Thoughts On Columbus Day

The second Monday in October is typically a day that is more politically frought than most throughout the United States of America, often divided between opposing thoughts on celebrating Christopher Columbus, an explorer and colonist who traveled between Europe and the Americas four times between 1492 to 1503. He encountered what would later be called the Americas, and in particular explored the areas surrounding the Caribbean Sea. Columbus’ actions rightfully have found a prominent place in the history books. It was the start of a new era for hundreds of millions of people who would follow the path carved out by the navigator and call the new continent home over the next five centuries, and it was the end of an era for the indigenous peoples, whose largely uninterrupted existence was devastated by Columbus’ arrival. It kickstarted the Columbian Exchange, which not just saw the spread of disease and invasive species, but also the start of colonization on the part of Europeans, the trade of slaves from Africa, as well as one of the single largest genocides in human history. For these reasons, we must examine why we simply must remember and learn about Columbus, not celebrate or honor him, and why the removal of statues or re-evaluating the historical record is not just the proper action, but also one that is necessary as we sift through our past and learn that the people we made out to be heroes were not what they seem. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that indigenous peoples in the Americas deserve a day of remembrance and celebration, while Americans of Italian descent should find someone who we not just remember, but could honor and celebrate as a part of United States and world history.

Although the story of Christopher Columbus is often politicized for the sake of whoever is telling the story, we often recieve two polar opposite tales about the man. The first and most common is that Columbus was a brave explorer who traversed the Atlantic Ocean is search for a trade route to Asia and to disprove that the world was flat, and that he kickstarted the Age of Exploration. Any mention of indigenous people is often relegated to brief mentions, or they are villified by those who want to defend Columbus’ recorded actions. The other story is of a Columbus who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a trading route to Asia, encountered the Americas and the indigenous people, who died never knowing that he had encountered a new continent, and promptly began one of the single worst genocides in human history that would continue up until the early twentieth century. While both stories have kernels of truth in them, as the first does recognize Columbus’ historical nature in bridging the Old World and the New World, the second generally is more accurate when it comes to his own actions and the aftermath. Among the most pernicious myths was the idea that most people thought the world was round, and Columbus sought to disprove it. However, most people at the time did not believe the world was flat, and in fact it had been general knowledge that the Earth was round for thousands of years. What was instead unknown to most people was the size of the planet, Columbus believing that the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Asia was much shorter, and that there certainly was not a massive continent in between the two continents.

In addition to this, Columbus as Governor of the Indies (Hispaniola) was known for his extremely cruel policies against the local Taino and Arawak peoples, including a policy of forcing any adult over the age of fourteen to find a certain amount of gold in a three month period, or face losing both hands and their nose. Although some critics of Columbus can be accused of presentism, as many of these despotic practices were common for the time, a Columbus’ own contemporaries criticized him. A Spanish Dominican friar by the name of Bartolome de Las Casas, for example, criticized the Spanish eradication of the indigenous peoples and opposed not just the enslavement of Americans, but also the enslavement of Africans. In fact, de Las Casas was himself partially responsible for the idea of the Black Legend, discussing how the exploitation and eradication of indigenous populations was a sin. There was another aspect to the slavery introduced to the Americas, which was sexual slavery, and according to some accounts Columbus rewarded his men with indigenous women, and he further sent over ten thousand slaves from the Bahamas to Hispaniola, stuffing them in ships similar to those later found on the Atlantic Slave Trade. These facts are well documented in colonial records as well as by contemporaries of Columbus. The impact of his encountering the indigenous people is clear, with his tyrannical government in Hispaniola responsible directly for millions of deaths not just in the Caribbean at the time, but the entire continent over the next few centuries.

