Christopher Columbus: A remembered past and a tarnished legacy

Italian immigrants to America looked to Columbus as their patron saint who would rescue them from obscurity in a strange new land. A closer look knocks him off the pedestal.

October 9, 2023 5:00 am

The bronze statue of Christopher Columbus pointing forward and holding a globe is shown in Johnston’s War Memorial Park where it will be officially unveiled on Columbus Day 2023. The statue, created in 1893 by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was removed from the Columbus Square in Providence after it was repeatedly vandalized. Former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino purchased the statue and donated it to the town of Johnston. (Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, Jr.)

As a child, I was fascinated by the biographies of great people in history and lamented the fact that I could claim no famous ancestor. Well, my Italian-American father remedied that.

My dad invented a fictitious great-great-great-great-great grandfather who supposedly sailed with Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World. According to my dad’s tale, my brave and honorable forefather rallied behind the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” when other crew members threatened mutiny. With a cry of, “No, we must not turn back,” my imaginary ancestor, Orlando, was able to rally Columbus and his crew until they touched down on land.

Now, this story is a total fabrication. You won’t find the name Orlando on or in a family search entry, but my dad’s fairy tale speaks to the significance of Christopher Columbus in our collective imagination.

Ambrose Bierce, a prodigious author, and cynic of the 19th century claimed, “History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” 

More than “a study of records,” history includes the “remembered past,” and on more occasions than we care to consider, it is also a study of the “mythical past.” That includes the role Christopher Columbus has served in shaping the experience of Italian immigrants in America.

‘Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus.’ Christopher Columbus died in 1506. So if this 1519 portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo (Sebastiano Luciani) is him, it was painted posthumously. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1900)

My Italian-American ancestors contributed to the fable of Christopher Columbus in more ways than my dad ever realized. As the story goes, Christopher Columbus, or Cristoforo Colombo, born in Genoa in October 1451, was schooled in the art or science of navigation (along with his brother, Bartholomew) and became fascinated by tales of vast riches in faraway lands from Marco Polo and John Mandeville, the latter’s fabricated journey included an alleged pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Apprenticing as a sailor, young Christopher became proficient in navigation, and with his brother, learned mapmaking in Lisbon, which later emboldened him to proclaim he could reach the East by sailing West. He was undeterred by the Ottomans, who ravaged Europe and eventually occupied Constantinople in 1453, and confronted major obstacles: European merchants were barred from the lucrative Eastern trade route, and pious Catholics were prevented from setting out on a holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Columbus approached the great monarchs of Europe — Portugal, England, France, and Spain — relentlessly pressing on in his determination to secure patronage for his venture. When Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally agreed to fund his journey in 1492 after the Spanish had driven the Moors from Granada, they promised him 10% of the profits he procured. Columbus began advertising for prospective sailors and set out with his three ships —the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria — taming the unforgiving waters of the Atlantic in his journey to reach his prized destination. He named the land San Salvador and later Santo Domingo and claimed the island of Hispaniola.

Columbus risked life and limb to venture abroad in his quest to convert all to Christianity while advancing the political and economic goals of his patron country, Spain. In the throes of the Spanish Inquisition, Spain and its monarchs would expect nothing less from Columbus. Believing he was divinely inspired to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims and in turn reopen trade with the East, Columbus was assured of greatness, all the while laying a path to eternal grace at the hands of a beneficent God.

I live in Rhode Island, a state with a large Italian-American population. When Italians first charted their own journey abroad in the late 19th century, they boarded crowded vessels, often leaving family members behind. Settling in major cities of North, Central, and South America, they accepted menial jobs and lived in drafty, sub-human tenement housing in the poorest sections of bustling cities. Nativists marginalized them as filthy, swarthy immigrants who polluted the waters of the Atlantic and beyond. By the close of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, Italians had been ravaged by lynch mobs, greedy capitalists, and corrupt machine politicians. 

