When I was growing up I learned the same well-known oft repeated facts about the history of my nation and the world as most people do. I didn't question what I read on the page or what I was told to believe from the front of the class and in all the television shows, movies, video games and modern novels the same ideas of what happened and why persisted.
But then I went to college. The same narrative continued oftentimes, but bizarrely my teachers started to disagree with the texts they were assigned. Their own experiences as professional historians led them to different conclusions then the popular perception would have it, and from that moment on I drew in my mind a disconnect between what the curriculum said was true and what actual recorded history revealed.
This disconnect grew stronger the more I began to read and research on my own.
I discovered to my amazement that those moments so fixated in the public consciousness, recreated in so many medias, and repeated by so many as unquestionable truth...weren't.
These are the biggest surprises to me when I started to question the narrative.
Every culture has it's mythology. The modern mythology is too often called 'history'.
Myth: Native Americans were peaceful, tolerant, and in tune with the land until the greedy, warlike settlers arrived.
'You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You'll learn things you never knew you never knew.'
-Colors of the Wind from the Disney film Pocahontas
The first account of Native Americans was by the first recorded discoverer of America: Leif Ericsson. According to his journals these 'seal people' attacked unprovoked and speared to death several of his crew before they were frightened away by one of the woman on the expedition baring her body. Since Leif's society wouldn't look poorly on him if he lied and said that they had conquered the natives his admitting to a retreat and being saved by a woman seems to indicate a true event.
The famously vanished colony of Roanoke was most likely destroyed by natives and there's so genealogical evidence that the survivors were sold into slavery.
When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower the first thing natives taught them was the tribal technique of pounding bronze nails into trees so that they could die and be chopped down easier, making way for farming fields.
The American colonial town of Jamestown was all but obliterated by the tribe led by Chief Powhatan after starving settlers began to strong arm natives for food and expanding their territory beyond preset political borders following a devastating winter called 'The Starving Time' by survivors. The only thing that prevented the complete genocide of the settlers was kidnapping Pocahontas after which a peace treaty was signed, during which time she converted willingly to Christianity under the tutelage of minister Henricus and took an English name to suit her new religion 'Rebecca'. Even after the peace-treaty was signed Pocahontas was distressed that her father was not present during her ransoming and renounced her people for caring less about her then land and resources, traveling to England and marrying a tobacco planter. John Smith himself was injured by an accidentally discharged rifle: the only violence done in this exchange.
Myth: Christopher Columbus was a greedy, imperialistic slaver who made a fortune exploiting the natives: his only purpose in coming to the New World.
STEVEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": This Hubbell humper is back with a new TV series "Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking." And here -- here is what he had to say about the prospect of mankind encountering aliens.
HAWKING: The outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for Native Americans.
COLBERT: Why do the aliens get to be Columbus in this scenario? I think we humans have a proven track record of raping and pillaging. It's right there on mankind's resume. Special skills, 50 words per minute, power point, smallpox.
-The Colbert Report 2010
The Facts: Columbus was a brilliant navigator, but a lousy diplomat. His entire intention of traveling to The Indies by way of circumnavigating the planet was to obtain trade goods and when he discovered America by accident he was stuck in a delicate position. According to everything he knew these oddly primitive Indians should have an entire trade empire prepared for Europeans. Instead all they had to provide, principally to make the new comers happy so they wouldn't be a threat, were fruits and plants.
Still Columbus made his crew sign wavers declaring the new land nothing besides a sprit of The Indies, he was so convinced that was the only place he could be.
His initial response was to demand gold, but only a hawks-bell's worth per person per month: something that seemed a decent enough offering and perhaps could help him repay his enormous debt for outfitting an expedition right after a major war with The Moors. Unfortunately almost no gold was to be found so he began sending back strange plants and other materials hoping to make up the difference. He only sent home slaves once in desperation, and regretted the decision because the Native Americans were sickly in any climate but the one they were used to so slavery was called off. To compound the issue although the crew mates were immune, a strain of syphilis in the goods they traded took a heavy toll on the native popular. Contrary to many beliefs this was unintentional and quite detrimental because without natives there was no gold, no plants, and the natives that lived blamed the settlers for the plague, further straining relations.
While Columbus was back in Spain trying to justify more ships and supplies one of the crew members he had left in charge of the colonies he had established got into a fight over a native woman leading to not only a civil conflict between settlers but a native versus settler fight. Upon returning he discovered a massacre of both parties and his colonies in ruins. A spiteful crew member who survived wrote the history you're probably more familiar with: that Columbus was cruel to the natives and mismanaged things from the beginning.
To atone for these alleged crimes Columbus was actually arrested and transported back to Spain where he died in poverty and obscurity.
Myth: Galileo was arrested by The Pope for his heresy to suggest that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, and after he was found guilty he was condemned to die alone.
"Pope Urban VIII probably thought he was very clever when he condemned Galileo, but who got the last laugh there? Well, he did when Galileo died alone and in poverty but what I'm saying is I'm basically like the Pope."
