Where does that “1492/ocean blue” thing about Columbus come from? And what was Columbus’s deal, anyway?


SHARE Where does that “1492/ocean blue” thing about Columbus come from? And what was Columbus’s deal, anyway?

Dear Straight Dope: Recently one of my friends who had read a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me suggested that Columbus has really done none of the things we credit him for. Why do we continue to celebrate a holiday dedicated to someone who seems to be a fraud? Back in my college years I remember hearing the tale of how Christopher Columbus was dragged off his last voyage, stark raving mad from syphilis. Lately I have tried to validate this account and am finding different stories, none of which is this one. What is the truth? Was Christopher Columbus really the Indian killer and enslaver that some activists now say he was? Yen Liu, California; Tetsuro, Miami; Gary Mills, Houston; Jeff Rice, Sterling, Colorado.

SDStaff Gfactor replies:

OK, Yen, your question first. There is in fact more to a poem containing those lines, but they seem to have originated elsewhere.

Some sources attribute the 1492-ocean-blue couplet to a 1919 poem called “The History of the U.S.” by a 17-year-old intellectual prodigy named Winifred Sackville Stoner Jr. Reportedly a fluent speaker of Esperanto at age 5 (as Winifred Sr., a noted educator, informed the New York Times ), at 13 she published a book called Facts in Jingles [.pdf] , consisting of useful information rendered in easily memorizable light verse (i.e., “jingles”). “The History of the U.S.” is a series of such jingles, only the first of which is about Columbus:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue And found this land, land of the Free, Beloved by you, beloved by me.

Two obvious points: (1) she’s a little off on the facts, as Columbus never set foot on any land that would later become one of the 50 states, and (2) she sure wasn’t a prodigy at writing poetry. The remaining 18 stanzas* run down various key dates in United States history, culminating with the end of World War I:

Thank God in nineteen eighteen Peace on earth again was seen, And we are praying that she’ll stay Forever in our U.S.A.

And that’s that, right? Not quite — Winifred’s famous first line can’t be considered her own, as it appeared in newspapers a decade before her birth. For instance, the March 4, 1892 issue of the Miami Leader included a piece about a New York girl who aspires to intellectualism but is “greatly handicapped by a faulty memory.” A friend suggests that she use rhymes to help her remember dates, and provides our couplet as an example. When the friend later runs into her at a party, the girl brags about her mastery of the couplet system and recites:

In eighteen hundred and ninety-three Columbus sailed the bright blue sea.

So it seems Winifred may have taken an already well-known rhyme as the starting point for her miniature epic of doggerel.

Now Gary: Columbus wasn’t dragged off his fourth, and last, voyage — it was his third, when he was arrested on the island of Hispaniola in 1500.

Let me give you some background. After he’d convinced Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to fund his voyages, Columbus bargained with them over what he was to receive from the expeditions. The negotiation resulted in a document popularly known as the Capitulations of Santa Fe. Some of the major perks included power (he was to be named Admiral of the Ocean Sea and governor of all lands he discovered) and money (he was to get a 10 percent cut of whatever he found). On his second expedition, Columbus was assigned the task of colonizing Hispaniola; under the Capitulations, Columbus became governor of the colony. Unfortunately, he stank at governing. He faced rebellions and mutinies, and (here’s your answer, Jeff) he acquired a habit of killing and enslaving the natives — making Isabella unhappy, as she understood them to be Spanish subjects.

After myriad complaints, the king and queen sent an investigator named Bobadilla who showed up, found seven bodies hanging from the gallows, and immediately had Columbus taken into custody. Perhaps one of Columbus’s true accomplishments was seeing this moment as an opportunity — he played it for all it was worth, insisting on remaining in chains all the way back to Spain, even though he could have had them removed. Columbus lost his offices after this, but was not otherwise punished. (As we’ll see, this episode actually played a part in making Columbus a figure in United States legend.)

But you asked about his fourth voyage, on which he set out to find the strait, once navigated by Marco Polo, leading through the Indies to the Indian Ocean. As I said, he wasn’t forcibly removed from command, and he wasn’t “stark raving mad from syphilis.” But some say he was nuts by then, and no wonder: he was suffering from painful lower extremities, bleeding eyes, and periods of blindness. (It’s likely he had reactive arthritis, sometimes called Reiter’s syndrome.) Columbus scoured the coast of Central America looking for a strait that was nearly half a world away,  off Singapore. The expedition ended badly: beset by storms, Indian attacks, and shipworm, Columbus wound up stranded in Jamaica. He spent the remainder of his life suing the Spanish government over its failure to keep the promises made in the Capitulations.

And as far as I can tell, Tetsuro, these days Columbus is credited with only a few accomplishments. For example, it’s well understood now that he didn’t prove the world was round. The idea wasn’t really controversial in his day, actually, having been around for centuries. (Here’s a globe from right around 1492.) Experts of the time agreed with Columbus that the earth was spherical but argued that its circumference was such that his ships couldn’t carry enough provisions to make it westward to the Indies; he thought the trip would be much shorter. As it turns out, they were right and he was wrong, but running into the Americas bailed him out. Had there been only ocean between Europe and the Indies, as he believed, the expedition would have failed.