No wonder, then, that many Italians looked to Columbus as their patron saint who would rescue them from obscurity in a strange new land. With Columbus as their symbol of hope, Italians could become Americans. They would be further associated with Columbus when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed that Oct. 12, 1937, would serve as a national holiday in honor of Columbus. Rhode Island established its state holiday two years later.

Italians in Rhode Island still love Columbus. Honoring him with parades every October, the most famous on Federal Hill, the main hub of Rhode Island’s Little Italies, Italians bask in the celebration of their patron saint. Bakeries craft special pastries on his behalf and many Italian members of the Knights of Columbus, the Sons of Italy, and other organizations in the state raise banners and hail Columbus, the discoverer of America, who had plucked their forebears from political and social obscurity to become shining examples of Americana. Who better to laud than this majestic Italian sailor who gave these marginalized people a gateway to acceptance in the United States?

After America became the United States, it honored the historic landing of Columbus in 1792 with speeches, a statue, poems, and parades. Schoolchildren learned of the brave exploits of this Genoan sailor. Columbus’s larger-than-life status proceeded in earnest in 1892 to correspond with the quadricentennial of Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago brought together famous architects, business moguls, scientists, and historians for a historic celebration of what it meant to be an American and why Columbus continued to model the exceptionalism of the United States. 

‘First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World: At San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492.’ Lithograph published New York : Published by Currier & Ives, c1892.

Historians such as William Robertson in his History of America (1777), Samuel Eliot Morison, and others, molded a fictitious Columbus; a saintly figure and brave soldier whose greatness far surpassed mere mortals. It was Columbus’s men, then, and the Spanish court which allowed such grave misdeeds against the Indigenous people of the Caribbean. Dishonor never touched the hands of the majestic Columbus.

This one-dimensional narrative, however, has silenced 500 years of suppression against Indigenous people. A parallel history of Columbus’s landing in Central America adds layers to the original story holding the Spanish leader accountable for the atrocities that followed.

This story begins like this:

Upon disembarking, Columbus and his men were greeted by “Arawak” or Taino Indians bearing gifts. Columbus himself noted, “They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all that they have…” He continued, “With 50 men we could subdue them and make servants of them.” One chronicle, quoted by New Left historian Howard Zinn, averred that Columbus and his men enslaved 500 Taino and presented them to Ferdinand and Isabella as prizes for their venture. In turn, the Spaniards brutalized the Indigenous by raping their women, pillaging their land, and disfiguring their children, ordering them at gunpoint to surrender their gold. Ferdinand and Isabella were impressed by Columbus’s findings and realizing the value of overseas enterprises, afforded Columbus 17 ships with 1,200 crew members for his second expedition, which commenced on September 25, 1493.

A lot was riding on this trip and Columbus knew he had to make good on his promises. Subsequent journeys (four total) resulted in the near annihilation of the Taino people, from an estimated 1 million to 3 million in 1492 to a mere 200 by the 1560s.

A revised narrative debunks the glory attributed to the famous 15th century navigator. That has led to a change in the academic calendar at Roger Williams University where I teach. Students and professors now have a nondescript “Fall Break” on the Friday before the second Monday in October. Elsewhere in Rhode Island, Columbus’s statue was removed from a prominent location in a Providence park in 2020 after being vandalized. After being stored in a drafty basement, the statue now has a new home in the heavily Italian-American town of Johnston, where a dedication ceremony is scheduled for Monday.

How the mighty have fallen.

Saintly hero or bloodthirsty tyrant? Columbus dwells somewhere in between.



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Debra Mulligan
Debra Mulligan

Debra A. Mulligan, Ph.D., is professor of history and history department chair at Roger Williams University. She is a board member of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. Her book, “Democratic Repairman: The Political Life of James Howard McGrath” was published by McFarland Press in May 2019. Her forthcoming book is titled, “Between Two Worlds: Rhode Island’s Little Italies, 1880-1930.”