The following is derived from a chapter in a book I am writing, MythAmerica.
This is part one of a two-part article on the 'Columbus Discovered America' myth. Part one deals with the nature of the world and people Columbus intruded on, debunking the Eurocentric myth that Columbus "discovered" a land that was barely populated, undeveloped, and an untamed wilderness despite millions of people already living there for thousands of years.
Soon to follow, part 2 debunks the Columbus-as-hero myth by examining how his genocidal attacks on the indigenous populations of the Caribbean led to the opening of the African slave trade, and how and why all this has been justified over the centuries.
When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, 'Ours.' Vine Deloria, Jr
Vermont and Maine recently joined the growing list of states and cities that no longer recognize and celebrate Columbus day. The 1992 five hundred-year anniversary celebration of Columbus's voyages to the Americas turned out to be quite a Pandora's box for the "Columbus discovered America" (CDA) myth. Along with the celebrations came a fierce debate about Columbus's legacy, an upsurge of activism around native American rights and a broad movement to de-throne Columbus and replace it by an Indigenous People's or Native American day. That challenge became widespread enough to even motivate an HBO Sopranos episode presenting the native American point of view.
Yet despite all this, as we approach another Columbus Day celebration we can expect to still hear that "Columbus discovered America". But the official story is almost wholly myth. What little that is true is mostly trivia: the date of his first voyage, the names of the 3 ships, and how Columbus "discovered" America by sailing west from Europe in search of a sea route to Asia. Columbus's first voyage landing in the the Bahamas is very much the beginning and end of the story, and so antiseptically described as to prove shocking when the truths of what he did are exposed.
Here's that make-believe world packed into CDA:
Myth # 1. COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA
It is often said that history is written from the point of view of the conquerors, perhaps never so clearly demonstrated than by the Eurocentric assertion, the foundational myth of American history, that Columbus "discovered America". How can it be said that he "discovered" a land when tens of millions of people were already living there for tens of thousands of years? There was no "America" for Columbus to discover--nor was there a "Europe" yet. There weren't any "Indians" either. There were the Dine (Navajo), Haudenosaunee (Iriquois), Tenocha (Aztecs), and numerous other peoples with varying cultures and languages. They didn't become Indians until Columbus mislabeled them as such in his mistaken belief that he had reached Asia. The populations of this new-to-Europeans land had ways of life in many ways even more diverse than that of Europe at the time, speaking over 2,000 languages.
But it's more than just semantics that Columbus did not "discover" America. Packed into those three words is a world where the Americas were a barely populated, undeveloped and untamed wilderness, where Columbus brought civilization to a primitive people while trying to find a shortcut trade route to Asia, all of which led to the creation of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, the United States of America. But the only way Columbus could have discovered 1/4th of the globe was if somehow those people did not count, were less-than-human. One Spanish 'scholar' described the indigenous as "creatures of a subhuman nature who were intended by God to be placed under the authority of civilized and virtuous princes or nations, so that they may learn, from the might, wisdom, and law of their conquerors, to practice better morals, worthier customs and a more civilized way of life.'
Another part of the myth is that Columbus proved the world was round, despite the fact that the Greeks knew that 2,000 years before, as well as most educated people in 1492, especially those who worked on the sea--like Columbus.
So while Columbus did not discover America--at the same time let there be no doubt that Columbus's voyages were world changing to the extent that 1492 is considered a dividing line for when "modern" history began, with what came before designated as "Pre-Columbian history".
MYTH #2 : THE AMERICAS WERE BARELY POPULATED
"We are left with the startling realization that Europeans were not coming to a 'virgin wilderness' as some called it, but were invading a land which in some areas was as densely populated as their homelands... Columbus had stumbled upon what was a new world only in the European mind." (Gary Nash, Red White and Black, The Peoples of Early North America.)