Monday, August 23, 2010

American History, rhymeswithplague style

In the European version of things, the New World (that is, actual land in the Western Hemisphere as opposed to more ocean) was discovered by the Vikings or Leif Ericson or somebody more than a thousand years ago. This event was commemorated in the British comedy film, Carry On, Norse.

(Note.The native population of the New World, who pointed out that the European version of things is not always accurate, were considered irrelevant and a bit of a nuisance.)

Later, during the year that Michelangelo sculpted this and this for Lorenzo de’ Medici, Queen Isabella I of Castile sent out one Christoffa Corombo of Genoa, Italy, and his merry men in three ships called the Nina, the Piñata, and the Santa Gertrudis. Christoffa Corombo, whose name morphed into Christoforo Columbo in modern Italian and Christopher Columbus in English, was known as Cristóbal Colón in Spain. This is fortunate, because Cristóbal and Colón are the names of two places on the isthmus of Panama, where Spanish is the predominant language, and Panamanians might otherwise have thought Cristóbal was part of a gypsy fortune-teller’s act and Colón referred to the part of the body between the stomach and the anal sphincter.

It’s not every day a person gets to use the word isthmus, and I am honored to have been able to use it today.

Lorenzo de’ Medici died in Florence, but we aren’t going to go there.

Christoffa Christoforo Cristóbal Christopher Isabella’s new friend set out from Spain on August 3, 1492, and returned a few months later saying he had claimed the entire New World for Spain on October 12, 1492, just because he had landed on a small island in the Bahamas. He returned to Lisbon, Portugal, in March 1493, and made four voyages in all to the New World, causing thousands of schoolchildren over the ensuing centuries to have to recite this little poem from memory:

“In fourteen hundred ninety-three,
Columbus sailed the deep blue sea.
He did the very same thing too
In fourteen hundred ninety-two.
He liked to sail so he sailed some more
In fourteen hundred ninety-four.
Though hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers fourteen ninety-five,
He made more trips ’til Spain said ‘Nix’;
He died in the year fifteen naught-six.”

Or something like that.

Portugal was definitely not a happy camper and wanted Pope Alexander VI to divide the newly discovered lands between Spain and Portugal. He did so, although by whose authority is a little murky, along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, leading King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella’s husband and also her second cousin, to wonder aloud, “How much is a league, exactly?”

A century later the English navy defeated the Spanish armada, Portugal had faded into obscurity, and it became a moot point how much a league is exactly, because the English, the French, the Dutch, and the Swedish (and, for all I know, the Maltese, the Luxembourgers, the Lithuanians, and the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides) began to explore the northern part of North America and claim it for themselves. Spain had everything else in the new hemisphere from Mexico south except Brazil, which belonged to Portugal, and that is why to this day Brazilians write San Paulo as São Paulo.

Eventually the French had Quebec, downtown Pittsburgh, the federal prison in Joliet, Illinois, and Louisiana, which at that time included Montana. The English threw the French out in 1763, however, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, which had begun, conveniently, in 1756. The French got to keep Louisiana for another forty years, which is why one of the first sentences everyone learns in French is “Quelle temp est-il?” and another one is “Laissez les bons temps roulez!” Then they sold it to Thomas Jefferson, who considered going to New Orleans during Mardi Gras one of his unalienable rights.

Not to be outdone, the American colonists threw England out in 1776 after Patrick Henry cried, “Give me the Statue of Liberty or give me death” but Lord Cornwallis didn’t surrender until 1783 at Yorktown, not to be confused with York (Pennsylvania), New York (New York), or Yorkshire (home of Leeds, York, Sheffield, Bradford, and Hull, which, despite what you may think, is not the name of a Wall Street law firm).

Shortly after that, everything became George W. Bush’s fault.


  1. Your approach to the history of your great nation is rather too light-hearted in my view. History is very serious stuff and facts are facts. You state that "the American colonists threw England out in 1776". This is a complete fabrication repeated down the ages. If I might quote from Professor Winchester's authoritative "Birth of America": -"The truth of the matter is that England, as the parent country, realised that the colonies of the New World had matured like a growing adolescent and saw by the mid seventeen seventies that it was time to give those colonies their spurs." (page 173 para 4)

    So we released you from our control like a mother bird releases its fledgling young. The American War of Independence was made up for and by Hollywood.

  2. YP, what about the Stamp Act, taxation without representation, the madness of King George III, Washington at Valley Forge, etc.? Or did Hollywood make those up too?

    There are none so blind as those who will not see. I do realize that that particular train can run in both directions.

    I'm hoping that your comment is supposed to be an example of your droll Yorkshire humo(u)r.

  3. 'Lorenzo de’ Medici died in Florence, but we won’t go there'

    Why not? I'd love to visit Florence.

  4. I think that about sums it up nicely, RWP, nothing to argue with there.

    ERxcellent post!

  5. ARGH!!! I just left a long, detailed comment, and it gave me an error. I am not going to type it all back out unless I know it will work. So this is a test.

  6. Oh, sure, of course the test worked. Sigh. Anywho, I was saying, I loved this whirl through history. The poem was great. My son just got back from Panama, which I know is in Central America, but does it count as going to South America? Or not? He stayed on the Pacific Ocean side, saw the Panama Canal, and an ocelot, among other things. Like Cuba. (Flying from Florida to Panama). I couldn't come to your site for awhile because it wouldn't load, but I have a new(er) computer now so I can. This better work.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Carolina, "not going there" is an English idiom for "won't discuss it further" and Florence is a girl's name. Do I have to explain everything???

    Reamus, thank you, kind sir!

    Rosezilla (which I first typed as Rosevilla; I must have been thinking of the pottery company in Ohio), Panama was part of Colombia originally, and Colombia is definitely in South America. But now, I don't know. I personally think of it as Central America. Only the Panamanians know for sure.

    My verification word is "terre" (Latin for "land"). What a coincidence!

  8. Oh, my dear RWP! You are definitely back up to form! I love your version of history, including the Santa Gertrudis and Montana being a part of Louisiana which, of course, it was, so you didn't make that up.

    Thanks for brightening my day.