This brings up the question as to why Italian-Americans currently celebrate Christopher Columbus and his actions. A genuine part of it is that new immigrants to the country felt disconnected from their new home. Anti-immigrant sentiments and nativism were pernicious parts of everyday life for immigrants, and in an event that preceded Italian immigrants adopting Columbus as a hero, eleven Sicilians were lynched in New Orleans on March 14, 1891 after the murder of a popular police chief in the city. A mob of thousands descended on a local prison after those accused of the murder were found not guilty, and quickly killed the eleven before mutilating their bodies. At the time, even The New York Times in an editorial said “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins…are to us a pest without mitigations.” This event is just one of many countless examples of discrimination against Italian-Americans, and it left the community in a sea of uncertainty and hatred. Columbus to them was a symbol that could connect them to their new home historically, and give their precense legitimacy. With the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, it was easy to imagine how Italian-Americans used this historical figure of a bygone age as a life raft in tempestous waters. Statues were raised in Christopher Columbus’ honor, and Americans of Italian descent today now have a deep emotional attachment to the idea of Columbus, an idea discussed by folklorist Joseph Sciorra of Queens College, and discusses the emotional bonds that the community has towards the near-mythological figure that Columbus had become in contemporary America. However, as the issue of whether or not to celebrate Columbus Day becomes a modern culture war issue in the United States, it is important to understand that there is a difference between celebrating someone and remembering them, and that there is a need for people to look up to who deserve that honor and celebration.

The simple truth is that there is a massive difference between celebrating and honoring a historical figure, and simply remembering them. Oftentimes the argument used by those who oppose changing Columbus Day or tearing down statues of historical figures is that we are erasing the memory of that event or person, and that we cannot remember history without these statues or commemorative days. However, not celebrating someone does not mean we do not remember them. Most history is learned in the classroom, at museums, libraries, or documentaries, where historians and experts in their field have filtered through the primary and secondary sources to discover the historical truths of our past. The act of honoring and celebrating, however, has become more a political and cultural exercise as opposed to a historical one. Simply simply someone is a figure who had a massive role in history does not mean that we have to remember them fondly. Perhaps the most influential people in our recent history can prove to be examples. The actions of Black Hand member Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914 shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. In the act of a nineteen year old killing a political leader and his wife, the First World War was ignited, an event which itself toppled multiple empires, kickstarted the Russian Revolution and saw the founding of the Soviet Union, and in the long term saw to the rise of figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and events such as the Second World War, the Cold War, and even the geopolitican crisis of the Middle East that we face in today’s War on Terror. Princip’s single action is responsible for most of the events of the twentieth century, and while he is certainly remembered for his actions and perhaps is not given his due in the history books, we simply do not celebrate him or build statues of him. Instead, learning about history should be kept to the classroom, academia, the history books, and to active public discussions, while active memroializing should be done with some consciousness toward’s that figures actions in their time, and the impact their actions have on us today.

Finally there is a question of what to do now as the issue reaches a high point on a day such as this. It is my view that Indigenous People’s Day should be celebrated, not just as a day to remember the tragedies that the people native to the Americas saw over the last five hundred years, but to also celebrate their culture, song, dance, literature, language, and history. More emphasis should be placed on that day in our culture, and something we owe to the people whose homes were torn from them. It is the very least we could do, and in simply remembering their role in our history we can ensure that they are not erased from the historical record or simplified in any way. Then there is what to do with Columbus Day itself, a day which is dreaded simply because of the frought political arguments surrounding it. This day should no longer be celebrated in honor of Christopher Columbus, but instead Americans of Italian descent should praise, celebrate, and honor someone who actually set foot in what was the United States, and called our country a home. Numerous other figures could be celebrated, including the inventor of the telephone Antonio Meucci, or Italian physician, immigrant, and associate of Thomas Jefferson Philip Mazzei, or Cesare Beccaria, an Enlightenment-era thinker who significantly influenced the Founding Fathers. There is also Enrico Fermi, who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, or Amerigo Vespucci, the namesake of our country. There is also Amadeo Giannini, the founder of the Bank of America, or conductor Arturo Toscanini and even religious sister Mother Cabrini. Even Fiorello La Guardia, the Mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945, or labor leader Angela Bambace or astronaut Wally Schirra, baseball player Yogi Berra, singers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, filmaker Frank Capra, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, or Rosie Bonavita, the inspiration for “Rosie the Riveter” of World War II fame. There is even the possibility of celebrating Italian heritage on a single day without having it revolve around a single figure, but to make it a day about the contributions Italian immigrants and their descendants made on their country, and to celebrate the music, dance, cuisine, and language passed down from generation to generation. These men and women who are all deserving of accolades and praise should be celebrated as vital to the Italian-American experience, and people our children can look up to as heroes. We live in a time where we do have people to look up to and to connect Americans of Italian descent to our country in the clearest way. It is time to throw out Columbus Day and to truly celebrate Italian heritage while recognizing the flaws of our historic figures and icons.

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