Columbus Day is a bit of revisionist history at work. Although, if you grew up after the late 1930s you probably think what’s happening today surrounding the controversy of Columbus Day day is the revisionist part. The problem is you’ve been lied to. Over, and over, and over again. Those lies are so well perpetuated that the facts often feel revisionist despite themselves, so lets pull the myth apart one piece at a time.
First off, let’s get something straight: Most of the folklore of Columbus’ accomplishments actually is derived from notorious fiction author Washington Irving’s so-called biography, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” in 1828. Although Irving did work with researcher Alexander von Humboldt and elaborates in the preface, “In the execution of this work I have avoided indulging in mere speculations or general reflections, excepting such as rose naturally out of the subject, preferring to give a minute and circumstantial narrative, omitting no particular that appeared characteristic of the persons, the events, or the times; and endeavoring to place every fact in such a point of view, that the reader might perceive its merits, and draw his own maxims and conclusions” the reality is Irving was known best for his fiction works and most of “A History of the Life and Voyages” is pure fiction.
Irving, along with James Fenimore Cooper, established such success in literature that it established the cultural lineage of the United States throughout Europe. Along with his letter writing, which covered a wide range of topics, his fictional short stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) established his readership and to this day remain his most favored works. By the time Irving wrote about Columbus his hypoberlic style had already captured George Washington in near-mythical fashion and helped established Irving as credible. That might explain why the tale remained the most popular Columbus biography until the more historically accurate publication of Samuel Eliot Morison’s biography Admiral of the Ocean Sea in 1942.
However, even before Irving encapsulated the myth, the veneration of Columbus in during Colonial times occurred in response to the British reverence for Venetian explorer John Cabot. Rather than embracing the perceived aristocracy of Cabot the Colonies and subsequently the United States found a folk hero in Columbus, including the naming of the new nation’s capital, in part, after him in 1790 under the Residence Act. In 1792 the celebration the 300th anniversary of his landing was a nationwide occurrence and 100 years later in 1892 President Benjamin Harrison used it as an opportunity to push “ideals of patriotism” including citizenship boundaries, displays of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress. The mythology of columbus as a tireless patriot and discoverer was embedded in the the themes.
However, Secondly, and important to note: Columbus didn’t “discover America.” That’s always been a terrible choice of words, even in the context of knowing its origins.
The indigenous societies of the Americas were there long before Colubmus was a twinkle in his parents eyes. The then indigenous Americans likely “discovered” the region during the Paleo-Indian migration, which research is still ongoing as to the specifics of their travels. The first established settlements in North America are of the Clovis Culture dating around 12,500 years ago, however it’s estimated the Clovis were pre-dated by non-settled tribes at least another 10-12,000 years prior. There existed a wide range of societies and civilizations throughout the Americas by the 1400s CE including the Inuit, Yupik, Aleut as well as Mesoamerican indigenous groups including: Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacano’ Zapotec. Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya civilizations; and the Andes cultures including: Inca Empire, Moche culture, Muisca Confederation, and Cañari; as well as The Norte Chico civilization and many others.
Columbus wasn’t even the first European to run into America. There’s some who suggest Saint Brendan or other Irish explorers in the Sixth Century may have been the first, although there’s little more than anecdotal evidence to suggest such a stopover. However, there’s a lot more folklore regarding Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, and his “Vinland” exploration, but even moreso actual proof that by the 10th Century the Norse Vikings had already colonized Iceland and Greenland and established at least one settlement on Newfoundland called l’Anse Aux Meadows from which archeological evidence suggests was inhabited at least several years.
Pre-Columbus Europeans weren’t the only ones who appear to have embarked on journeys to the Americas either. Polynesian island of Rapa Nui contains evidence that there was mixed Polynesian-American DNA within its inhabitants as far back as the 1200s, while throughout Polynesia there’s ample botanistic evidence, including that of the sweet potato, to suggest the Polynesians had some contact with South America. Furthermore, similar to Irish folklore, there’s theories that have been presented around the notion that Chinese explorers may have also reached the Americans as late as the early 1400s. However, like the Irish anecdotes, there’s not a lot of solid evidence to support many of these claims yet. Finally, there’s also been some suggestions that African tribes may have also managed the trip across the Atlantic to what is now Brazil although much of this speculation is also unsubstancialed.
So far the pre-Clovis wanderers discovered America, the Clovis founded it’s early civilizations and other indigenous cultures subsequently thrived, the Norse and Polynesians later visited it and then there was Columbus?
Yes, but to understand how Columbus ended up in the Americas we must dispel another myth and that was Columbus set sail “to prove the world was round.”
So, third, a bit of a history lesson on Spherical Earth… There’s Greek philosophical mentions of spherical Earth concept dating back to the 6th century BCE and in Hellenistic times in the 3rd Century BCE the Greek scholar and philosopher, Eratosthene, designed experiments correctly determining the Earth’s approximate spherical size and by the beginning of modern CE Claudius Ptolemy was devising the eight-volume Geographia which was premised on the Earth’s round shape (and, Ptolemy was well documented as believing he had only mapped about one-forth of the Earth’s Globe).
