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Christopher Who?

What, no balloons?

What, no balloons?

As thousands of New Yorkers line the streets for today’s holiday festivities, we’re reminded that green beer and corned beef and cabbage must be more significant than exploration, since so many more people turn out for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Why don’t Christopher Columbus and his accomplishments get more respect on the day named for him? Maybe because some of the people slaughtered and displaced by the floodgate of slavery and settlement he opened are still none to happy about being “discovered.” Maybe because Italians who aren’t part of dysfunctional but somehow admirable crime families don’t register too much in the collective American psyche. I can’t explain the lower turnout for the Columbus Day Parade. But I will try to explain a little about who Chris was — and wasn’t.

This is Columbus - only he didn't look like this

This is Columbus - only he didn't look like this. No paintings of him exist from his lifetime.

First, a look at some of the myths and maybe-truths. Someone told me yesterday that Columbus was actually English. What? Maybe she meant Scottish, if the recent theory of a Spanish historian named Villalonga is to be believed. I knew there was some uncertainty about his birthplace, though he always gave Genoa the honor. In recent years, a small Piedmontese village called Cuccaro tried to lay claim as the birth site, hoping to draw tourists. The claim was largely discredited and the tourists stayed away. Some scholars have argued for Spain or Portugal as his true homeland. Plenty of documents from Genoa seem to back the captain’s own claim, though we have his son saying his father chose to obscure details of his roots.

Why? Perhaps because he was a pirate, as Villalonga argues. Perhaps because the explorer was part Jewish in a Catholic Europe that did not much like Jews. We know, thanks to Monty Python, that Columbus’s Spanish employers were not too keen on the unconverted Jews (though the Brits seemed unable to find much humor in the real Inquisition and so subjected a nice, old Englishwoman to the horrors of the comfy chair). Some scholars have argued for Columbus’s Judaic heritage. I would buy that, since conversions weren’t limited to Spanish lands.

The four voyages

The four voyages

So the details are cloudy. And some historians aren’t willing to give CC much credit for his voyages (there were four) of discovery. He didn’t “discover” anything, since plenty of people had lived for thousands of years on the lands he reached. His legacy, as noted above, is one of pain for the native peoples decimated by European colonization. And the Norse beat him to North America by almost 500 years. So maybe he doesn’t even deserve a parade, let alone one to match the kind St. Paddy gets.

But consider: open-ocean crossings in 1492 were not exactly the norm. No one, to his knowledge, had ever taken the route Columbus did. The captain, in a word he might have known, had cojones. He had three tiny ships and a crew that got a little uppity as the sailing dragged on with no land in sight. The honor of making the longest Atlantic voyage by a European ship maybe gave the sailor some bragging rights — but only if they made it back home to actually do some bragging. And for good or ill, the colonization of the Americas that Columbus unleashed, and the exchange that bears his name, did change the world. Peppers to Thailand and potatoes to the homeland of Scotland, horses to Mexico and beer to me — all possible because Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Yes, Europe would have “discovered” the New World if Chris had never lived. But he did – whoever he really was, and wherever he came from – and he got there first. Maybe worth a halfway decent parade.

  1. Judy
    October 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    I heard Columbus also had some Polish lineage on NPR from a Wesleyan Professor.

  2. Judy
  3. mburgan
    October 13, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Interesting–didn’t come across that angle in my research. BTW, I couldn’t get the link to work.

  4. mburgan
    October 13, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Ok, second time it worked.

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