Answering Columbus’ Critics
Spanish philosopher George Santayana once noted that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. When it comes to Columbus, the Italian-American community seems condemned to have history rewritten right out from underneath it for the same reason.
To be fair, backing Columbus has been a no-brainer for much of the last century. His mind-boggling accomplishments had earned him the adoration of Americans in general along with a special place in the hearts of Americans of Italian descent.
Defying conventional wisdom as well as outlandish odds, he sailed west toward the Indies and into the great unknown. In doing so, he stumbled upon continents undreamt of by his European contemporaries. It was an unparalleled act of determination, bravery and maritime skill that utterly transformed the world.
In recent decades, however, Columbus has come under increasing assault from Native Americans and other activists who have portrayed the once-sainted explorer as a racist slave trader and genocidal barbarian who wasn’t even Italian and who rode on the coattails of at least two predecessors.
Fueled by indignation and no small amount of misinformation, they have engaged in a nationwide campaign to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, enjoying considerable success on the state and local levels.
Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska and South Dakota declared the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day or Native American Day and/0r eliminated Columbus Day entirely. Among the major municipalities across the country to follow suit are Berkeley, Calif.; Seattle, Wash.; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; Lawrence, Kan.; Anchorage, Alaska; Cambridge, Mass.; and Denver, Colo.
Most of these campaigns were pursued despite the fact that the United Nations had declared Aug. 9 the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1994.
And now that movement has taken root locally, with the Chicago Public Schools system eliminating Columbus Day as an official holiday in 2012 and Evanston and Chicago recently joining the ranks of those cities that have declared the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day.
So which portrayal do we believe — Columbus as paragon or pariah — and which path should our metropolitan area follow?
In pursuit of answers, I’ve turned to Joseph Scafetta Jr., Don Fiore, Professor William J. Connell and J. Romero. Their research and insights have been instrumental in formulating the following responses.
Was Columbus Italian?
The question continues to stir debate, but the best evidence indicates that he was born Cristoforo Colombo in the Ligurian capital of Genoa to Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver, and his wife, Susanna, the daughter of a wool weaver.
Did Columbus actually “discover” America?
Only from a European perspective. Clearly the Native populations beat him to the punch by tens of thousands of years, trekking thousands of miles from Asia across the frozen Bering Straits during the last Ice Age. Out of respect for these ancient explorers, “encounter” is a more appropriate term for what Columbus accomplished.
Was Columbus the first to “encounter” America after the Native populations?
Technically, no. The Viking explorer Leif Erikson sailed from Greenland to what is now Newfoundland, Canada, around 1000 A.D., returning home after a few years on the far side of the Atlantic. But Erikson’s journey had no historical ripple effect while Columbus’ turned the world on its head. In the 1950s, a map charting Erikson’s travels turned up in Spain along with claims that it was available to Columbus before he set sail. The map was later proved to be a forgery. Recent “evidence” that the Chinese made their way to the West Coast 70 years before Columbus also has been debunked.
Was Columbus a saint?
By no means. As a person, he was a decidedly mixed bag: arrogant, impetuous, short-tempered and a social climber along with being well-meaning, keen-minded, devout and above all indefatigable and courageous. Motivated by profit to pursue a western route to the East, he resorted to desperate measures when the gold and silver he sought couldn’t be found on the tiny islands he encountered. And while he was a bold navigator, he was far less successful as an administrator. Unable to adequately control his crew, they committed a variety of transgressions against the Native populations that contributed to an escalating cycle of conflict with neighboring tribes.
Was Columbus a racist?
Not by the standards of the day. A devout Christian, his first impressions of the Native populations were overwhelmingly positive. In the journals of his first voyage, he described the Tainos and other tribes as “well-made” with “fine shapes and faces.” Praising their generosity, innocence and intelligence, he considered them likely converts to Christianity because “they have a good understanding.”
Was Columbus a slave trader?
