Last weekend i was invited out to see the Niña and the Pinta, recreations of two of Christopher Columbus' ships for a friend's birthday. They were docked close by in Wilmington, Delaware. Lately the country has been anti-Columbus because of the horrible atrocities he and his men committed against Native Americans and from that perspective I agree he is not a man to be celebrated in modern times for his so called "accomplishments." However, the ships are interesting to see and add a new dimension to the history of some of the earliest European voyages to the Americas.
From a nautical perspective, the ships are curious. They are smaller than most of us imagine. Many of us wouldn't dare to try to cross an ocean in one. The ships are called "caravels" and the original ships were only 65 feet long. They bobbed in the ocean and were covered in pine tar, making the ships solid black in color. Around 27 men lived on the deck without significant shelter for the duration of the trip, storms and all. No protection from the elements. The hold was filled with supplies and livestock and smelled so putrid that many refused to go down there for any reason. Columbus' first voyage was 7 months and he spent a total of 12 years on caravels like these during his 4 voyages.
It is weird to think of Christopher Columbus as an important part of promoting peace between different groups of people but that is really where Columbus' legacy lies. Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792 but it did not become a national holiday until 1934 as a result of lobbying.
Why did people think Columbus Day was important? In the 1880s up until WWI, Italians starting emigrating to the United States in sizable numbers where they were faced with hatred and discrimination which included violence. In 1891, 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans were lynched by a mob in the largest lynching in U.S. history. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison promoted celebration of Columbus Day to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of Columbus' first voyage but instead of focusing on Columbus himself, focused on how far America changed and prospered. Italian-Americans looked to these celebrations of a famous Italian as a way to become accepted into mainstream society although not all Italians want to be associated with the Celebrations today. Perhaps we should celebrate Melting Pot/ Salad Bowl Day instead?
Like many ships, the Niña and the Pinta are always looking for people who want to join the crew and experience ship life. Visit their website for more information about the ships. If you want a chance to see them, they will be traveling up the east coast all this year so check to see when they will dock near you.
Likewise if you ever want to see a beautiful tall ship or even volunteer on one, Gazela (the most beautiful ship in the world) at Penn's Landing is always willing to train new recruits. I may be biased. :)