Christopher Columbus: From murderer to icon and back again

“I’ll tell you what it is…it’s anti-Italian discrimination. Columbus Day is a day of Italian pride,” says The Sopranos’ Silvio Dante on hearing news that Native Americans are planning on holding a protest at Newark’s Christopher Columbus statue. After a few back and forths debating Columbus’s legacy, fellow wiseguy Christopher Moltisanti replies: “You gotta admit they did get massacred, the Indians.”

While this exchange took place in the fictional world of a hit-TV show, the debate around Columbus’s legacy is very real. It has raged for centuries, but has been put under a magnifying glass in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The man who was exalted with his own Federal Holiday has been branded a “genocide perpetrator” for his treatment of indigenous Americans. Earlier this year, his statue in Manhattan was beheaded and onlookers cheered. How did a figure with such a brutal history ever become such an icon in the first place? This article will examine Columbus’s legacy, from brute to explorer, to icon of the New World and back again.

Christopher Columbus - Wikipedia
Portrait of Christopher Columbus

Long before the Italian immigrants embraced the Genoa-born explorer as a symbol of Italian heritage in America, his name was ubiquitous within the country’s institutions. Think the “District of Columbia”, “Columbus, Ohio” and “Columbia, South Carolina” as just a few examples. The Americans needed to create its own historical icons in the wake of the Revolution and they found one in Christopher Columbus, despite the fact the explorer never set foot in the modern-day US. 

In the second half of the 19th Century, Italian immigrants crossed the Atlantic in large numbers. As often the case with large waves of immigration, anti-Italian sentiment followed. Discrimination and violence towards Italian-Americans was rampant, and in 1891 11 Sicilians were lynched in New Orleans in one of the largest lynchings in American history. US officials failed to condemn the event, including future president Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was a member of the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

In the face of such rampant discrimination, Italian-Americans looked to Columbus as an inspiration and evidence of the vital role that Italians had played in forging US society. Italian-American societies successfully lobbied state after state into making Columbus Day an official holiday. In1968 Columbus Day was officially recognised as a federal holiday.

So what has transformed the annual celebration of Italian pride into a flashpoint of controversy? The truth is, the controversy around Columbus is not new. Historians have always been vocal about how dark many of the explorer’s initial encounters with the New World really were. Antonio Espino Lopez of Barcelona Autonomous university believes that “even if he did not seek to exterminate, Columbus opened an era of mass killings in the New World”.

Columbus’s voyages

Columbus first set foot in the Americans in what we now call the Bahamas. Further explorations saw him reach the coasts of modern-day Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as explore the Central and South American coasts.

While Columbus is said to have started an era of exploration, it is important to understand that he stood to gain significant wealth and power from his voyage. His contract with the monarchs of Spain stated that he could keep 10 per cent of any “merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices and other objects” that he “acquired” within the new territory. He would also be named governor of any land he discovered. While it is impossible to understand Columbus’ true intentions when he first set sail, his agreement with Spain suggests his intentions were largely dictated by greed rather than selfless ‘discovery’. 

On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his men approached the indigenous people of what we now call the Bahamas – the Lucayans – and were greeted warmly. “We understood that they had asked us if we had come from heaven,” Columbus wrote in his journal. Then he goes on to add, “with 50 men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” This tells you all you need to know about Columbus’s attitude towards indigenous people.

Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was populated by the Taino at the time of Columbus’s arrival. The Taino initially established a fairly cordial relationship with the Europeans, and traded jewellery, animals and supplies with the crew. Columbus wasn’t there to trade, however.

He wrote in his diary: “They do not carry arms or know them….They should be good servants.” It was not long before the Taino were forced into slavery. Columbus’s men demanded large sums of gold and other precious stones, and often murdered any who failed to meet a quota.

Columbus also supervised the selling of native girls into sexual slavery – some as young as 9 and 10 years old. “A hundred Castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand,” wrote Columbus.

Historical accounts suggest that the bodies of the slain Taino and other indigenous peoples throughout the New World were sold as dog food. It has even been claimed that the invaders fed live babies to their dogs for amusement and sport, terrorising the conquered populations into slavery and submission. Columbus’ men also relished what they called la montería infernal  (he infernal chase) a bloodthirsty manhunt in which Natives were hunted down and slaughtered.

Estimates for the amount of pre-contact Taino range from several hundred thousand to over a million. Within twenty-five years of Columbus’ arrival in Haiti, most of the Taíno population had been decimated by enslavement, massacre, or disease. By 1514, only 32,000 Taíno remained.

In 1499, the Spanish authorities got wind of the atrocities committed by the Spanish colonists in Hispaniola. Columbus, who was governor of the territory as granted by his arrangement, was arrested and brought back to Spain. Although it is argued that some of the charges may have been manufactured by his political enemies, Columbus confessed to many of the accusations. He was stripped of his title as governor. This is important to note as many defenders of historical legacy like to argue that you can’t judge historical figures by today’s values: Even by the values of his day, Columbus was problematic.

The conviction didn’t stop him, and in 1502 King Ferdinand funded another voyage along the eastern coast of Central America in search of a spice route to India. The voyage wasn’t particularly successful, and Columbus failed to regain his lost titles.

After failing in his main mission of finding a new route to Asia, and with a tarnished legacy in Europe, Columbus’s strongest legacy was in the Americas, where he had set the tone for the coming centuries of native struggle against European expansion.

The revival of his image in the 18th and 19th century was largely a result of historical revisionism, coupled with the misguided search by the downtrodden Italian-American community for a figure to legitimise their presence in the US.

The actions of Columbus and his crew were seen as atrocities then, and they should be seen as atrocities now. While we cannot arrest him as his contemporaries did, we can challenge the narrative. Modern America has rightly begun to revisit and reassess the figures that they choose to canonise. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s