I came across these interesting, if not infamous, nuggets while reading Bill Bryson’s Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. Since today is a day in his honor I though you might enjoy the reading. Happy Columbus Day!
Columbus never found Antilla or anything else he was looking for. His epochal voyage of 1492 was almost the last thing – indeed almost the only thing – that went right in his life. Within eight years, he would find himself summarily relieved of his post as Admiral of the Ocean Sea, returned to Spain in chains, and allowed to sink into such profound obscurity that we don’t know for sure where he is buried. To achieve such a precipitous fall in less than a decade required an unusual measure of incompetence and arrogance. Columbus had both.
He spent most of those eight years bouncing around the islands of the Caribbean and coast of South America without ever having any real idea where he was or what he was doing. He always thought that Cipangu, or Japan, was somewhere nearby and never divined that Cuba was an island. To his dying day he insisted that it was part of the Asian mainland (though there is some indication that he had his own doubts, since he made his men swear under oath that it was Asia or have their tongues cut out). His geographic imprecision is most enduringly preserved in the name he gave to the natives: Indios, which of course has come down to us as Indians. He cost the Spanish crown a fortune and gave in return little but broken promises. And throughout he behaved with the kind of impudence – demanding he be made hereditary Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as well as viceroy and governor of the lands that he conquered, and to be granted one-tenth of whatever wealth he enterprises generated – that all but invited his downfall.
United States of Columbia was a somewhat unexpected suggestion (as a name for the USA), since for most of the previous 250 years Christopher Columbus had been virtually forgotten in America. His Spanish associations had made him suspect to the British, who preferred to see the glory of North American discovery go to John Cabot. Not until after the Revolutionary War, when America began casting around for heroes unconnected with the British monarchy, was the name Columbus resurrected, generally in the more elegant Latinized form Columbia, and his memory generously imbued with a spirit of grit and independent fortitude that wasn’t altogether merited.
The semi-deification of Columbus began with a few references in epic poems, and soon communities and institutions were falling all over themselves to create new names in his honor. In 1784, King’s College in New York became Columbia College, and two years later, South Carolina chose Columbia as the name for its capital. In 1791, an American captain on a ship named Columbia claimed a vast tract of the Northwest for the young country and dubbed it Columbia. (It later became the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, though the original name live on north of the border in British Columbia.) Journals, clubs, and institutes (among them the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences, better known to us today and the Smithsonian Institution) were named for the great explorer, The song “Hail Columbia” dates from 1798.
After this encouraging start, Columbus’s life was given a kick into the higher realms of myth by Washington Irving’s ambitious, if resplendently inaccurate, History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which came out in 1828 and was a phenomenal best-seller in America, Europe, and Latin America throughout the nineteenth century.
(In 1846, Virginia reclaimed the portion on its side of the Potomac River, which explains why the modern District of Columbia has ruler-straight boundaries on three sides but an irregular wriggle on the fourth.) In 1791, the city-to-be was named Washington; the 6,100-acre tract within which it was situated was to be called the Territory of Columbia (eventually, of course, changed to District of Columbia), thus neatly enshrining in one place the two great mythic names of our age.