“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two!”
So sang generations of young Americans as they learned the legend of the great Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Oceans, the first great Italian hero of the New World, even though he sailed in the service of the Spanish crown.
Columbus’s stock has risen and fallen many times over the centuries, including in his own lifetime, were he was treated variously as a hero, a murderer, a genius and a criminal.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council knocked ol’ Chris down a peg, voting 14-1 to terminate the celebration of Columbus Day in America’s second largest city, replacing it instead with “Indigenous People’s Day.”
It’s not easy to defend Christopher Columbus.
Even by 15th-century standards Columbus was greedy, violent, a religious zealot and cruel beyond belief. Bartolome de Las Casas, a member of Columbus’ crew, documented the Admiral’s many excesses, publishing a damning contemporaneous indictment of the wreckage Columbus left in his wake.
But Las Casas is not the only witness who wrote about Columbus and the world into which he sailed.
The great 15th-century historian, Fernandez de Oviedo, documented the indigenous people’s own long history of slavery and exploitation prior to the arrival of first Europeans. “In war”, Oviedo wrote, “contesting tribes take captives whom they brand and keep as slaves. Each master has his own brand and some masters pull out one front tooth of their slaves as a mark of ownership.”
The people known as the Caribs (where we get the name “Caribbean”) lived in the Leeward Islands but terrorized other islanders with habitual warfare and a taste for human flesh. If the singsong Columbus “sailing the ocean blue” is a whitewashing of the real Columbus, so too is the false narrative being hyped today of a bucolic Elysian paradise if only Columbus had stayed put.
The New World in 1492 was every bit as violent and cruel as the Old World – minus monotheism, the printing press, machinery and science. The diseases Columbus is forever blamed for spreading went both ways; Europeans brought smallpox to the natives and the indigenous people sent syphilis to Europe.
While historical honesty demands we acknowledge Columbus’s sins it also requires we celebrate his achievements.
Columbus was a nearly magical sea captain. His four voyages to the New World required the vision, courage and skill not only to see what was on the other side of the ocean, but to live to tell about it. He was not the first European to reach the western world but Western civilization took root in our part of the globe because of him.
And for some that’s his ultimate sin.
Last week’s celebration at L.A. City Hall was not just a victory of Native Americans who rightly feel their enormous cultural and historic contributions to America have been ignored; it was also a victory for radicals who loath America and Western culture itself.
Joe Busciano, the lone “no” vote on the Council (and a first-generation Italian-American) had offered a compromise that would have preserved Columbus Day while adding a holiday celebrating the Native American experience.
But radicals don’t compromise. It wasn’t enough to add a holiday. Columbus had to go.
With the exception of the Fourth of July, all American holidays (even Christmas) were added to the calendar by politicians interested in staying on the right side of an emerging voting block. Columbus Day itself was a tip of the cap to the waves of Italian immigrants pouring into Ellis Island in the last decades of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Veteran’s Day came in the wake of millions of returning servicemen after World War I, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday came only after African-Americans insisted their story be told. This weekend we kick back in celebration of Labor Day, a holiday created by politicians eager to secure votes from organized labor. The Italian-American vote is not nearly as important in L.A. as it once was (and still is) in East Coast cities. That’s why 14 of 15 City Councilors could safely vote the way they did.
The new power groups are immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, many of whom don’t see themselves as “Native Americans,” rather as heirs to the Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires.
Eventually immigrants from Asia, India, Pakistan and Africa will flex their political muscle. Our holidays will continue to change as America changes.
Meanwhile, what do we do about Columbus?
His name is everywhere. Our capitol sits in “The District of Columbia,” the mighty Columbia River flows to the Pacific in the Northwest, while both South Carolina and Ohio named their capitol cities after him. In New York a prestigious Ivy League university and a famous Circle at 59th Street bare his name. CBS Television is the Columbia Broadcasting System. Is it time for “Indigenous TV?”
In a great irony, an explorer of dubious achievement, Amerigo Vespucci, lucked into immortality when a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemuller, called America “America” in the first accurate map of the New World published in 1507, a year after Columbus died.
The toppling of Christopher Columbus in L.A. might seem like a silly distraction engineered by politicians unable to balance a budget or fix broken sidewalks, but is in reality a profound paradigm shift. Long-standing American heroes are under the microscope, often unfairly judged by 21st century values. even if they lived half-a-millennium ago.
Is it any wonder icons are falling?
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. Hear him weekdays 5-10 on AM 790 KABC. He can be reached at: Doug@DougMcIntyre.com.