In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus got really, really lost

Last week, while Ella was at swimming and Nick was out of town, I sat down with Annie and had her show me her school papers from the day. We always do this, but it’s rare that she gets such one-on-one time; usually, she’s vying with her sister for attention or she’s munching on a snack or a friend has come over to play.

Because of the Columbus Day holiday, the kids had four days off of school, and Annie had brought home a plethora of Columbus-related materials. Thinking back on my own Columbus education, I remember, of course, learning the ever-famous couplet, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!” I’m also certain that we were taught that Columbus really did “discover” America, and that the people he encountered were savage Indian types (I’m not even sure that the term “Native Americans” existed back then – at least, not in my school books).

I was interested to see if Annie was learning the same, um, skewed version of history that I’d been taught, or if things had changed in the last thirty-plus years, so I asked her a few questions – who Columbus was, what he was doing, you know, the basics. When she said, “He sailed across the ocean and found a new place. Well… new to him, anyway…” I knew that the narrative had shifted. Let’s hear it for history!

It soon became clear, however, that although she had the outline correct, she didn’t really understand where Columbus had gone on his journey. To her delight, I got out the globe, and we pored over it for the next thirty minutes.

Columbus began here, in Spain, and he wanted to go here, to India.

“But I thought Columbus was from Italy. Like Buddy on Cake Boss.”columbus globe1

He was. But he was sailing for Queen Isabella from Spain. He was working for her.

“Like Daddy works for his boss and you work for us?”

Uh, Mama is the boss of this here house, but sure. Isabella was his boss. So anyway, he was trying to get to India, right?

“Right. Why did he want to go to India again?”

Well, there were things that the people in Europe wanted that could only be found in places like India. Spices and stuff like that.

“They wanted to go to India for spices? Why couldn’t they just go to Wegmans?”

‘Cause Wegmans wasn’t invented yet. There weren’t even cars. Spices had to travel by foot, or by horse, or by boat.

“But the trip by boat was really, reeeeeally long. Like, longer than it takes to get to Grandma’s or even Disney World.”

columbus globe2

Exactly. All the way around Africa. See how far it is?

“WOW. That would take at least ten or eight hours.”

At least. But do you feel these things?

columbus globe3

“It’s all bumpy!”

Right. Why do you suppose that is?

“Because our globe is broken?”

Um, nope.

“Because the world is bumpy?”

Closer. They’re actually mountains.


Yep. Big ones. Huge.

“How big?”

Bigger than the ones near Denver.

“OH MY GOSH. THAT’S SO HIGH. I couldn’t even climb them.”

Not without a lot of help. Or Sherpas. They’re called the Himalayas. Anyway… So the mountains weren’t exactly easy to go across, especially not carrying bags of spices.

“They wanted BAGS of spices? Not just little shakers, but BAGS?”

They did. They had a spice problem. But it was really tough to bring the spices across the mountains. There were also these people, the Turks, who didn’t want people like Columbus crossing their land…



“What, is their country TURKEY or something?”

Actually, it is…


Awesome. An entire country is now funny. Moving on… Columbus wanted to find a new way to India.

columbus globe4

“Oh, right! He wanted to sail across the ocean. He thought it would be faster.”

You’ve got it! And do you know what’s really crazy? Some people thought he might not make it, because they thought the world was flat.

“Flat? What do you mean, the world was flat?”

I mean that some people didn’t realize that the earth was round. They thought it was flat… like a book. Like a flat map.


It is now, but remember, people hadn’t traveled very far back then. No internet… no Google… no airplanes…

“But they thought it was FLAT???”

Some folks did. And they were afraid that Columbus would fall off the edge of the earth and die.


I’m right here. You don’t need to shout.

“Sorry. But that’s just crazy! At least Columbus was smart enough to know that he wouldn’t fall off.”

He was, that’s true. But maybe he made a big mistake, too.

“He did? Like what?”

Well, remember where he was trying to reach? India, right? So he goes out sailing, headed off to where he thinks India is… and he lands. Here.

columbus globe5

“That’s nowhere NEAR India!”

I know! But he thought he’d made it all the way to India.


Again, I’m right here.


Columbus didn’t even know that all of this land existed, though, so he thought he WAS in India. It was warm, like India. There were different kinds of foods, like India. And there were brown-skinned people, like in India, so he thought he’d landed in India.

“That is one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard.”

And since he thought he was in India, what did he call the people he met here?



“So, wait. We call the people who were here first Indians because Columbus got lost and got it wrong?”

Well, when you put it that way…

“So basically we get a day off of school because this guy sailed his boat to the wrong place and made a huge mistake.”

That’s one way of looking at it.

“COOL!” with daddy
Hi, Daddy! Mommy and I are talking about Columbus. He got it ALL wrong!

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