-Zero Punctuation review of The Kinect for the X-Box on Escapist Magazine
Galileo was not trying to defy scripture when he proposed the support of heliocentrism, he was actually attempting to prove how his scientific discoveries were compatible with Psalm 104:5 which states 'The Lord set the Earth on it's foundations: it can never be moved'. The scientist's supposition was that 'never be moved' was not a statement of physical reality but a metaphorical concept of steadfast existence. This did not sit well with Pope Urban VIII, but not because he was adverse to Galileo's scientific investigations.
When Galileo wrote a compilation of the scientific method according to his interpretations called The Assayer, not only did Urban make official acclaim of the document but it was dedicated by Galileo to him.
The problem is not, as popularly assumed, that the Earth is not at the center of the universe according to The Bible. The Bible actually makes no claims about Earth's place anywhere except, according to Urban's edict, that the Earth doesn't move. Oftentimes people state that the Church was unwilling to accept The Earth being less important by not being the center of the universe, but according to Christianity the Earth is a fallen place and isn't as important as Heavenly realities so this would not have been an issue.
It was a misinterpretation with semantics.
Urban was unwilling to concede any metaphorical nature of the holy scriptures. Still he did not use the accusation of heresy to deny Galileo the right publish the work, he would just have to amend it to state that heliocentrism was an interesting theory but untrue. Galileo actually promised to make this amendment, but never ended up doing so and Urban, irritated, outright denied him permission to publish the work. He was however allowed to publish a later book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems that did argue for heliocentrism but had it in the form of a conversation between Galileo and a second character named Simplicio.
Urban unfortunately had fallen under the influence of political powers and his concerns shifted from Galileo's discoveries to intrigue. Because of his growing paranoia he was willing to listen more and more jealous rivals of Galileo and consider him less of an inadvertent heretic then as someone out to make a deliberate mockery of his person and his position. He had despite his withdrawal of the heliocentrism theory been to that time Galileo's most powerful supporter.
These fears were confirmed when Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was published and the character Simplicio who made arguments against geocentrism (whose name in Italian means 'Idiot') directly quoted Pope Urban VIII. Although Galileo claimed this addition was coincidental, Urban called him to Rome to defend this insult as well as his violation of his promise not to publish any more works advocating heliocentrism.
Galileo initially denied he had continued to hold his belief in heliocentrism or defend it, stating that Dialogue actually supported geocentrism. This was not credible and the denial infuriated the Pope, leading finally to Galileo's being arrested.
While he lived out his life sentence he wrote another book Two New Sciences and, contrary to popular belief, was allowed to travel to Florence in the waning years of his life when his health began to fail. He continued to receive visitors until his death in 1642.
Because of heresy the monument dedicated to him was not allowed to be placed over his grave, but in 1737 a monument and a new tomb interred his remains, although not before three fingers and a tooth were taken to be used as exhibition curiosities.
Myth: On The Titanic the wealthy class locked the poorer passengers down in the hold to drown and selfishly took the few life boats for themselves.
'They were not far from the shore, 'bout a thousand miles or more,
When the rich refused to mingle with the poor.
So they threw them down below, where they'd be the first to go.
It was sad when the great ship went down.'
-Titanic, a Popular American Folksong
The Facts: Until the last hour of staying afloat, no one onboard suspected that The Titanic was really sinking at all. Only the crew knew how bad the situation was and didn't want to let on to a majority of the passengers to avoid a panic because there were indeed too few lifeboats to hold everyone. During this time the gates that separated the rich compartments from those traveling without first class tickets were opened and the wealthy passengers freely mingled with the poorer, both completely oblivious to the situation.
When it did come time to board the lifeboats it was in an orderly fashion because the danger hadn't yet sunk in. According to survivor accounts men gave their seats up to woman without complaint, and many richer passengers surrendered their seats and their lives to poorer passengers since many prominent authors and aristocrats purposefully did not leave on the boats are perished with the sinking of the vessel. Others to die in the disaster were mailroom employees who tried to save the mail, the engine room crew free to leave but who worked to the last, the captain, and the band.
James Cameron's famous version of The Titanic is very much a reflection of the popular belief of how that horrible night went: blind panic, rich nabbing the boats and the poor locked below to die on purpose. The truth is that even with the boat literally upended well-to-do survivors in boats traveled back to the wreck to collect as many swimmers as they could. Many poorer passengers were trapped below decks by the gates, but the reason for this was due to a combination of fewer crew to monitor the gates since they had gone to help with evacuation and a lot of the immigrants didn't understand English so when they were told to leave they didn't understand the importance of doing so.
This is another instance of many I found where the true romanticization isn't that people acted nobly and that rich and poor banded together, it was the fiction that the rich were evil and left the poor to drown. Unfortunately this myth is so popular it's the way many still believe the events transpired, even if actual accounts differ.
Myth: The Inquisition was a murderous zealous order of black robed torturers who burned free thinkers, liberated woman, and Jews at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy.
