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In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two

October 9, 2017

As school kids, the chant “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rang out in classrooms all across the land each October. One of the first encountered among the pantheon of heroes we celebrated, we learned how Christopher Columbus bravely sailed across the Atlantic to discover the New World in spite of the fear that anyone who tried would fall off the edge of the Earth. We colored pictures of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Some of us even got the day off from school.

Thus Columbus was installed as an icon of American lore. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the mythology overshadowed the reality, and the superficial treatment given to students at a young age had never been rectified as they moved on through the grades. Though largely undeserved, this grandiose image carried forth into the adult American psyche. We are now seeing the manifestation of this on the part of some in the current issue concerning the public honoring of Columbus.

It should boil down to a question of worthiness, for here is a historical figure who, at closer examination, didn’t really do what he is given credit for having done. Of even greater concern is what he did do, which was to inflict abominably cruel mistreatment on the indigenous people he found in the Caribbean islands that he accidentally stumbled upon.

The first problem is with the very idea of “discovery,” the foundation for his tribute. How is it a discovery if there were people who had already been living there for centuries? When Columbus made landfall, he erroneously thought he’d circumnavigated the earth and reached the Indies by sailing westward, his mistake becoming forever manifest in the name he gave to the people he found who would be henceforth called “Indians.” His goal of finding the westward passage in actuality resulted in failure. The prevalent concept of this being a triumphant achievement is due to the colonial mentality inherent in the traditional Western historical perspective. Additionally, falling off the edge of a flat Earth was not even a consideration. At the time Columbus sailed, the knowledge that the world was indeed round was widespread, something known since the time of the ancient Greeks and long recognized by observant sailors.

As a matter of fact, the Columbus expedition was not even the first to accomplish a cross-Atlantic journey. That honor goes to Leif Ericson who accomplished the feat over 400 years earlier, though in actuality, neither arrived at mainland America. Ericson’s Viking exploration in the 11th century brought him across the North Atlantic to Greenland and Newfoundland thus making him the first European in the “New World.”

Once Columbus had arrived in the islands of the Caribbean, his quest focused on gold and other resources that would result in his and his backers’ enrichment. In trying to accomplish this end, abysmally cruel treatment of the native people transpired, the record about which is clear based on well-documented firsthand accounts of the atrocities. The senseless brutality perpetrated upon the native people — rape, enslavement, dismemberment, beheading, and mass murder of men, women, and children — is indefensible, especially in view of his Catholic faith which he had been mandated to spread.

Today Columbus Day is misguidedly billed as a “celebration of Italian culture.” Many Italian-Americans rail at the suggestion of removing statues of Columbus, viewing it as defamation of an Italian hero. This overlooks several salient facts, not the least of which is that his actions were far from heroic. Columbus hailed from the Republic of Genoa (Italy did not even exist as a country until 1861) and he sailed under the flag of Spain, so calling him an “Italian” hero is a stretch. Celebrating the Italian culture (or any other, for that matter) in America should not revolve around any one man — particularly not this one. Italian-Americans already have so much about which to be proud as key constituents in the building of our nation. The hollow honor bestowed upon Columbus isn’t needed to justify this pride. The reality of what he did is far from the image created after the fact, and it is hardly something worthy of acclaim.

 

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