Someone Get Columbus a Better Publicist

His Reputation Hasn’t Been This Bad Since the 1490s—and We Have the Textbooks To Prove It.

During my three years as a teacher at low-income schools in Washington, D.C., my students read about Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, César Chávez, and other famous Americans. But we never studied Christopher Columbus. The first school where I worked did not observe the holiday, and the second treated it as a parent-teacher conference day. So much for understanding the namesake of the District of Columbia.

For most of American history, right back to the first Columbus Day celebration in New York in 1792, neglecting Columbus would have been unthinkable. My father grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where the explorer was idolized, second to only the local Big Ten football coach. In the U.S. Capitol Building, near where I live in Washington, a seventeen-foot tall bronze rotunda is dedicated to Columbus, with nine panels depicting the “glories” of his life. When I was a kid in school, Christopher Columbus was a heroic legend, like Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett, or even the first astronauts.

Then the story changed. Today, so many people revile Christopher Columbus that three states—Hawaii, Alaska, and South Dakota—do not even observe Columbus Day. In Berkeley, California, the holiday is instead called Indigenous People’s Day. So I thought I’d take a look at how school textbooks have treated the Genoan explorer over time—to see how Columbus went from hero to villain. Does Chris Columbus need a PR specialist in crisis management?

The heroic depictions of Columbus began not with textbooks but with a bestselling biography: Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828. It celebrated Columbus as “visionary” and “extraordinary,” responsible for “nations, and tongues, and languages which were to fill” the lands he discovered.

Irving’s version of Columbus was disseminated through The McGuffey Readers, a series of schoolbooks that were a staple in 19th-century classrooms. (From their first publication in 1836 until 1920 they sold over 122 million copies.) Their author, William Holmes McGuffey, used selected texts from renowned writers to deliver strong moralistic and patriotic messages. For a description of Columbus, McGuffey chose an excerpt from Irving, who makes the explorer sound like the type of man my mother would want me to marry:

[Columbus’s] ambition was lofty and noble, inspiring him with high thoughts, and an anxiety to distinguish himself by great achievements. His conduct was characterized by the grandeur of his views and the magnanimity of his spirit. Instead of ravaging the newly found countries, like many of his cotemporary discoverers, who were intent only on immediate gain, he regarded them with the eyes of a legislator; he sought to colonize and cultivate them, to civilize the natives, to build control of law, order, and religion, and thus to found regular and prosperous empires. That he failed in this, was the fault of the dissolute rabble which it was his misfortune to command, with whom all law was tyranny, and all order was oppression.

19th-century Americans could also read a laudatory account of Columbus in Elements of Useful Knowledge, a book by Noah Webster, of dictionary fame. “[In Haiti,] he landed, entered into a friendly intercourse with the natives, built a fort, in which he left a garrison of thirty eight men, with orders to treat the natives with kindness, and sailed for Europe,” Webster wrote. That Columbus died “neglected” by his country was a misfortune Webster blamed on the jealousy of others.

In 1887, a book called The Adventures of Columbus: Early American History for Children, portrayed a Columbus who would have felt right at home in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was published nine years earlier. The Adventures of Columbus described its hero as “a mere lad, busy with thoughts concerning that unknown land.” The natives who Columbus encountered were supposedly just as childish, saying, “These wonderful beings have brought their thunder and lightning from the skies and will protect us.”

A less fanciful depiction of Columbus appeared in David Muzzey’s textbook An American History, first published in 1911 and considered one of the premier textbooks through the 1950s. While it read in part like an adventure story, with Columbus and his crews worrying about “horrible monsters might be waiting to engulf them” and facing the Odyssean fear that they might never get home again, An American History also examined Columbus’s final years of incarceration and penury. “So passed away in misery and obscurity a man whose service to mankind was beyond calculation,” Muzzey lamented.

The first major blow to Columbus came in 1980, when historian and activist Howard Zinn released A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book told the story of an egalitarian and harmonious community of Native Americans who were enslaved and killed by Columbus, forced into hard labor and a search for gold that did not exist. Columbus had been responsible for “a genocide” of millions of natives and “murder in the name of progress.”

Today, contemporary textbook publisher McGraw Hill offers a slightly less damning depiction of Columbus—but only slightly. On one of its websites, McGraw Hill plays up the thrill of discovery but also stresses greed and ruthlessness: “The enslavement, torture, murder, and extermination of the native people of the West Indies followed quickly on the heels of Columbus and his men.”

This is in keeping with textbook trends. According to a University of Michigan study, history textbooks in recent years show a strong trend of portraying Indians more positively and placing Columbus on “a more complex positive/negative trajectory.”

In short, Columbus seems to have gone from all good to all evil. As I see it, the result is a caricature-like, ahistorical understanding of the past. Not to mention colorless. Many of the histories leave out some of the most intriguing aspects of his 1492 saga, like the fact that Columbus, for all his determination and vision, made a colossal mistake in believing (until the day he died) that he’d reached Asia. Or that, undeterred by shipwrecks, disease, and a return trip to Europe in shackles, he actually made four separate voyages to the New World.

Now that’s a lesson I could have taught my class. Take big risks, embrace serendipity, and celebrate some of your more interesting mistakes. Just don’t go forth and enslave.


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