So Columbus’s major contribution to history — and it’s a big one — is introducing Europeans to the New World, which led to cultural exchange, commerce, and exploration, and eventually to the discovery of the real westward route to the Indies. Most would argue that the exchange was pretty one-sided: the Europeans got land, slaves, and gold, while the aboriginals got dispossessed, enslaved, and infected. In any case, Columbus didn’t immediately get credit even for this. As Martin Dugard notes in his book The Last Voyage of Columbus (2005), “Until very late in the eighteenth century, it was common knowledge that the New World was discovered by the intrepid Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci,” while Columbus was “written off as a minor Renaissance explorer – when he was remembered at all.”

It wasn’t until after the American Revolution that Columbus attained exalted status. According to the University of Virginia’s Capitol Project, “having effected a violent separation from England and its cultural and political icons, America was left without history — or heroes.  … A new national story was needed, yet the Revolutionary leaders, obvious choices for mythical transformation, were loath to be raised to their pedestals.” Instead, they picked Columbus. As John Noble Wilford suggests in The Mysterious History of Columbus (1991), Columbus made a fitting hero for the new republic – he was “the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea,” just as the U.S. faced an uncertain future.

In 1785 Phillis Wheately wrote the poem “To His Excellency George Washington,” in which the U.S. is referred to as “Columbia.” In 1787 American poet Joel Barlow chimed in with a work called Vision of Columbus, which described the explorer as “the Sage, the first who dared to brave / The unknown dangers of the western wave, / Who taught mankind where future empires lay,” and turned his detention and demotion into a kind of martyrdom: ” … kings and nations, envious of his name, / Enjoy’d his toils and triumph’d o’er his fame, / And gave the chief, from promised empire hurl’d, / Chains for a crown, a prison for a world.” By 1792, there was a movement to officially name the country Columbia. In 1807 Barlow recast his 20-year-old poem as the Columbiad, “turning it,” say Stephen Summerhill and John Williams in their Sinking Columbus (2000), “into a secular vision of America’s destiny with Columbus as that destiny’s prophet.” Columbus came to symbolize the spirit of progress, and later got adopted as a symbol by various ethnic groups. In other words, his image has, unsurprisingly, changed with the times.

*Here’s the whole thing:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue And found this land, land of the Free, Beloved by you, beloved by me. And in the year sixteen and seven, Good Captain Smith thought he’d reach Heav’n, And then he founded Jamestown City, Alas, ’tis gone, oh, what a pity. ’Twas in September sixteen nine, WIth ship, Half Moon, a read Dutch sign, That Henry Hudson found the stream, The Hudson River of our dream. In sixteen twenty, pilgrims saw Our land that had no unjust law. Their children live here to this day, Proud citizens of U.S.A. In sixteen hundred eighty-three, Good William Penn stood ’neath a tree And swore that unto his life’s end He would be the Indian’s friend. In seventeen hundred seventy-five, Good Paul Revere was then alive; He rode like wild throughout the night, And called the Minute Men to fight. Year seventeen hundred seventy-six, July the fourth, this date please fix Within your minds, my children dear, For that was Independence Year. In that same year on a bitter night At Trenton was an awful fight, But by our brave George Washington The battle was at last well won. Two other dates in your mind fix—Franklin born in seventeen six, And Washington first said Boo-Hoo In seventeen hundred thirty-two. In seventeen hundred seventy-nine, Paul Jones, who was a captain fine, Gained our first naval victory Fighting on the big, wide sea. And in the year eighteen and four, Lewis and Clark both went before, And blazed for us the Oregon Trail Where men go now in ease by rail. In eighteen hundred and thirteen, On great Lake Erie could be seen Our Perry fight the Union Jack And drive it from our shores far back. In eighteen hundred and sixty-one, An awful war was then begun Between the brothers of our land, Who now together firmly stand. In eighteen hundred sixty-three, Each slave was told that he was free By Lincoln, with whom few compare In being kind and just and fair. In eighteen hundred eighty-one, At Panama there was begun By good De Lesseps, wise and great, The big canal, now our ship’s gate. At San Juan, eighteen ninety-eight, Our brave Rough Riders lay in wait, And on the land brought victory, While Dewey won it on the sea. In nineteen hundred and fifteen, Was shown a panoramic screen At San Francisco’s wondrous fair; All peoples were invited there. But cruel war in that same year Kept strangers from our land o’ cheer, And nineteen seventeen brought here The war that filled our hearts with fear. Thank God in nineteen eighteen Peace on earth again was seen, And we are praying that she’ll stay Forever in our U.S.A.


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SDStaff Gfactor, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.