Christopher Columbus and the Manufacture of Identity

When I first visited Japan a decade ago, I was surprised to learn that Japanese schools did not teach students about the systematic murder of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians at the 1937 “Nanking Massacre”.

Mariko Oi at the BBC says that, as a student, her textbook only had a single footnote about the event:

“There was one page on other events leading up to the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 – including one line, in a footnote, about the massacre that took place when Japanese forces invaded Nanjing – the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing.”

Later, I learned that this whitewashing of history happens all the time and is not at all unique to Japan. For example, the story of Christopher Columbus—a name any American student knows—has been edited, whitewashed, and re-written to the point where it is more myth than reality.

Recently, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about how stories shape our beliefs, personalities, and well-being. In this two-part series, I’d like to use the story of Chistopher Columbus to further illuminate the function and purpose of story in our lives.

When someone treats you with kindness, enslave them and kill their families

In the US, most of us are fed the same story about Christopher Columbus. Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall captures it well in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

“I recently asked my first-grade daughter, Abigail, to tell me what she learned in school about Christopher Columbus. Abby has an excellent memory, and she recalled a lot: the names of the three ships, the fact that Columbus discovered America by sailing the ocean blue in 1492, and that Columbus proved that the earth was round, not flat. It’s the same thing they taught me in elementary school thirty years ago, and what my parents learned before me.”

The reality of Columbus’s arrival was quite different. Upon landing at the island of San Salvador, Columbus wrote the following in his logs:

“I gave to some of them red caps and to some glass beads, which they hung on their necks, and many other things of slight value, in which they took much pleasure; they remained so much our friends that it was a marvel; and later they came swimming to the ships’ boats … and brought us parrots and cotton thread in skeins and darts and many other things … everything they had, with good will.”

So far, so good. Then, Columbus wrote:

“These people are very unskilled in arms … With fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”

Within 60 years, Columbus managed to enslave or exterminate the entire local Arawak population. The historian James Loewen writes, “He probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual… other nations rushed to emulate Columbus.”

Apparently, there’s a hot debate going on about whether or not we should revise our textbooks so that Columbus appears as less of an American hero.

I don’t have much of an opinion about that. Rather, I’m curious about why the story changed.

Secular myths for secular times

There are a lot of reasons why history is deleted or fictionalized, and I won’t pretend to understand it all.

However, Gottschall suggests that the story has changed in order to better suit our cultural needs for a unifying story:

“Revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn and James Loewen have argued that American history texts have been whitewashed so thoroughly that they don’t count as history anymore. They represent determined forgetting—an erasure of what is shameful from our national memory banks so that history can function as a unifying, patriotic myth. Stories about Columbus, Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, George Washington’s inability to lie, and so on, serve as national creation myths. The men at the center of these stories are presented not as flesh-and-blood humans with flaws to match their virtues, but as the airbrushed leading men of hero stories. The purpose of these myths is not to provide an objective account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together…

Why do we need unifying stories? Well, Gottschall points out that, at their heart, stories are deeply moral. They teach us what is good and what is bad. And, when everybody in our community or culture learns those stories, it brings us together and gives us a common identity.

In a beautiful paragraph, Gottschall writes:

“Story … continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction ‘is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

Religious fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Myths and religious stories were never meant to be read literally. Rather, they were sources of metaphorical wisdom that captured important truths about how to live.

Now, in a time where faeries, spirits and talking clouds makes us uncomfortable, mythology needs to come from a source that is palatable to our scientific minds. I suppose history is one such source.

If the story of Christopher Columbus is to serve as a moral guide, it’s no surprise that the ugliest aspects of his story have been whitewashed and eliminated. We don’t want our mythologies saying, “Hey, if someone treats you nicely, you should enslave them, infect them with disease, and slowly commit genocide on their entire race.“

Likewise, it’s not a surprise when completely fictional events (such as the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree) are added into the stories. In a way, we’re doing R&D to try and produce the best possible mythology—better than anything real life can provide.

Of course, it’s a problem when people confuse myth for reality and literally think that Columbus was this wonderful guy. But I guess that’s what happens when you have to get your mythologies from history and not from, well, mythology.

Source: XKCD

Blueprints for action

Another way to think about stories—both the true ones and the mythological ones—is that they serve as “blueprints for action.”

Children and teenagers form their personalities by identifying with a particular social category or group and then trying to become more like the people in that group. This is driven by our fundamental desire to belong to a tribe.

At the same time, we also have a drive to succeed within whatever tribe we belong to. It’s not enough to be in the DDR club, we also want to be the best player in the DDR club.

In his book Selfie, the journalist Will Storr says that we look to our cultural environment for guidance on how we can succeed:

“…the thing all human selves fundamentally wants is to get along and get ahead. Everyone has this in common. When we’re born, our brain looks to the environment to tell it who we ought to become in order to best fulfil this deep and primal need. What it’s looking for is the model of the ideal of self that exists in its cultural surroundings.

Where do does the model of the ideal self come from? Well, they come in part from stories:

“From the fairy tales we hear as children, to films and works of literature, to the documentaries and news stories that narrativize the world more directly, to ancient parables in holy books, stories work as both entertainment and a kind of shopping mall for the self. ‘Culture provides each person with an extensive menu of stories about how to live,’ writes [psychologist Dan] McAdams, ‘and each of us chooses from the menu.’ We build our sense of who we are by ‘appropriating stories from culture’.”

I guess you can think of mythical heroes as the ultimate role models. We may never be able to become like Jesus, Joan de arc, or Superman, but they gives us something to aim for.

So, in a way, you could say that we’ve (perhaps unconsciously) edited and updated the story of Columbus to make him look more like how we want our heroes to be.

We want Columbus to be a nice guy who is also courageous, bold, and explores new territories. What we don’t want is for him to be a mass murderer and slave trader with a lust for gold.

Curtain call

Last year, I couldn’t quite understand why certain public intellectuals—Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson comes to mind—were so worried about postmodernism and its systematic dismantling of traditions, mythologies, and values.

But if cultural stories and myths are important for (a) feeling life is meaningful, (b) cooperating with your community, and (c) orienting yourself morally in the world, then I guess I can understand why they may be worried.

What do you get when cultural stories are removed? Nihilism? Happiness? Depression? And, if we need stories, where do the new ones come from? Vampire novels? Comic books? YouTube? 

Honestly, I have no idea.

In the second part of this two-part series, I’ll be looking at another equally interesting side of the Columbus myth: His supposed “discovery” that the earth was round.