Although versions of flat earth remained well into the Middle Ages as pushed by different Christian beliefs, there were tenants throughout Europe, the Middle East, India and China that established the spherical Earth as a form of fact. Furthermore, even within Christian Europe the continued reliance on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, Sacrobosco’s Treatise on the Sphere and The Elucidarium of Honorius Augustodunensis in medieval university essentially mean no learned scholar believed in any form of “Flat Earth.” Even so-called popular culture of the time such as Dante’s Divine Comedy relied on Spherical Earth.
What most navigators were attempting by this point was not to prove the Earth was round, but that there was an easier passage to India and China than the known Eastern “Silk Road” Routes previously used in coalition with the Mongolian Empire. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 essentially closed many of those routes and forced Europeans to find other options.
Portuguese sailors attempted to establish both Southern and Western routes several times through the mid-1400s, eventually establishing the Cape Route to Asia around Africa thanks in part to Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 under King John II.
This is where the Genoan Cristoforo Colombo finally comes into historical “relevance,” so-to-speak. Although, his trip in no way resulted in anything spherical earth related. That honor actually belongs to Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition that was completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano in the 1520s resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth along with the continued use of Eratosthenes trigonometry. It should also be noted the oldest surviving globe of the Earth, the Erdapfel, was made in 1492 before Columbus’ trip was completed.
So what did Columbus actually do?
Well, he failed to convince King John II of Portugal, and Henry VII of England, and his own Italian city-state leaders, among others, to finance the exploration of a Western Passage to the Orient. Most of their distrust of Columbus’ plan was in his calculation of distance from the Canary Islands, the most Westerly Point mapped in the Atlantic Ocean at the time, and that of his destination, Japan. Columbus believed Japan to be about 3,000 miles away, however the prevailing belief at the time was it was much further, and an impossible task for the provisioning of a typical fleet.
Columbus was, however, at least able to convince the Catholic Monarchs to support his regional travels to establish financing for a journey. This, in part, provided Columbus with a secondary modus operandi for his quest, that of Christian Proselytism during his travels. He articulated this premise in his Book of Prophecies in 1505, which enumerated his achievements as an explorer as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy in the context of Christian eschatology.
For their part, the Catholic Monarchs were most interested in the possibly of the Western Passage as a means of wealth and a way to finance their ongoing wars, which is why they continued to support Columbus, and others, as they made pitches to the different Crowns to set sail either Westerly or Southerly to reach Asia.
It wasn’t until 1492 with the “Capitulations of Santa Fe” that Columbus finally convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to support his cause.
However, Columbus failed to convince anyone of where he actually, because he himself wasn’t sure. No one thought he actually reached Japan. Columbus himself likely didn’t even understand he had reached a “new world.” His own writings often contradict themselves as they both insist he had reached Asia as well as hinting, such as in his journals from the third voyage call the “land of Paria” and surmising to have reached “hitherto unknown” place. The self-created disparities might, in part, be driven by many of his later life legal troubles in addition to a lack of knowledge about his own journeys and a preoccupation by many in Europe with the Southern Passage and the ongoing disputes with the Ottoman Turks.
Instead, the scholar Amerigo Vespucci is widely accredited as the first to speculate that the land he, Columbus and others reached to the West was not part of Asia but rather an entirely new continent. Sailing with Gonçalo Coelho in 1501–1502 Vespucci mapped constellations against the land masses and determined a new continent lie to the West. German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller reached the same conclusion, and in 1507 printed his first map outlining the new continent and naming it America after Vespucci’s work.
Columbus’ actual “legacy” is that he brought riches back to Europe and began the great European Colonization process of the region. As early as his second journey he was traveling with the intent of establishing “colonies of settlement,” and not to explore as he had during the first. So, what Columbus actually did was accidentally run into a number of islands in the Caribbean and begin a colonization process of the region in the name of the Spanish Crown in order to spread Christianity.
Furthermore, the reality for Columbus as a person, is although the Spanish crown financed four total voyages the relationship between Columbus and his financiers was nearly always strained. Beginning as early as his return on the second voyage there were already accusations of tyranny and incompetence as he lacked the experience of an actual Viceroy and Governor as his title suggested. His gross mismanagement of governance and ego landed him in prison and eventually in 1500 he was dismissed from all his Spanish posts. Christopher and his sons, Diego and Fernando, and subsequently the Columbus estate, fought the Castilian Crown in what was known as ‘pleitos colombinos’ until at least 1790 with varying degrees of failure.
The reality of the Colonization process beginning with Columbus on Hispanola is that it either enslaved or killed the majority of the indigenous peoples in the Americas — completely wiping several civilizations completely off the map.
So, how did Columbus, a Spanish financed sailor and colonial tyrant, become an Italian-American icon?
