530 years ago, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas. While Europe would have most likely settled in the “New World” eventually, Columbus was the first European to do so on a permanent basis, leading to the world as we know it. The Viking excursions of Leif Eriksson and others from several hundred years earlier were not permanent, as impressive as they were.
When I was growing up in the 1990s, the second Monday in October was referred to as Columbus Day. In my naïve youth, I figured we were honoring the bold, risk taking explorer and Italian-Americans in the 19th century who endured persecution and discrimination. As an adult, I realized the reality is more complicated.
The story of Columbus Day begins in 19th century New Orleans, Louisiana. There was an incredible amount of migration from Italy to New Orleans in the late 19th to early 20th century, giving it the nickname of “Little Palermo.” Mixed up with the honest citizens trying to obtain a better life were Mafioso criminals engaged in a variety of enterprises. Police Chief David Hennessey had brought Italian criminal Giuseppe Esposito to justice in 1881.
On October 16th of 1890, Mr. Hennessy was murdered on his way home from work. It is believed the Mafia wanted to prevent him from testifying in a trial later that week. The combination of the murder weapon, sawn-off shotguns popular among the Mafia, Mr. Hennessey’s history against organized crime and his supposed answer as to who killed him of “Dagoes,” a slur against Italian-Americans, led to the police gathering up many Italian-Americans for questioning.
Nine suspects were tried for his murder but all were either acquitted or cleared in mistrials.
Mr. Hennessy was very popular, almost a folk hero, so the court verdicts angered a swath of Americans. On March 14th,1891, a mob lynched the nine suspects and two other Italian-Americans in one of the largest lynchings in American history.
Retribution was swift. Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States. There was rumor of war between the two countries. Anti-Italian sentiment, already present through the country, was taken to a whole new level thanks to newspapers and other media. Read this New York Times editorial from March 16th, 1891, just two days after the mass lynching.
“Those sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations…These men of the Mafia killed Chief Hennessy in circumstances of peculiar atrocity…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.”
A national publication approved of the vigilante justice which lead to the deaths of 11 people, most of whom, if not all, were innocent. As much as we complain about the nasty, divisive tone of current media, it’s hard to imagine the New York Times or an organization of a similar caliber justifying such violence today.
As part of the efforts to recover from the fallout, President Benjamin Harrison declared the first nationwide celebration of Columbus Day in 1892, which coincided with the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s arrival in the New World. The federal government made Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1971.
In recent years, pushback has grown against the holiday due to the explorer’s brutal subjugation of native peoples and how he paved the way for countless explorers and conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro to do similar or more terrible deeds.
I blogged about this debate in 2017 when I lived in Mexico. Per usual, I took a middle position. I commended Columbus for his persistence and guts after being turned down by multiple European monarchs and sailing halfway across the world without any modern navigational equipment. Hell, I use Google Maps in my hometown for faster routes! Imagine sailing in stormy and unpredictable seas, deathly disease and shipwreck always possible, to a place not only you have never been to but no one in all of Europe, save the Vikings, have ever been to.
Explorers like Columbus should be studied for their role in history, as well as the adversity they faced to go where Europeans hadn’t gone before, or recently.
It’s worth revisiting what Columbus did and did not do because much propaganda has sprouted up either downplaying or exaggerating his actions. Read the explorer’s own diary describing Caribbean from his first few days in the New World:
“They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion, our Lord being pleased, will take hence at the time of my departure six natives to your Highnesses that they may learn to speak.”
From the beginning, Columbus viewed himself as a civilizer, much like the Romans and many societies before and after him. But this civilization was to come on his terms and conditions. When the natives understandably agitated under their new overlords, Columbus engaged in vicious crackdowns. To deter further unrest, he followed the medieval playbook and “paraded dismembered bodies through the streets.” Eventually, the Spanish crown recalled Columbus for “mismanagement” of his province.
Yes, Columbus’s brutality was obvious and terrible. But it doesn’t negate his bravery and steadfastness in his mission to explore. We should put him in his historical context without excusing him. The explorer’s behavior was not abnormal in Europe and beyond for the time period. Even the natives Columbus encountered had recently defended themselves against another tribe. The Aztecs in Mexico were brutal towards their subjects, and a chief reason for their demise was an alliance between various tribes and the Spanish invaders.