'I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers, but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake.'
-Daniel J Boorstin, social historian and educator 1914
The Facts: Burning at the stake was a form of capital punishment.
In the medieval era there was a firm distinction between the influence of The Church and the influence of the hierarchical laity: the barons, dukes, and kings. When someone was accused of a crime most often they would answer to this secular system of law as presided over by a regional monarch, and very often if the crime was seen to need an example made to prevent others from reciprocating it then the criminal would be tortured and publicly executed.
The Inquisition, which did not start in Spain, was a branch of The Church which catered to not only ferreting out heretics but also preventing the sale of false artifacts and clergymen misinterpreting scripture. The name implies exactly what it did: ask questions. If implicated you would be brought before a tribunal of church elders and essentially quizzed on your knowledge of the holy writ as well as asked to justify your heresy or poorly handled treatment of The Bible. If you refused to answer you were incarcerated but not tortured, and if you admitted to heresy or inappropriate religious teaching you might be scourged if the crime was dire but more often you were required to pray for forgiveness for a set amount of time and released.
The Church was less interested in killing heretics as they were in converting them back to an appropriate Christian perspective. You couldn't even be accurately convicted of heresy by simple word of mouth: there had to be an inquest by Inquisitors sent to verify innocence or guilt in the field. You could not be tried for being an atheist.
If you were found guilty of a crime that fell under secular edicts THEN you were burned at the stake, as any other criminal might be.
Joan of Arc was not executed by the stake for heresy, but for treason: a secular crime.
In fact sometimes prisoners would profess heresy so they would be taken into the custody of The Inquisition instead of the secular monarchs because even when The Church authorized torture to purge a person suspected of being an agent of Satan, the only thing necessary to avoid torture or have it cease was to admit the crime and your remorse for it. Then after a brief stint of praying for salvation you would be let go, as opposed to mandatory and far more painful (and creative) torture in the secular sphere followed by an agonizing public death.
The Spanish Inquisition was used as a measure of intimidation but again (and shocking to me who had seen them always portrayed as cruel and merciless murderers) were held in check by Church guidelines that prevented according to sacred law the overt torturing or admitted and repentant heretics.
According to official accounts, in areas under the jurisdiction of The Inquisition there were far less burnings and torture then in areas under command of secular ruling parties with something to prove.
The dreaded Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches is often sited as an indication of Inquisition cruelty, but in reality this treatise was designed to prevent the persecution of those that didn't fall under the definition of a heretic. It details not just how to deal with witches influence specifically (stomping out heresy by quelling local superstitions) but also how to identify real servants of evil from boisterous people or the insane.
In the Salem Witch Trials, the majority of tortures and tests on the witches were not associated with the Malleus Maleficarum or The Church at all. Popular images of witches on ducking stools is actual an indication of non-Christian superstition because many pagans believed that witches were made out of wood. Christians had no such beliefs so these tests would have been considered useless. In fact The Church tried to dispel ideas like this and taught that witches couldn't control people's minds or cause them ill because the servants of The Devil had no real power compared to God. Belief that witches posed a threat other then poisoning people or spreading ignorance was not a Christian perspective but one from the laity, and it was this zealousness The Inquisition had been created to prevent.
Once again the myth here is that Christians are always murderous zealots trying to silence strong woman, rather then that those unfortunates suffered at the hands of people who had nothing to do with Christianity at all.
Ironically, historically agnostics not only burned people at the stake, but they were some of the only one's that did.
Myth: Cortez butchered the peaceful Aztecs for their gold.
Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.
- Cortez the Killer by Neil Young
The Facts: Cortez was more invested in obtaining resources then conquest. His army was small, their weapons ill suited to the jungle, and he had burned the ships they had arrived in to prevent them from fleeing after starvation and disease had whittled down their numbers. On arriving in Aztec lands initially he tried to greet them and when he learned that they had mistaken him for a returning god he tried to play up this angle, but a mistaken interpreter called a peaceful gathering an ambush and the Spaniards ended up slaughtering many. Even then the king tried to maintain relations, providing Cortez with any and all gold and food he desired, but a cadre of Aztecs who were angered at this effrontery began to kill the soldiers and when the king walked onto his balcony to calm his men they stoned him to death.
Cortez barely escaped with half his force and was driven into the wilderness. There he made deals with other native tribes who hated the Aztecs for their constant wars and human sacrifices, and even with that combined force it was only with the inadvertent outbreak of small pox with the arrival of reinforcements that he could finally take the city.
Afterwards Cortez built a city which became Mexico City and spent the rest of his life exploring other parts of the world at the risk of his life and fortune, the later of which he gave most of to the Portuguese king to purchase more ships and supplies.
It's fascinating what you can learn when you look at actual accounts instead of rely on school curriculum only.
Oftentimes the stories are not only more interesting but make more sense when they interlock then the popular belief.
Just because something supports the narrative doesn't make it true and here, as elsewhere, history is harder to characterize then we may want it to be.