Last year I celebrated Columbus Day with my doctor on Staten Island. The doctor is Italian. NIck makes great meatballs. HIs kids had the day off and I asked thems, “What year did Columbus sail to America?”
“Huh?” they answered in a collective chorus of ignorance.
“C’mon, you gotta know.” The doctor and I had met during our freshman class of European History 101. He was a sophomore. We both got Bs from the professor.
“1882?” His youngest son was the only one brave enough to offer an answer.
“You got two numbers right.” The doctor shook his head in disbelief. “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You never head that?”
“Never.” The kids ranged from 8 to 18. They had friends with them. Columbus was a blank and I explained that Columbus had been seeking the back door to Asia.
“For Chinese food.” His older son’s friend Squeak asked with interest. He liked poo-poo platters.
“No, for spices.”
"That's why no one knows about him. No one knows about spices."
NIck and I dropped our heads in our hands.
"Did we know that little when we were that age?" I was sure that we would have had the answer to the white man's discovery of America.
"We went to nun school." NIck looked at me and his eyes said that they had forced us to remember Columbus' three ships by name; the Santa Maria, the Nina, and the Pinta.
"Spices were the most important commodity in the world 500 years ago." I had been a history substitute teacher at South Boston High during the bussing riots of 1975. "Spices are pepper, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, chili, nutmeg and many more."
"Chili came from Mexico." Nick's younger son announced from the table.
"The gardener told me that. He's from Mexico."
"Yes, but many other spices came from Asia." I had spent the 90s and 00s in the Far East. Nick had graduated from a medical school in Manila. We liked the Orient.
"Why they need spices on their good, when they had ketchup?" Squeak was spinning linguine on his fork.
"Ketchup is not a spice and it is not a vegetable." Even if the majority of American teenagers choose Heinz ketchup as their favorite veggie. "I'll tell you a story. Back in 1991 I arrived by boat to Ternate in northern Indonesia. The volcanic island was a backwater then, but back in the 15th Century European nations sought the quickest route to its harbor for its treasures of cloves and spices. Hoping to discover a short-cut the fabled island, Christopher Columbus set sail west across the Atlantic Ocean. His fleet of three ships made landfall on an unknown continent. It was not China, Japan, or Ternate. Undeterred by this disappointment, the Genoan adventurer claimed the new world for the King Of Span and his patroness the Queen Isabella. He was as good a salesman as he was a sailor and called it the West Indies to promote future expeditions."
The teenagers' eyes were glazing off with disinterest. Nick's youngest son and daughter were still listening to what I had to say. Their attention span respected an adult.
"Columbus' first voyage was remarkable, for the fact that he was traveling through unknown waters and only lost one ship, the SANTA MARIA on his first voyage. It sank on Christmas Day, but not one sailor drowning in the shipwreck. There was not enough room for everyone to return to Spain and 39 men elected to stay on 'Hispaniola' to further explore the virgin territory for gold and spices."
"What happened to those guys he left behind?" Nick's younger son was showing promise.
"They were massacred by Carib warriors who detested the newcomers' enslavement of their women, children, and friends, thus initiating the long conflict between Europe and the New World. "
"Massacred as in eaten." Squeak loved shoot em up VDO games.
"Did they use any spices when they ate them or just ketchup.?" Squeak's comment earned all-around laughter.
"I quit." I got up from the table and went out on the terrace with a glass of wine in my hand. Outer New York Harbor spread beneath the highest point in Staten Island. Henry Hudson had discovered this bay. His river ran straight north into the Adirondacks. He had been stranded in the Arctic by his men.
Exploration was tough in the unknown
Columbus might be forgotten by the young and no longer considered to be a hero by those who blame the destruction of the Indians on his discovery, but I celebrated his discovery of the Bahamas with rum and coke. Christopher Columbus carried little gold back to his Spanish sovereigns, but he did introduce corn, manioc or cassava, potato, the peanut, tomato, papaya, pineapple, avocado, chili pepper, cotton and cocoa to the Old World. It took about 30 years for the chili to reach Thailand, which adopted the fiery spice as its own.My wife Mam loves chili on her sum-tam salad. All Thai women love the fiery mango dish and they have Columbus to thank for their pleasure.He was Admiral of the Oceans.