Why Columbus is now a footnote in history
Another Columbus Day has rolled around and with it another round of activists’ demands to pull down his statues and turn Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day instead.
Los Angeles and Seattle have already done that.
In New York, the hands of a Columbus statute were drenched in red paint. Other statues have been vandalized as well.
But most of us probably didn’t think about Columbus at all last Monday.
Either we had the day off or we didn’t, and some of us were momentarily mystified about why we didn’t get any mail.
Some of us have never learned to call Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia Columbus Avenue even though the name was changed 25 years ago to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his first voyage.
There really is no need to vandalize his statues or pull them down.
Columbus has already been relegated to a less prominent, more appropriate place in our pantheon of national myths, much like his namesake St. Christopher.
When I was in school in the 1950s and 1960s, we were taught a pretty cartoonish version of Columbus: He proved the world was round (he didn’t), he discovered America (never set foot in the place) and if it weren’t for him none of us would be here (yes, we would).
As with many of the earliest arrivals in the New World, Columbus’ enterprise was basically corporate, a shopping expedition for the king and queen of Spain.
He brought conquistadors — soldiers and adventurers — whose sole aim was to collect gold, silver and other valuables for the monarchs by any means necessary.
And he brought priests to convert the Indians to the one true religion – Catholicism – and pacify them so they would be good little slaves, growing food for the Spaniards and digging mines to find more gold and silver.
He was, by many accounts, an awful boss, a lousy governor and a cruel human being.
Many would say, “Well, he was a man of his time.” Too true. If you ever take a cruise that stops at Samana, Dominican Republic, take the shore excursion to Taino Park, a beautiful little museum a few miles up in the hills that tells the Taino Indians’ side of the story, including, shockingly, how their chiefs were put to the Spanish Inquisition.
Columbus merely came from Europe to America at the right time for the wealthy city-states of the old world to exploit the new and there were plenty of other explorers tripping over each other to make the same discovery.
With the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage looming in the 1980s, scholars began taking a closer look at Columbus and adopting a much more nuanced history of the meeting of East and West.
As a result schools now teach about the “Columbian exchange,” the trade of technology, diseases, plants, animals, agriculture, medicine and science between the two hemispheres that until that time had been completely isolated from one another.
They also teach about the great tragedy that meeting caused the Indians, as some 50 million of them died, mainly from European diseases within the first 50 years. Not Columbus’ fault of course, but it happened.
A couple of weeks ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked local artists, “What makes a monument?”
Hank Willis Thomas had the best answer: It is an idea, a mythology, he said, “a marketing tool of a specific world view.”
That’s why Philadelphians fought so hard to preserve the statue of an Italian-American fictional character, “Rocky” and why they have parked a giant afro pick next to the statue of Frank Rizzo.
That’s why the city recently erected a statue to early civil rights pioneer Octavius Catto at city hall, a few blocks from where he was murdered on election day 1871 as white rioters rampaged through the city trying to voting.
The Sons of the Confederacy are still funding and erecting new monuments to their fallen ancestors to this day, 156 years after the Civil War.
Many people cling to the notion that “you can’t rewrite history” by taking down statues.
They are right — erecting or taking down a statue doesn’t rewrite history. But Thomas is also right — they are marketing tools, and taking them down or putting them up does reflect our changing world view.
We rewrite history when we collectively change our minds about the meaning of past events.
We no longer buy the propaganda that the Vietnam war was fought to halt communism or that the Iraq war stopped Saddam Hussain from deploying weapons of mass destruction.
We changed our world view about slavery and Jim Crow laws, which is why many want to change the names of schools named after Ku Klux Klansmen and segregationists, though, sadly, school segregation itself still goes on nationwide.
It’s healthy for us to challenge our nation’s world view even when our challenges are unpopular at the moment.
A majority of whites hated Martin Luther King Jr. but today we have a national holiday to celebrate his achievements and you can even find a statue or two of him around the place. stop blacks from
An Oct. 9 photo shows a vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus in Bridgeport, Conn.’s Seaside Park. A number of similar statues have been defaced across the country. Cities in various states do not celebrate Columbus Day and instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day.