, Bill Keegan discovered something else: Just about everything he had learned about the explorer was wrong.
Not only is Columbus himself surrounded in myth, he also created myths about the Caribbean. Those misconceptions still endure, says Keegan, co-author of “The Caribbean before Columbus” and curator of Caribbean archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
We asked Keegan to set the record straight.
Columbus didn’t prove the Earth was round.
“It was already widely known,” Keegan says. “It goes back to 600 BC at least.” Not only did leading geographers know the world was round, they had calculated its size within 10 percent of its actual circumference.
Columbus wasn’t the first European in North America.
It’s mind-boggling to think of how events might have unfolded had another explorer brought knowledge of the West back to Europe, Keegan says.
“What if instead of Columbus it had been the Portuguese reaching Brazil? I think we would have had a very different outcome to history.”
Much of Columbus’ fame is due to a coincidence.
Columbus wasn’t a vaunted historical figure until long after his death. Washington Irving’s starry-eyed biography contributed to his legend, but his status as a national icon arose from a coincidence of timing. After the 1889 Paris Exhibition, which saw the debut of the Eiffel Tower, the United States wanted to create its own lavish event. The timing happened to coincide with the anniversary of Columbus’ voyage.
The ebb and flow of national symbols and their meaning feels particularly relevant as communities consider how to handle their Confederate monuments, Keegan says.
“We’re going through an interesting period in our own history in which we’re re-evaluating our symbols and what they really mean in terms of the Americas.”
Columbus’ cannibal stories were fake news.
History books that describe the friendly Arawaks and warlike Caribs who greeted the first European arrivals have been hoodwinked by Columbus.
“He starts with the initial idea that these natives are peaceful and could be easily converted to Catholicism,” Keegan says. But as the wealth Columbus expected to find in the New World failed to materialize and Columbus’ colony faltered, he looked to the native people as a source of free labor.
“The Spanish crown said the only people who could be enslaved are people who refuse conversion and practice behaviors like cannibalism. Suddenly, we have this switch where everyone in the Caribbean is characterized as a cannibal.”
What can we learn from Columbus?
We like to think of ourselves as more enlightened than Columbus, but we still see plenty of examples of “us versus them” thinking, Keegan says.