In 1992, the city of San Francisco planned a grand celebration of Columbus Day, with replicas of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María sailing majestically into the bay. An actor dressed as Christopher Columbus would then be rowed ashore, to march up through the surf as the Genoese explorer had done 500 years before.
Come October 12, however, the commemoration fell far short of the organizers’ hopes. The funding for the ships fell through altogether. An actor did dress up as Columbus, and his boat was met by Indigenous Americans; unlike in 1492, however, these were members of the Bay Area Resistance 500 Coalition, and they blocked off the entrance to the harbor in kayaks, preventing the actor from even coming ashore. The Columbus parade that followed in the city, furthermore, was marred by confrontations between protesters and Italian-Americans.
The same actor, shrugging off his failed landing, reappeared on a float as Columbus, reportedly taunting and waving his prop sword at demonstrators who were chanting “Mass murdering pig!”
In the decades since this confrontation, statues of Columbus have been coming down even more since the killing of George Floyd. The timeline of Columbus’ commemoration mirrors in some ways that of the Confederates. Most Civil War monuments date not to the years just after Appomattox, but rather to the eras of Jim Crow and civil rights.
The celebration of Columbus began in earnest in the late 1800s, when Italian-American immigrants saw the explorer as the connection between their ancestral home, and the history of their adopted nation. City names, streets, statues, the Knights of Columbus, the national holiday – these markers integrated Italians into America’s origin story, at a time when they faced widespread prejudice on account of their Catholicism, supposed Southern European inferiority and reputation for organized crime; never mind that Columbus sailed under a Castilian flag, and never set foot in what is today the United States. Through his Renaissance curiosity he fulfilled the spirit of the law in Americanizing his descendants.
In the 21st century, Columbus Day persists as a celebration of Italian-American heritage. In perhaps another parallel to the Old South, defenders of Columbus find themselves opposed by protesters who examine historical figures in detail and discover connections to legacies of oppression.
Unlike the 19th century critics who objected to the lionization of Columbus due to anti-Italian prejudice, the protesters of 2020 point to his brutal treatment of the indigenous Taíno on Hispaniola. Columbus exacted harsh tributes upon the Taíno, subjected them to European diseases, and potentially initiated the Atlantic trade of enslaved peoples, shipping natives back to Spain to be sold. A population of at least 250,000 souls fell to a few hundred under Columbus’ governance of the island.
Even his singularity as a navigator has come into question: the Vikings had come to the Americas before him, and without his voyage Cabot or Cabral would have reached the West soon enough. Against the first voyage for which he has long been remembered – the man who dared sail into the setting sun – we must reckon with the end of his third voyage. Arrested and detained for a bloody crackdown on the inhabitants of what is now the Dominican Republic, Columbus returned to Iberia in chains, stripped of his authority.
This summer, protesters tore down a statue of Columbus in St. Paul; a statue was beheaded in Boston; demonstrators ripped a statue from its foundations, spray-painted it, set it on fire and then threw it in the lake in Richmond. The city of Philadelphia enclosed a Columbus statue in a wooden box after armed men gathered around it to prevent anyone from bringing it down.
Viewed in context, Columbus does form an important part of the American legacy – just not the legacy that his admirers imagined, for example, at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The Exposition that inspired Columbus Day also whitewashed our history and buried our sins. The lasting controversy over his statues speaks to the distinction between understanding figures of the past, and honoring them.