For our forth lesson we need to look at the roots of Italian immigration in the late 1800s. Although so-called “Northern Italians” had established some regional communities in the United States previously, the late 1860s into the 70s saw a major influx of new immigration from the recently unified Italy. This happened for two reasons. First, the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the South of Italy faced oppressive conditions of its own due to generations of mismanagement and ongoing cultural and economic difficulty integrating into the newly created Italian nation. Second, the United States was in the midst of reconstruction post-Civil War and needed inexpensive labor particularly for construction and manufacturing in Eastern cities, as well mining camps and in agriculture further to the West and South.
By the 1880s the early success of immigrants in the United States spurred a mass exodus from Southern Italy lasting until around 1914 bringing more 4 million Italians both legally and illegally to the US. As the number of immigrants rose in the 1880s the social and legal response resulted in many of the early immigration laws including the Immigration Act of 1882 which levied a head tax and targeted certain “qualities” which were perceived to exist in inferior ethnicities and the Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887 prohibiting certain laborers from immigrating to the United States in part due to perceived inferiority of their ethnicities. Italians, like many other Mediterranean cultures were looked down upon by the Central and Northern Europeans that were established in the United States. Although many of the Italians came with unique skills it didn’t mean they weren’t discriminated against for employment, housing and more.
Through this process the formation of the Italian-American cultural identity occurred merging the influence of their cultural enclaves, called “Little Italies” and that of the Roman Catholic Church and social fraternal organizations with what they perceived were aspects of American Culture they found inviting as a way to try and distinguish themselves from the other waves of ethnic immigration happening at the same time in the United States.
It could be said, in part, that this lead to the inevitable pairing of the existing influence Columbus’ folklore already had in the US with the Genoian-Italian lineage of Columbus.
Italian-Americans early success in politics along with the American idyllic image of Columbus led to some of the earliest celebrations of Columbus, such as in New York City in 1866. Eventually, through the lobbying of Angelo Noce in Denver there became a locally enshrined holiday for Columbus in 1900. It became a statewide proclamation in Colorado in 1905, and a statutory holiday in 1907. Continued work by Italian-American lobbyists, including fraternal organizations like the the Roman Catholic Church’s Knights of Columbus, and the social and political successes of Italian-Americans as they integrated with more mainstream American Culture brought the holiday to more cities and states. By 1934 New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, along with the K of C, were able to convince President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enshrine October 12 a federal holiday under the name Columbus Day.
While the early American acknoladgement of Columbus tended to focus around reinforcing the American Patriotism of the time emphasizing, the celebration of Columbus Day in those early years branched a narrow American identity into a more accommodating cultural attaché.
What’s ironic of course that early US culture adopted Columbus for his perceived character strengths despite all of his actual failures as a leader, and human being, and then Italian-Americas adopted him as an icon despite having little-to-no allegiance to his Italian ancestors having lived and worked under the Spanish crown for all of his most influential years. The continued decoupling of Columbus from the reality of his live continued over the next several decades under the guys of the Irving inspired mythology that made its way into school curriculums.
Through the post-war years, Columbus’s legacy and his Day continued to transform themselves, in part, to the continued mainstreaming of Italian-American culture and, due to the increasing suburbanization of the United States, and in response to the expansion of Communism. The result was a reframing of the Columbo-American experience, the using of the Myth of Columbus as a way to reinforce positive American qualities in response to the Red Threat. Columbus wasn’t alone in having his myth perpetuated either. There are ample examples, such as Betsey Ross, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, John “Appleseed” Chapman, Daniel Boone, Davie Crocket, John Henry and any number of other historical figures being recast during the post-War era in ways to substantiate the qualities needed to resist the Red Threat.
Lost in this mythicizing of Columbus for his bravery and persistance were his failures as a leader, his selfishness and the devastating impacts of not only his attempts at Colonization but how his obsession with it opened the door for the raping and pillaging of the Conquistador era.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, in the post-Civil Rights era, that the realities of history finally caught up to the crimes of Columbus and social justice would be demanded for the the indigenous cultures permanently lost due to Columbus’ and later conquistadors.
The intent was never to undermine the Italian-American heritage. Honestly, Italians have many, many more worthy icons to celebrate than Columbus including many Italian-American’s whose direct contributions to the United States are more pertinent than a man who sailed under the Spanish Crown and inadvertently ran into a couple of Caribbean Islands while likely never actually setting foot on what would become the Mainland US.
The intent of relieving Columbus of his mythological state isn’t to change history so much as it is to correct its telling. Balance the fact that his actions and beliefs might have allowed him to accidentally stumble onto the new world but those same character attributes also allowed him to rape and pillage those who he met. That his actions and those of the rest of the European Colonial powers fighting over the “riches” he helped make known resulted in some of the most massive genocides ever to occur in history.
The reality is we aren’t celebrating the man we think we are, we’re celebrating character attributes we want to believe he may have had but likely didn’t. We aren’t celebrating the actual accomplishments he achieved but made up stories we assigned to him about what sounds good as a myth. The Columbus of Columbus Day as we know it is about as factual as Molly Pitcher or Paul Bunyan with Babe the Blue Ox, or to take this full circle, one Ichabod Crane and the Headless Hessian Horseman.