Many of you will remember the story. You probably heard it first in elementary school. More than likely, it came as a nifty little rhyme.
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Columbus, you were told, discovered America. He proved the Earth was round. He was a hero.
Spoiler alert: Those are lies.
Columbus might have sailed across the Atlantic in 1492 but he never set foot on the American Continent and he certainly didn’t prove that the Earth was round. How can I be so sure of that? Well, globes were invented almost two thousand years ago. So, that’s a good start.
Explorers in the time of Columbus were unaware of the existence of North and South America and, fearing the wide expanse of what they thought was open ocean to the west of Europe, they didn’t generally want to sail that way. Columbus, however, was determined to travel West in order to get to Asia. But his determination was not the result of profound insight or intense bravery. It was just shoddy mathematics.
Columbus believed the Earth was much smaller than it actually is, which would have made circumnavigating the globe a short, efficient trip. Of course, he was wrong. Luckily for him, he and his crew stumbled upon the Caribbean islands before they all starved to death as the result of his error.
But perhaps we can forgive Columbus for having subpar math skills. (I didn’t exactly ace calculus, either. Did you?)
What is harder to forgive is what happened after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.
Please note, I said arrived and not discovered.
It’s important to make that distinction because the places where Columbus and his crew made landfall were already well populated and being the first white person to show up somewhere shouldn’t mean you’re the first one who counts.
Columbus got to work enslaving people on Day One. Seriously! On his very first day ashore Columbus took six natives into captivity, noting in his journal that he believed they would make excellent servants.
In what is today the Dominican Republic, Columbus’ treatment of the local people was so cruel even his fellow Europeans, who generally regarded the natives as inferior to them in every way imaginable, felt he had gone too far. Settlers petitioned the Spanish court to have Columbus removed and their petition was granted in 1500. Of course, by then, the damage was done.
So, knowing all of this, why do we hold Columbus in such high regard today?
The answer to that question is twofold.
First, in 1828, acclaimed author Washington Irving, (you’ll remember him from works such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) penned A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. In it, Irving embellished the truth of Columbus’ explorations and glossed over some of the less savory details. His work gave rise to a number of similarly erroneous stories of Columbus’ supposed accomplishments. Gradually, a legend was being born.
Second, by the mid-1800s the Age of American Immigration was in full swing. In New York City in particular, Italian Americans were looking for a way to integrate themselves into the fabric of American society.
Like most other segments of the immigrant population, prejudice against Italians during this period was rampant. Eager to demonstrate their loyalty and connection to their adopted homeland, Italian Immigrants began a PR campaign, latching onto the legend of Columbus as proof positive of their deep, longstanding ties to America.
In 1892, thanks in large part to the efforts of the staff and readers of the Italian language newspaper Il Progresso, a statue of Christopher Columbus was placed at the center of Grand Circle on the Southwest corner of Central Park. Eventually, the circle took on the name of the statue and what Central Park’s creators had originally dubbed “Grand Circle” was rechristened “Columbus Circle”.
Over time, statues of Columbus became more common place.
The misinformation originating with Washington Irving began to be taught in schools.
And in 1937, Columbus Day became a Federal holiday.
In New York City, this holiday is commemorated with a parade.
Columbus Day has become as much, if not more, about Italian American pride as it is about the man himself.
Now look, my last name is Lombardi. My family immigrated to this country from all over the Italian peninsula. I am extremely proud of them and what they accomplished and the bravery they possessed in coming to a country that was so far away, and foreign, and often hostile to them. I want to celebrate my ancestors and my heritage.
But Columbus was awful.
He was a violent, cruel, exploitative jerk who didn’t discover anything and who has had accolades he doesn’t deserve heaped upon him and it’s ridiculous to perpetuate this nonsense.
This year, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio assembled a committee to review some of the statues in and around the city. This was done, largely, in response to the horrific displays of hatred and violence that took place earlier this year in Charlottesville, Virginia. In that instance, the conflict centered around a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. We, as a nation, have begun to view the figures of the Confederacy in a new light in recent years. We’ve begun to remove the statues that once loomed large over Southern cities, a constant reminder, particularly to people of color, of the racist ideologies those men fought to preserve.
I think that’s a good thing.
I think those statues might have a place in a museum but not in a city center.
And I feel the same way about Columbus.
But I’m in the minority.
The DeBlasio Administration has indicated that no one will be removing any statues of Columbus in NYC.
The issue of Columbus is a political powder keg and the mayor doesn’t want it to blow up in his face.
In fact, just for having the audacity to suggest we might want to look into whether or not to consider the removal of Columbus, the Italian community of New York questioned the mayor’s pride in his heritage. Residents of the Bronx chose not to invite him to be a part of their Columbus Day Parade.
Which begs the question: Seriously, people?
I think we are better than this.
I think we are better than the falsified historical narratives we have been fed. I think we are better the dated, bigoted cultural norms those narrative perpetuate.
Is it so crazy for me to say I’d rather see a statue of Amerigo Vespucci, or Fiorello La Guardia, or one the millions of Italian Immigrants who risked everything to come to this country standing high atop the Grand Circle?
I acknowledge that the statue in Columbus Circle probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But I also believe it’s possible, and preferable, to keep our Italian Pride and lose Columbus.
That those two things need not be forever synonymous.