The starry night and the calming sound of the Atlantic Ocean drew me to the railing of the Norwegian Sky on a cruise this month from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas.
From nine decks above the water I could see the lightning of distant storms and the lights of other ships before they disappeared over the horizon. It was easy to imagine a time when everyone knew the world was flat, and only a fool would challenge such conventional wisdom.
Christopher Columbus was such a fool. Before the cruise, my partner, Bette, and I walked past a 9-foot tall bronze statue of Columbus in Miami’s Bayfront Park.
It was dedicated Oct. 12, 1953 — 461 years after the Italian explorer “discovered” America, sailing beyond what people accepted was the end of the earth. Commissioned by Spain, Columbus was convinced even when he died in 1506 that he had found a new trade route to Asia.
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Most U.S. schoolkids learn that Columbus and a crew set sail in August 1492 in the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and landed in the Bahamas. He made three other voyages reaching Cuba, other Caribbean islands, Mexico, Honduras and Panama, establishing Spain’s colonial dominance in the “New World.”
But Columbus, in “discovering” the Americas also brutalized the native populations. His crew conquered, enslaved, hunted for sport and murdered Indians, sometimes for dog food, James W. Loewen wrote in his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” They read aloud in Spanish what came to be called “The Requirement,” insisting that the Indians recognize the Catholic Church, the pope and the king of Spain and obey the king’s mandates.
Disobedience led to war, mutilation and death in the name of God and the king.
“To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example,” Loewen wrote. “When an Indian committed even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent back to his village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of.”
The horrors continued throughout the colonial period with many European nations joining the land grab in the Americas. The native population suffered.
Cornel Pewewardy, a former University of Kansas professor, contends that close to 100 million indigenous people throughout the Americas were exterminated.
In addition, millions of Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, starting in 1501 under documents signed by Spanish King Ferdinand. Many died packed in wretched ships during the Middle Passage.
Others and their offspring suffered the inhumanity of slave labor throughout the Americas. Their European owners and other whites viewed blacks and Indians as less than human to justify their horrific acts.
Even after slavery ended and after the civil rights movement, the discrimination, prejudice and racism continues. All of it is part of a legacy that began with Columbus.
Knowing the history, I felt no fondness as Bette and I passed under the imposing shadow of the larger-than-life sculpture of Columbus. But leaning over the railing aboard the cruise ship, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if through some science-fiction lightning strike, our enormous boat were suddenly transported back 522 years to the same waters that Columbus sailed.
What would he think of this floating marvel and the people on it? Blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos from throughout the world made up the crew and passengers. We lived, talked, dined, danced and enjoyed entertainment without conflict.
We sat at poolside and in hot tubs together. We talked, laughed, went on excursions and enjoyed the beach together. There were many interracial and gay couples among us with no disapproving stares.
Ours is a different world from the one Columbus damaged. We can only hope to heal more with each passing generation.