Columbus is very much like the society that produced him: ambitious, intolerant, brutal and religious. In other words, flawed and complicated, like a decent bit of humanity. No matter if great or meek, famous or unknown, rich or poor, humans tend to be a mix of good and bad, sometimes frighteningly so.
It is possible to reflect on Columbus and explorers/conquistadors without whitewashing their atrocities and recognizing indigenous culture. In order to do so, there should be two separate occasions recognized by both the federal government as well as our K-12 and university educational systems.
Inspired by director and producer John Copeland opinion piece, my ‘Explorer’s Day/Week’ would focus on not just Columbus but others such as Leif Eriksson, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco da Gama and so forth.
How many Americans know of these explorers? Considering what they accomplished, everyone should know them.
Mr. Copeland detailed Leif Eriksson’s journeys as part of his argument. It’s well worth a read.
Vespucci helped prove that the North and South America were part of their own landmass, rather than part of Asia. Britannica describes him as “a genuine pioneer of Atlantic exploration and a vivid contributor to the early travel literature of the New World.”
Da Gama is “best known for being the first to sale from Europe to India by rounding Africa’s Cape of Good Hope” and “carried padrões (stone pillars) as marks of discovery, erecting them near Mossel Bay, South Africa, Mozambique and Calicut, India to prove he had been there” per Britannica.
Naturally, there are many others, but these three are more than worthy to get started.
Over the years, I’ve become more into history which explains processes rather than figures, or least puts these figures into phenomenon larger than themselves. 530 years after Columbus, I can’t recommend enough Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Book Guns, Germs and Steel. While Mr. Diamond may have oversimplified certain aspects, he’s a great starting point if you’ve ever wondered as he did: “Why did Europeans colonize the Americans and not the other way around?” Incorporating works like Mr. Diamond’s would further avoid myth making and hyperbole surrounding famous explorers. Yes, they did fantastic things- but in many ways, were in the right place, the right civilization, at the right time.
The other holiday would focus on indigenous peoples, their struggles under colonization and how they contribute to the richness of their respective countries today. Since 2009, Peru has celebrated “Día de los pueblos originarios y el dialogo intercultural” or “Indigenous Peoples and Intercultural Dialogue Day.” The U.S. should follow their lead and declare a similar holiday. Due to the topic’s complicated nature, I imagine a “Indigenous Peoples and Intercultural Dialogue Week” would be more appropriate than a simple day.
How much of the indigenous culture of our area do we know?
Recently, I frequented the local Oshkosh Public Museum. There’s an exhibit about Wisconsin’s native peoples which has location names and pronunciations in the Menominee language. Weskohsek is their version of Wisconsin, which means “a good place to live.” Oshkosh is translated as Oskas, meaning “his claw, Chief Oshkosh.”
Further research lead me to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which found out that Wisconsin means “River Running Through A Red Place” and is the English spelling of a French version of a Miami Indian name for the Wisconsin River.
I try to read, watch or play something in its original language whenever possible, so hearing the original inhabitants of my state pronounce its original name transcends simple book knowledge- it was a mystical encounter with the past.
For those who live in cites or states with indigenous names, how many know what they mean?
How many have investigated that tribes who used to live there or still live there?
It’s about time all of us know, investigate and experience as much Native culture as possible.
In conclusion, I believe Columbus Day should be changed to two holidays. It’s not as if we have celebrated the occasion since the nation’s founding- its relatively recent origin was part of a calculation to mitigate fallout from a horrible lynching. An Explorer’s Day or Week would focus on not just Columbus but many other explorers, alongside a healthy dosing of readings such as Jared Diamond to encourage citizens to put these often mythologized figures in an historical context. An indigenous centered day or week, modeled after Peru’s “Indigenous Peoples and Intercultural Dialogue Day,” would help Americans realize what pain Columbus’s journey began to bring upon indigenous peoples while also appreciating the culture that remains.