In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.
A compass also helped him know
How to find the way to go.
From a poem by Jean Marzollo
At least that’s the way I learned it. I also learned in high school that Columbus discovered America by accident while he was seeking a new trade route to the Orient. He made landfall on a sparsely populated island in the Caribbean. He thought he’d made it all the way to India, so he called the indigenous population Indians. He claimed the land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, even though Chris was an Italian wool worker from Genoa and his brother, Bart, lived in Portugal and made maps. This mish mash of misinformation all made perfect sense at the time.
In my high school history book nobody made reference to the Taino people, a tribe of Arawak-speaking Indians, who lived in a flourishing civilization in the Island chain we now call the Greater Antilles. Nobody explained that the Taino people were a peaceful lot who didn’t give a fig about Spain or Ferdie or Bella. The erudite authors who penned the history tome portrayed Chris, a pale-faced European, as the good guy who dragged these primitive, brown savages kicking and screaming into the sixteenth century, healed their wounds and liberated their spirits, taught them about Jesus and saved their souls. Here’s what really happened.
Chris set out for the Orient from the port of Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492. Ten weeks later his crew spotted land. “Whoa! If it only takes ten weeks to get to the Orient by ship, we can make a fortune,” thought Chris. Chris had been promised ten percent of everything he brought back.
In those days, travel by caravan between the Orient and Europe was fraught with problems. For one thing, it took a good two years to get to or from the Orient. Some of the way by boat, some of the way on foot and the rest of the way by camel. Henry Ford hadn’t invented trucks back then. For another, the Mongols controlled the Silk Road. The Mongols were not a likeable lot.
Venetians and Genoese managed most of the European trade with China during the fifteenth century which is probably how Chris got the neat idea of approaching Ferdie and Bella with a plan to map out a maritime trade route to the East by heading West. Problem was he got short stopped in Santo Domingo.
Long story short, Chris landed October 12, 1492, on an island in the Bahamas and claimed the Bahamas for Spain. Then he sailed over to Cuba and claimed Cuba for Spain. Then he sailed over to the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola and claimed the whole island for Spain. Then the Santa Maria sank. He took the wood from the sunken Santa Maria and built a fort. Once you claim a land for Spain you got to put up a fort to keep it claimed. His fellow sailors brought a gift of their own to the Caribbean islands in the form of disease which decimated the population. Chris sailed back to Spain. Hail the conquering hero! When he came back on his second voyage, he found the fort burned and his men killed. Maybe them Tainos weren’t so peaceable after all. Chris was pissed. And so it goes.
Puerto Rico at the time was populated by Caribs (fierce cannibals) and Tainos (perhaps-peaceable vegans). Chris landed there in 1493 and claimed the land (surprise!) for Spain. He named the island San Juan Bautista which was later shortened to San Juan. Then they found gold in the rivers and the name of the island got changed to Puerto Rico (rich port). The more things change etc.