Thankfully, I was able to start off our latest social studies unit on explorers with none other than old Christopher Columbus. And even a few weeks before the actual Columbus Day. I was pretty proud. My students got a full dose of my exuberance over all things historical.
We laughed about how my early elementary teachers taught us that people thought the world was flat back then. I remember Mrs. Bishop holding up an orange and telling us this before we colored a picture of the three ships, none of which are called by their original names other than the Santa Maria. Most people already knew the world was round back then, but Mrs. Bishop was just going by what her teacher’s edition said.
Columbus really thought he’d landed in the Indies. He thought the natives he first saw (the Taino people) were “Indians.” Isn’t it strange that this moniker has stuck all these years? Even though it’s politically correct to say Native American (and also a much deserved title), even some Native Americans refer to themselves as Indian.
After Columbus landed and after things began to get a little hairy between the Spanish and the natives, it was apparent Spain would take over any lands they wanted. The natives were enslaved and forced to work in gold and silver mines as well as in the huge agricultural fields planted later by the Spanish.
So, you guessed it, I told my students the good and bad about Columbus. I let them know what all of the opponents had said about him over the years and I told them how lots of places in the United States had stopped observing Columbus Day. Indeed, there are places who now observe “Native American Day.”
My students, always ready for a good discussion, asked “Then why do we celebrate Columbus? Why do we honor him with a day off from school?”
In my opinion, the day is not exactly commemorating Columbus the man. I think it actually commemorates what happened as a result of his voyage.
The Columbian Exchange brought cultural change, changes and advancements in agriculture, warfare and education. The simple exchange of the seedlings of certain plants changed the way folks in Europe ate and saved many from problems brought on by poor nutrition.
An alphabet was introduced to the New World by the Europeans, opening up a whole new world of communication for natives who had no written language. Farming equipment was brought over, such as an early plow. More advanced weapons and tools were also introduced. It should also be mentioned that more advanced ways of building were introduced to our “world” when the Europeans came over.
Did you know that before Columbus’s voyage, there were only a few “animal servants” over here? We had the dog, a couple of South American camels, the guinea pig and several kinds of birds.
After Columbus’s second voyage, the face of the “barnyard” changed. With him, he brought horses, dogs, pigs, cattle, chickens, sheep and goats. As you can probably guess, this was a big deal. You can list the many ways the arrival of these animals impacted the Western Hemisphere. And I’m not talking only about the dinner table.
Of course, it was fun to also tell my students about the rat, cockroach, and a few other insects like killer bees stowing away and arriving in the New World unwelcome.
Unfortunately, column space prohibits me from listing all the plants exchanged between the Old and New Worlds. But I will mention the potato and corn, discovered in the New World and taken to the Old. Both of those plants changed the face of nutrition across Europe and Asia. Pretty amazing.
Do you have a sweet tooth? You should know sugar cane was introduced in Europe very, very early. But heck, it never grew well. So, it was not plentiful and therefore was a rare thing. Columbus brought some over and found that it grew well in the New World. That plow I mentioned earlier was used, large fields were planted. Etcetera and so on.
So, the next time you wonder, like my students, why we celebrate the life of Columbus, take my advice and focus on how his voyage changed our world. Then go have yourself something sugary. Eat some pork. Or beef. Stomp a cockroach.
The list of fun Columbus Day activities goes on and on.