The Alfano Digest

The following article appeared in the Star Ledger October 12, 2015 … Comments can be sent to Bran Regal Email: bregal@kean.edu

Letter to the Editor eletters@starledger.

 

Below you will find a response from Salvatore Turchio

Columbus Did NOT Discover America, BUT What were the Contributions of Eric the Red, Fu Sang or Saint Brendan to Western Civilization?

 

Why is Columbus credited with discovering America? | Opinion

A girl rides on a float with a bust of Christopher Columbus’ head during the Columbus Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

 

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist The Star-Ledger
on October 12, 2015 at 3:20 PM, updated October 12, 2015 at 7:05 PM

By Bran Regal

Everyone learns in school that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Columbus occupies an exalted position in our history, honored with statues, place names and countless books and movies. The only glitch: Columbus did not actually discover America. He did make it into what we now call the Caribbean, but he never set foot on the mainland. What’s more, he insisted until the day he died that he had found his way to Asia (his original destination), not found a place unknown to Europeans. That’s just one issue with the story of America’s origins.

Scholars have long known that, far from being the first, Columbus came at the end of a long line of explorers who made it to the New World well before he did. We also cannot forget that this land had a large, complex and sophisticated indigenous population when he got here. The Europeans who came here viewed these people at best as wondrous oddities, and at worst as filthy heathens — rarely as genuine human beings. Native Americans, naturally, view Columbus Day — to be celebrated Monday in 22 states — a bit differently. They see it as the opening of their land, people and cultures to destruction. Whether by design or not, and whether we are willing to admit it or not, the arrival of Europeans to the New World sounded a death knell for millions of native people.

Genocide aside, when looking at the question of who actually “discovered” America, a long list of suspects awaits. Some have been confirmed, while others are controversial; some are simply wish-fulfilling fantasies, but they all say more about us than about them. Vikings, Irish monks, Chinese navigators, Knights Templar, Polynesians, Muslim and African explorers, even survivors of Kublai Khan’s navy all have their supporters. In the 19th century, stories that Phoenicians and Romans made it here first were all the rage.

One group often claimed as America’s real discoverers are the Celts. This term has been applied with rather wide and unrealistic generosity to a range of people from the Irish to the Iberian Spanish to Middle Eastern Hebrews. Unfortunately, at the moment there exists little more than speculation and quirky interpretations of already-dubious evidence to support the Celt hypothesis.

So if he didn’t get here first — nor was he, in fact, even close — why does Columbus get all the credit for discovering America? Why is there no federal holiday celebrating Eric the Red, Fu Sang or Saint Brendan?

It was Columbus’ son, Fernando, who got the legend going with his hagiographic biography. (Creating even more confusion, it is unclear if Fernando wrote this, or if he based his text upon his father’s actual logbook, or if was actually written by Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish historian and social reformer.)

In 18th-century America, Christian clergy such as Samuel Sewall, Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight began linking the discovery of the Americas to divine prophesy — something still popular in fundamentalist circles. As Washington, D.C., was becoming the capital in 1792, the first “Columbus Day” celebrations began in New York City. In the 19th century, authors such as Washington Irving and Walt Whitman idealized Columbus as an American hero with more glowing, and often slyly misleading, prose and poetry. Catholics embraced Columbus as a way to help dull the sharp sting of the anti-Catholic bigotry rampant in the U.S. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Columbus Day a national holiday.

Our attitudes about Columbus have changed over the years. He has gone from great and intrepid “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” braving unknown terrors to lead the way to a New World, to a conniving scoundrel intent on enslaving the native people, and back again. Regardless of how one feels about Columbus — hero or villain — his voyages cannot be dismissed as unimportant. Unlike all who came before him, Columbus opened a floodgate of follow-on explorers, mercenaries and, eventually, permanent settlers. In the North, this meant a horde of people made up in various parts by schemers, dreamers, religious fanatics, the genuinely pious, escapees from turmoil, war refugees and other lost souls looking for a way out. They all helped create the United States.

National origins stories are funny things. They are designed to make us feel good about ourselves, to make us feel special and to give us a shared unity and identity — but they rarely bear much resemblance to historical reality. No one person “discovered” America. What the accepted historical and archaeological evidence suggests is that, from the start, this hemisphere has been a place of immigrants of many different faiths, ethnicities and skin colors. Columbus saw his status rise beyond earlier explorers, however, because he filled the young nation’s need for an individual hero. He ticked all the right boxes: European, Christian and male.

The tale of who discovered America is messy and complex and defies easy explanations. The popular story of Columbus, by contrast, is simplistic.

So while you’re enjoying the sales at the mall, remember the reality rather than promote the fantasy. It’s more difficult, but more historically accurate. In the end, however, it matters less who discovered American than what we do with it today.

Brian Regal is a Fellow of the Kean University Center for History, Politics, and Policy. He is currently appearing in the History Channel series “True Monsters.”

