Because I am so hooked on those wonderful old black and white movies from the 1920s on up, I tend to watch them a lot. One film especially close to my heart is 1933’s “Little Women,” from the book by Louisa May Alcott, starring the March sisters — Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo, played by Katharine Hepburn. Whenever she got excited, happy or startled she’d blurt out, in her most refined New England accent, “CHRIS-tuh-phuh Cuh-LUM-bus.”

Hearing that always made me recall that intrepid explorer, Christopher Columbus, the man who in 1492 went off to sail the ocean blue in three tiny — by today’s standards — wooden ships named Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. These ships were manned with stalwart sailors who, with their captain, were eager to find, amongst other things, a western passage to India.

Off Columbus went, four times to be exact. The first trip in 1492 was followed by another in 1493, 1498 and lastly in 1502, but guess what folks? Christopher never once set foot on the North American continent that includes the United States and Canada. He did, however, visit South America. Also, it is not correct to say he was the first European in the New World. Historians will argue that Leif Erickson has that honor, or perhaps Amerigo Vespucci. What Columbus did was blaze a trail for the rest of Europe and the world to follow, resulting in the exploitation of both the wealth and cultures of the American continents and the surrounding islands.

Coincidentally, our latest holiday was Columbus Day. Most of us know he did not discover America because there were a great number of native people here already or others who had sailed here. Even the Vikings liked to lay claim to a lot of this discovery, and the Native Americans had been in what would one day be called The States for more years than even they could comprehend.

Was everyone back then of the pillage and burn persuasion eager to relieve the native people of their gold, silver, spices and bling? History tells us this is true, humans being as they were. And are. It also tells us that the indigenous peoples of our country were taken as slaves and were not treated with much respect and kindness by Signor Columbus and his crew.

And yet we still celebrate Columbus Day, and likely always will, being a people who love days off. When we watch the news after seeing films of the parades and parties, it will again show the many arguments occurring on that sacred day between folks who do not believe that Chris was the discoverer and those who do, and those who insist he was Spanish and those who know he was Italian.

But my thinking is that no matter what, Columbus likely deserves a day dedicated to him anyway for making four long, arduous trips from Spain. Our boy had to love sailing or discovering.

The real shocker is that CC was not the first person to opine that one could reach Asia by sailing in a westward direction. In fact, scholars insist this idea was in people’s heads when they began to argue that the earth was round, which they say all started sometime back in very early Rome. So there’s lots and lots of controversy around Mr. C., and while he robbed indigenous peoples of their wealth and took many as slaves back to Spain, there’s no question that he was a brave soul to sail as he did, and even more surprisingly to return home, all things considered.

For example, did you know that as a teenager he got a job on a merchant ship, it was attacked and sunk and he floated back home on a scrap of wood? And still he sailed again. Now that takes a whole lot of tenacity.   

Hollywood has made Columbus into a great hero, which in so many ways he was, but Tinsel Town was not well known back in the day for doing their historic research, so they invented him as best they could. They did it generally incorrectly. There are the paintings of our man, still extant, standing nobly and gloriously on the shores of everywhere wearing great billowing capes, weird hats, tights, embroidered pantaloons and silken haute couture, all designed, at least in the artist’s mind, for heroic male explorers to wear. Hard to believe the man could have been aboard for months on what had to be an intensely primitive, small and unsanitary ship and was able to dress in expensive clothing for the day when he waded ashore. But then, over the decades, artists, writers and sculptors have always portrayed famous dead folk as gallant and majestic and sometimes, even sainted.

Mr. C’s life was complicated and strenuous, and there is tons of information about him on Google and also at the library. He makes for a fascinating read. Columbus was a persuasive, far-sighted, tough and, perhaps, not a very nice man, especially to American natives. He was able to convince Queen Isabella that if she ponied up the funds for those three ships, he would return with lots of gold, spices, silks and slaves. As an added incentive, he also promised to spread Christianity amongst the heathens at every opportunity, although personally, I suspect the heathens were perfectly happy with their own religions, but whatever, I wasn’t there.

A smart man and an educated linguist, Christopher truly did believe the world was round — although he miscalculated the size of our planet — and that’s why he always headed west, convinced he’d assuredly reach land. That plan seemed to work out pretty well for him, although the western route to India part eluded him.

Columbus died in Spain in 1506 at the young age of 55, and really, no matter who discovered America, we can all rejoice that someone did. We have to admit the guy accomplished much in his relatively short lifetime. All he did and all the sailing to the places he went kick-started a lot of the exploration thing, although in truth, that activity had been seriously pursued long before he was born.

For example, it’s pretty clear that Vikings sailed off to Greenland and Newfoundland in yes, the 11th century.  Talk about gutsy! All these intrepid explorers, especially CC, really weren’t that sure of what lay ahead of them when they started their oceanic voyages, but they did them anyway. Faith and fortitude and lots of it. We should always salute them.

And I still think it is amusingly weird that an actress born some 401 years later in the America Christopher Columbus really did not discover would go on to make a film in 1933 where she happily exclaims throughout, “CHRIS-tah-phuh Cuh-LUM-bus” on all exciting occasions. The famous explorer could not possibly have imagined such a thing, but I’ll wager he’d have really liked it a lot.

LC Van Savage can be reached at [email protected] Her newest book, “Queenie,” is available at local bookstores and on amazon.com.