When I was a little girl, we traveled on ocean liners. They don’t exist anymore. In a changing world, some things change and some things vanish. As we left the New York City pier, the band played marches on the deck with the low toned blast of the steamship’s stack in the background. We threw streamers, blew kisses, and in a storm of confetti, waved to family and friends who came to see us off.
Ships with names like the S.S independence, the S.S. America, and the S.S. United States would majestically carry us to my father’s next post, and to yet another continent that would become our home. I can still smell the mix of wax, varnish, and sea: it is the scent of anticipation. I can feel the sun’s heat mingled with the shock of the North Atlantic’s cold air. I can hear the onomatopoeic call and response of ping pong that echoed behind me as I stared out at the vast expanse of sea… wondering and wondering how someone figured out there was something on the other side of the world.
I must have wondered out loud, because it was it was in one of those moments that I first heard about Christopher Columbus.
My father told me that in 1492, most people believed that the world was flat, but Columbus set out to prove once and for all that it was not. And in this noble, brave, and daring venture, he discovered America.
I couldn’t have known that one day I would teach about Columbus (and other European explorers) to third graders. Or that I would find the story increasingly complicated to teach:
The Third grade student will describe the accomplishments and successes of Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de Léon, and Jacques Cartier.
The European Explorers were the rock stars of the Renaissance; they lived in a perfect storm of invention. They were alchemists of circumstance and combined the miracles at hand (the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass) into hidden powers that enabled them to sail away from the present and into the future. Innovative.
They scoffed at the idea that dragons lurked at the edge of the map. They were brave and daring risk takers who were willing to cross the boundaries that guarded the known from the unknown. They knew that the fiercest dragon did not lurk on the edge of the map, but rather in the hearts of those chained by fear and superstition. They would break those chains. Daring.
Europe was in trouble. Hunger. Disease. Crowded ports and struggling towns made life excruciating for many. A few daring men set out to make the world a bigger place.
The doors of the east that led to trade and spices and salt and riches and silk were slamming shut. Powerful sultans, emperors and khans were closing the land routes. Sea routes had to be established. Columbus figured that if the world was round (and he knew if was), he would sail west and find the back door to the east. Noble.
On October 12, 1492 Christopher Columbus made landfall. He thought he’d done it…. He thought he was in India, so he named the native people Indians. He wasn’t in India, but he wasn’t in North America either. He landed in San Salvador in the Bahamas. Surely he was mystified that that there were no great ports of trade. He had read Marco Polo’s journals and must have expected the air to be aromatic with spice and the docks heavy-laden with gold, silks, and riches. Mistaken.
He’d brought mirrors and bells to trade: trinkets to entice and inspire trade relationships. And he brought an invisible passenger with him: disease. Tragic.
He claimed land that was not his to claim and in his desperation for gold enslaved the native people. Wrong.
Teaching history is big and beautiful and inspiring and antagonizing and stirring and complicated and heartbreaking… all at once. It cannot be reduced to “accomplishments and successes,” anymore than it can be reduced to “heroes and villains.”
The first lesson I learned about history, I learned on the high seas long ago: History should be told. I’ve learned to search hard for history’s ghostwriter: Point of View. I am constantly learning to sand down the narrative to central truths with out stripping it of hope. History helps us see the present: avarice and greed were threats in the age of exploration; the same is true in the age of globalization. Exploring explorers gives us the chance to discover something new. Again and again.