Now that we have given Italian-Americans their respectful due, can we talk about Columbus Day?
Why? Because a majority of the world's peoples who have yet to fully extricate themselves from the devastation Columbus Day represents. Because the true story is none too heroic -- or moral. And, because it's time we did.
On October 12, 1492, a crew led by Christopher Columbus (né Cristoforo Colombo of Genoa) landed on the island of Guanahani; changing history, political geography and the way peoples the world over would define themselves for the next five hundred years.
This entry in Columbus' log:
At dawn we saw naked people, and I went ashore, armed, followed by the captains of the Pinta and the Nina. After a prayer of thanksgiving I ordered the captains to bear faith and witness that I was taking possession of this island for the King and Queen. To this island I gave the name San Salvador, in honor of our Blessed Lord.
Question #1: What?!
A bunch of strangers, overdressed to the hilt, step onto your beach, declare -- in words you don't understand and gestures you do -- that they are seizing your homeland for somebody's king (to whom you must now pay a tax or be tortured and killed) for somebody's religion (to which you must now pay a tithe or be tortured and killed).
Contrary to the myth still being taught and graded in our schools, we all know that Columbus did not "discover" the Caribs' land. He wasn't even among the first Europeans to cross the ocean. His known predecessors include the Norsemen who came in 986 AD and, within two decades, a Norsewoman even -- Freydis.
Question #2: What would make anyone risk such a trip?
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V, eager to stop Europe's crowns' endless wars among themselves for lands and riches, takes out a map (clearly someone must have been traveling long before Columbus for such a map to be drawn) and issues this decree:
After careful deliberation, we [the Church] have conceded... the right, total and absolute, to invade, conquer and subdue all the countries under the rule of the enemies of Christ, Saracen or pagan. We wish [King's name] to occupy and possess exclusively the said islands, ports and seas and all faithful Christians are prohibited to encroach on their sovereignty.
Question #2: Huh?!
A pope declares himself king of the world, carves it up, and then doles out parcels in exchange for a small fee -- tithes paid to the Church in perpetuity. To Spain, he gave bad directions to India. Fifty years later, Columbus succeeded in convincing Queen Isabella that he was the right man to find it.
Among Columbus' international crew was Pietro Alonzo Nino, a Moor (North African), as pilot of the Santa Maria -- the pilot being an experienced seaman and navigator.
Indeed, Africans had long sailed trade routes to South America. As historian Ivan Van Sertima notes in his book, "They Came Before Columbus," (and the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art documents) the Prince of Mali led an expedition there in the early 1300s. With that feat being common knowledge at the time, Columbus hired a pilot who -- with or without the pope's maps -- knew where he was going.
From the opening pages of Columbus' log:
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ... Whereas, Most Christian, High, Excellent, and Powerful Princes, King and Queen of Spain ... ennobled me that thenceforth I might call myself ... perpetual Viceroy and Governor in all the islands and continents which I might discover and acquire... and that this dignity should be inherited by my eldest son, and thus descend from degree to degree forever.... Hereupon I left the city of Granada, on Saturday, the twelfth day of May, 1492...
That October, as his men come ashore on Guanahani, Columbus writes:
Weapons they have none... for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it... It appears to me, that the people are ingenious and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion.
By 1515, Pope Leo X -- thrilled at the progress of such exploits -- congratulates the King of Portugal on his invasion of India:
Receive this warlike sword in your victorious hands. With this, you will wage wars under the most happy auspices...May you use your force and power against the fury of the infidels... having received through this gift the help of heaven, you may bring back abundant spoils and triumphs.
From such scenes, repeated the non-Christian world over, Europe's fleets would seize other peoples' lands for the crown and demand their souls (and tithes) for the church. And so we come to this New World. It's really quite a story.
So why should we let Columbus Day go? Because there are better ways to honor Italian-Americans. Because the arrival of Columbus marks both the start of European conquest of the land of the Caribs, Cherokee, Shinnecock, Sioux, and others and the start of centuries of terror. Because there is something unseemly about celebrating what amounts to genocide. And, because it diminishes our humanity when we do so.
If, on July 4, we celebrate those who led a revolution over unjust taxes on tea and other commodities, should we not give a care to the taxes and tithes on other peoples' lives?
We can honor Italians for their music, their culture, the unsurpassed art and phenomenal food. But, does it really harm those who would do so if we also respect the Pietro Alonzo Ninos, Norsemen -- and (Ms.) Freydises too?
Dr. Janus Adams is the author of several works of history, including Glory Days, and publisher of BackPax children's media.