One Christopher Columbus is now unsurprisingly AGAIN under renewed attack from some for his at times ugly and brutal behavior in the Americas. Given why Columbus is on the pedestal (uh, no pun intended) he is, as half-Italian-American I presume I am supposed to feel angered about attacks on him. Actually, I have never cared about preserving Columbus Day as a federal holiday (although I do love holidays) because he is… not really all that important to the history of the United States to the point that HE actually merits a federal holiday. For although he is clearly a historical figure of towering importance to the world, for us as Americans he is, to be blunt, first and foremost a foreigner: he is not, say, George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those who despise Columbus seem to think he and that holiday have always been celebrated and the day itself is about commemorating imperialism and even genocide. He had always been known, but Columbus first became “big” in the American popular mind as a result of a laudatory (and pretty poor) 1828 “biography” of him by Washington Irving. Unfortunately, much of Irving’s work about him is simply sheer fiction. (It was, for example, Irving who created the myth that Columbus’s journey had proved to Europeans that the earth was round. In fact no educated European in 1492 thought the earth was flat.)
Indeed such was the lack of U.S. interest in the Italian who never actually set foot on the mainland of the eventual United States that there was no major English-speaking true biography of him until Morison’s in 1942. I have read that work. It is by an accomplished sailor and historian who had greatly admired Columbus primarily for his navigational skill.
Bottom line: it was incredible. In 1492 Columbus got across the then uncharted Atlantic by sail with his three ships in just five weeks using only “dead reckoning” and the stars. (Sailing ships make that same time in our 21st century – and they know where they are going and have radio/phone communications and GPS.) He made landfall safely in what are now the Bahamas without somehow having missed the tiny islands and ending up in the rough and powerful, and as of yet unknown, Gulf Stream (and was not swept to the coast of future Florida-Georgia-the Carolinas, where the ships would have probably ended up wrecked). Overlooked is that accomplishment would have mattered NOT AT ALL had he NOT managed afterwards to sail back to Spain by an eastwards route that made near-perfect sense (again) navigationally (although one ship down, after his flagship Santa Maria accidentally went aground on Christmas Day 1492 just off the island he named “Hispaniola” – today’s Haiti/Dominican Republic). He also managed all of that – from August to the end of the year – during what we know now to be the Atlantic hurricane season.
Objectively, Columbus’s 1492-93 first round-trip crossing of the Atlantic was in its way a feat much like the Moon landing and return to earth of Apollo 11; but at least Apollo 11 had guidance systems, communications, and massive ground support. In comparison, completely alone on the Atlantic, reliant entirely on themselves, no way to get word home, after leaving the Canary Islands and sailing westwards to “the Indies” by all odds Columbus and his men should have vanished never to have been heard from again. Frankly, all things considered, it should be little shock to us that he developed a “god” complex.
Where this all began politically for Americans was really just after the Civil War (1861-65). New immigrant Italian-Americans began to agitate for recognition of their emerging cultural contributions to the U.S. They latched onto Columbus as a symbol, to be honest, mostly because Columbus was by far the most prominent Italian who had had anything to do with the eventual founding of the United States. (Yes, he had not reached the mainland, but he came so so so close.)
In 1892, the 400th anniversary of his “discovery,” 11 Italians were also lynched by a New Orleans mob and the government of Italy was infuriated by the murders, so to try to mollify Italy President Benjamin Harrison had declared “Columbus Day” as a one-time observance… and a precedent had now also been set.
Ironically, given where we are now, Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic particularly the first time was seen (not unreasonably) as an unrivaled achievement and it was eagerly thrown (again, uh, no pun intended) by Roman Catholic Italian immigrants into the faces of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic “nativist” Protestant white Americans who regularly asserted Catholicism was backwards and that southern Europeans, especially Italians, were lazy and had no spirit of enterprise. Italian-Americans declared: “Look at what Catholic Italian Columbus accomplished in just three little ships! There would be no United States now without him!” Columbus was to them therefore irrefutable evidence that they as Catholics and Italians had as proper a place living in the United States alongside everyone else and that white “nativists” were just bigots.
James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) June 11, 2020
Also ironically today’s white “nativists” who often passionately defend Columbus from those attacking his statues are often the descendants themselves of many who had actually hated Columbus a century ago precisely because he was… Catholic and Italian.
Yes, places and institutions are named after him (often the poetic-rooted feminine “Columbia”), but Columbus as a man has never been universally applauded in the U.S. and his connection to the country is mythic at best. That is probably why Columbus Day has been a federal holiday only since 1968. In the end it came about mostly as a result of decades of pressure exerted by influential Italian-Americans; it had to them not a thing to do with indigenous Americans or Columbus’s post-encounter treatment of them.
However, if that Italian who never got to what is today the mainland United States and has been dead for five centuries (and we do not even have a good likeness of him because NONE were made of him while he was alive) needs to go as a U.S. holiday symbol of “Italianness,” I have a replacement suggestion:
Let’s have Sinatra Day. Frank certainly made an Italian-American contribution culturally. And his fans are of all races and all religions.
Sadly, there seems to have been a shift in just days from a relative national unity in seeking to reform policing in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and the “very stable genius” in the White House finding himself on the defensive… to crowds pulling down statues and defacing others. Vandals running in the streets provides this president with a window of opportunity to recover from his setbacks of recent weeks, so he will probably manage to regain much of his political balance now. Unseating a sitting president at the polls is difficult enough to begin with even when there are NOT people holding the flag upside down and NOT people spray-painting the Lincoln Memorial.
Indeed matters are obviously getting out of hand and also playing even more into this president’s political hands when morons deface
that well-known infamous white nationalist and slave trader Mahatma Gandhi’s statue across the street from the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC. The president was of course quick to seize upon that June 2/3 episode. And he quite rightly condemned that behavior.
And I cannot suppress an uncomfortable feeling that we are seeing the police-reforming consensus and impetus largely evaporate due to becoming divided by and distracted by yet another public debate over monuments and – far worse – a spray-painting and statue-smashing orgy that even ends up defacing a Gandhi statue. After some have finally again yelled themselves hoarse, run out of statues to graffiti, or to knock over, shall the substantive longer term political fallout mean we will have to deal with having President “Mugabe” in the White House for another four years? American voters overall do not historically vote for parties associated with mobs in the streets, so as this president predictably takes a firm stance against “mob-rule” – and no longer has to talk as much about policing reform; he can instead focus on Gandhi (a fiction writer could not invent this stuff) – we have to assume his re-election chances are probably now somewhat better than they were on June 2.
On that “happy” note, have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world.