Not in the final analysis. True enough, he spoke of the suitability of the Natives as slaves upon his first encounter, and he later began to advocate for slavery out of desperation when his hunt for the riches of the Orient didn’t pan out. But in the end, the 300 Natives he enchained were actually prisoners of war taken during a counterassault launched after Columbus returned on his second voyage to find that the men he had left behind had been slaughtered by neighboring tribes. After he shipped another 30 POWs back to Spain, Queen Isabella put a stop to the practice before it could go any further.
Did he engage in genocide?
Not by any standard. Columbus took no Native lives himself and ordered the taking of Native lives only in retaliation for lives previously taken.
Did Columbus despoil paradise?
Define paradise. Most of the native tribes that Columbus encountered were hunter-gatherers who depended on slash-and-burn cultivation. Far from peacefully coexisting, they engaged in bloody tribal wars and, in some cases, slavery, torture and cannibalism.
Why do Native Americans revile Columbus?
Because he opened the door to the systematic conquest of their land and the decimation of their peoples and culture. The treatment of America’s Native populations ranks among our nation’s greatest disgraces, and for that our Native brothers and sisters deserve our most profound respect and regret. But to accuse Columbus of this travesty is akin to blaming the creator of a door for those who pass through it.
By contrast, Andrew Jackson led brutal campaigns against the Creeks and Seminoles as an Army general, and as president, he ordered the removal of the entire Choctaw nation from its land during the infamous “trail of tears and death.” Then there was Colorado Governor John Evans, who orchestrated one of the worst acts of genocide against a Native tribe in American history. Surely the time and energy of modern-day activists would be more meaningfully spent advocating for a name change to Jackson Boulevard or Evans’ namesake town, Evanston.
Why do Italian Americans revere Columbus?
Back in 1892, when Columbus was first celebrated on a national level, Italian immigrants were widely perceived as sub-human criminals, washing up on American shores like so many rats. The year before, 11 Sicilian immigrants who had been unjustly accused of a crime in New Orleans were pulled from their prison cells and lynched by a mob led by prominent politicians.
By 1972, when President Nixon signed legislation officially declaring the second Monday in October Columbus Day, the Italian-American community had been relentlessly associated with organized crime for more than four decades. “The Godfather” film trilogy was launched that same year, hardwiring Hollywood to portray us almost exclusively as mobsters for decades to come.
In the face of more than a century of discrimination and stereotyping, Columbus stood out as one Italian of whom the entire nation could be proud. It seems beyond cruel to now demonize him, especially given the magnitude of his accomplishments, the flimsiness of the case against him and the emotional stake our community has in the debate.
So what are we to make of Columbus’ mixed legacy?
In this warts-and-all world in which we live, few of our heroes have survived unscathed.
Was Thomas Jefferson a champion of independence or a wild-eyed revolutionary who believed, and I quote, that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”? Was Mother Teresa the Angel of Calcutta or a provider of minimal and unsanitary care to her desperately poor charges? Was Steve Jobs a technological visionary or a control freak who ascended to prominence on the backs of his associates? Is America the birthplace of democracy or a nation crippled by seemingly irreconcilable political differences? The answer to all of the above is “yes.”
You can’t consign the world’s heroes to history’s scrapheap because they have feet of clay, otherwise the world would have precious few heroes left. Their imperfections mustn’t be allowed to diminish their deeds. Rather, we must embrace the good while allowing for the bad, learning from their mistakes as well as their virtues.
Take a closer look at the map of the world above. It was drawn in Columbus’ workshop in 1490, two years before his fateful voyage. That’s how the world “looked” back then: Europe, Africa and Asia to the east and nothing to the west but open sea. By sheer force of will and incomparable daring, Columbus changed all that, paving the way for the founding of America.
If you believe in America, despite all of its flaws, how can you not view Columbus as one of our nation’s greatest heroes, despite all of his flaws?
Given their tragic history, the Native-American community will never embrace him as such. Our best hope is that we can convince them to share our pain, leave our hero be and walk shoulder-to-shoulder with us toward a brighter future for both of our communities.