Tuesday, October 9, 2007

And in Canada, It's Thanksgiving

It was Columbus Day yesterday! Well, I had to work, and I bet you did too. I refused to put my flag out. I mean, maybe it would be different if we lived in the United States of Columbia, but we don't. Did you know that Columbus never actually set foot on any land that would eventually become America? It's true. So why do we celebrate Columbus Day? Beats me. I guess we just need a day off in October. "Celebrate" may be too strong a word, anyway. I mean, unless you work for the government, you probably didn't have the day off. And all those guvmint employees who were sitting at home today can thank Franklin Roosevelt. He started it.

Or unless you live in Nevada, where it is not a legal holiday. Or South Dakota, where it is celebrated as "Native American Day" though it is unclear why they would pick this date, as so many native Americans blame Columbus for, well, genocide (even though there are more Native Americans living today than ever before.) In Hawaii it's called "Discoverer's Day" and instead, they honor Captain James Cook, who put Hawaii on the map (literally). The fact that the Hawaiians didn't call it "Cook Day" is unfortunate for all sorts of untold humorous, culinary allusions. Incidentally, there is a movement afoot in Hawaii to follow suit with South Dakota and call the day "Indigenous Peoples Day" but it is at odds with another advocacy group who wants to have "Indigenous Peoples Week". Either way, I'm still not putting my flag up. Everyone knows the Vikings were here first.

Did you see that movie of Columbus that came out in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary, 1492: Conquest of Paradise? I didn't. But I remember thinking at the time how funny it was that a historical drama about an Italian who works for the Spanish and Portuguese trying to find a way to China and India but instead made his way to Cuba and Mexico was played by a Frenchman in an American movie directed by an Englishman.

Columbus died thinking he had still set foot on some islands off the coast of Asia, even though no one he met there spoke Japanese. He had made four voyages to the New World, and during the fourth voyage the ship ran aground and he was stranded in Jamaica for a year. Nobody came to his aid, so he intimidated the natives into giving him and his crew provisions by successfully predicting a lunar eclipse. This is impressive because Columbus originally had underestimated the distance to China because he was reading his maps as using Italian miles, when in fact they were written using the much longer Arabic miles. Who knew?

Another thing: a big reason why the Europeans wanted a westward route to China and India? The Muslims. They had blocked trade routes when Constantinople fell to them in 1453, and the Ottomans had conquered Egypt thus blocking the Red Sea. I guess some things never change.

Columbus went crazy before he died, claiming to hear divine voices, wearing a Franciscan habit, and calling for a new crusade to take back Jerusalem. He thought that his discovery of the New World was part of God's plan in the Final Judgment and Armageddon, which it seems a lot of people still believe. Following Columbus' death, all the flesh was removed from his body in a ritual that Europeans of status often desired called "excarnation", and it's nasty, but it's supposed to preserve the bones. Anyway, his remains were removed from his original grave in Spain, and then moved back and forth across the Atlantic like four or five times. Everybody eventually lost track of them, as he ended up with a few grave sites in different countries, but last year they dug up the grave in the Dominican Republic and did some DNA tests and guess what? Some of the bones were his! And what is to be gained from all this? It's HISTORY, man! What's wrong with you?!

I'm still not putting my flag up. A few years later, another explorer named Amerigo Vespucci made it as far as the Amazon and wrote in his journals that this was not China and then a mapmaker, a German named Martin Waldseemüller, called the new continent "America" utilizing the feminine and latin forms of the explorer's name, as all the other continents were feminine forms. Evidently, this upset EVERYBODY, because Amerigo didn't discover anything, so Waldseemüller took America off the map and called it simply "Terra Incognita" ("Unknown Land") but it was too late. The maps had already gone to press and the name stuck. Only one copy of the original wall map that reads "America" survives, and it was purchased by the Library of Congress off of eBay in 2001. (Just kidding.) Alternate versions of these maps were originally intended to be cut up and glued on a wood ball, and only four of these globes are in existence -one of which resides in America at the University of Minnesota.

Minnesota, by the way, has an on-again off-again relationship with Columbus Day due to its many Native Americans and Viking descendants.