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BRIAN REGAL, Assistant Professor – History of Science, Technology and Medicine
Ph.D., M.Phil., MA., Drew University, Caspersen School of Graduate Studies,  American Intellectual History, concentration in the History of Science
B.A., Kean University, History
FLS, Fellow Linnaean Society of London

 

Phone: 908-737-0261
Office: Townsend 117-I
Email: bregal@kean.edu
Webpage:  https://sites.google.com/a/kean.edu/brian-regal-phd/Home

Courses taught: History of Science, History of Medicine, Human Evolution in Modern Society, Industrial Revolution, History of Medicine in America, History Senior Seminar, American Civil Society, History of Alchemy and the Origins of Modern Science, Charles Darwin: a Life and Times, History of Pseudoscience in America, and the History of Religion in America

Dr. Regal is an historian of science with a specialty in human evolution and its relationship to religion, politics, culture and American national origin theories.  He is interested in ideas and belief systems in the dubious realms of fringe and pseudoscience and questions whether these terms are legitimate.  In his research and writing he takes an intellectual historical approach—history of ideas—to these topics.  He has written and lectured on the evolution/creation controversy, racial anthropology, and eugenics at conferences in the US, UK and Europe.  He has done reviews for Isis and has reviewed human origins proposals for the NSF. 

Dr. Regal’s first book, Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the Search for the Origins of Man (2002) was nominated for the 2003 Pfizer Award and won the 2005 Bela Kornitzer Award for best book by a Drew graduate.  His Human Evolution: A Guide to the Debates (2005) was profiled in a live Air America Radio interview with host Janeane Garofalo.  He wrote the introduction to the Autobiography of Charles Darwin (2004) and the Darwin Compendium (2006). He is the senior editor and contributor to the two volume Icons of Evolution (January, 2008).  Among others, he is the author of “Entering Dubious Realms: Grover Krantz, Science and Sasquatch” in the journal Annals of Science, and Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia (2009).

His latest book is an examination of the world of 20th century monster hunting and its place in the history of science published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2011 as Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology.

He encourages students interested in these areas to contact him.

 

 

RESPONSE!

Columbus Did NOT Discover America, BUT What were the Contributions of Eric the Red, Fu Sang or Saint Brendan to Western Civilization?

Dr. Brian Regal
Assistant Professor, History of Science, Technology and Medicine
Kean University

Dear Dr. Regal:

A friend of mine just forwarded your recent article on Columbus recently published in the Star Ledger (below).  BTW:  Your first name is misspelled.  So much for the “fact checkers” at the Star Ledger.

Given that I am writing to an assistant professor of History of Science, Technology and Medicine, I am probably out of my league. Nonetheless, I felt I needed to express my comments about your article.  In fact, I have attached an op-ed Perspectivearticle I wrote for the Staten Island Advance on December 29, 2013, which indirectly addresses some of your points. (The Advance is the flagship publication of the Newhouse/Advance Publications group, which includes the Star Ledger.)  When you read it, please enlighten me on Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish “historian and social reformer” who, along with his father, owned indigenous slaves in Hispaniola and later advocated the use of African slaves as a “better option.”

Columbus was a product of his times.  He is not a saint, and undoubtedly committed many sins.  But so did the others who perpetrated the crimes—far worse sins–against indigenous peoples:  the Spanish, English, Dutch, and French; the slave owners among the “Founding Fathers;” and the presidents, governments, and military forces of the United States of America, who systematically wiped out the Native Americans.  Place the blame on those who deserve it. It wasn’t Columbus’ fault, and you know it.

Columbus cannot be judged by contemporary standards of morality, decency, religion, politics, etc. Our world, which is supposedly more advanced and civilized than Columbus’ world, has far worse “monsters in human clothing” than a navigator and explorer who came searching for fortune on behalf of the Spanish Crown. 

I have no doubt that Columbus was not the first person to “encounter” the “new world.”  (What was it called before “America,” Dr. Regal?) The odds of someone not indigenous to these lands getting here before Columbus are far too great. That being said, I am curious to know what proof you have that Eric the Red, Fu Sang, Saint Brendan, or the Celts “encountered” America before Columbus.  (As you probably know, it was not called America until 1507.  A German cartographer bestowed that honor on another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.)  And, if they did, what specific contributions did they leave behind or make to western civilization?  Eric the Red was part of the Viking hordes—a barbarian, murderer, and plunderer who makes Columbus look like St. Michael the Archangel.

In closing. Let me state that for the millions of Italians and Italian Americans, Spanish and Spanish Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, and countless others, it’s not about “enjoying the sales at the mall” and “promoting the fantasy,” as you state in your article. It’s about cultural identity and pride in knowing that Columbus, a product of the Rinascimento (Renaissance), left behind the legacy of Western Civilization and its core values of reason, science, technology, progress, capitalism, law, and the pursuit of individual rights and happiness.  That is our reality.

As for your reality, I am afraid that you succumbed to the “revisionist” and “politically correct” ethos of academe, which started in the early late 1980s/early 1990s when I was a dean of students at an NYC university.

Respectfully yours,
Salvatore J. Turchio
Salvatore J. Turchio, M.S.Ed.
State Historian
Chairperson, Italian Cultural &
Heritage Committee
Grand Lodge of New Jersey
Order Sons of Italy in America
Member, Padre Pio Lodge #2350

 

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