Monday, October 11, 2021

Goodbye, Columbus

Happy Indigenous Peoples' AND Italian-American Heritage and Culture Day! I thought I'd reposted my own favorite Columbus Day post, from 2017, but I never have, so here it is:

No rapist, Amerigo Vespucci, in yellow tights, chastely declines a proffer of women in Honduras, 1497. Illustration by Theodor de Bry, ca. 1592, via Wikipedia.

An interesting wrinkle in this year's pro–Columbus Day noise is the suggestion that if you don't like Columbus Day you must be allied with the Ku Klux Klan. Why? Is the Klan supporting a national holiday honoring our indigenous peoples?

Sadly, no. It's all about identity politics, and the Klan's denial of the Italians' ethnic pride. As we read from Jarrett Stepman at Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal:
Much of the modern rhetoric about Columbus mirrors attacks lobbed at him in the 19th century by anti-Catholic and anti-Italian groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
In fact, Columbus Day became a nationally celebrated holiday following a mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans—the largest incident of lynching in American history....
As the pro-Columbus website The Truth About Columbus points out, the Ku Klux Klan worked to stop Columbus Day celebrations, smash statues, and reverse his growing influence on American culture.
According to The Truth About Columbus, in the 1920s, the Klan “attempted to remove Columbus Day as a state holiday in Oregon,” burned a cross “to disturb a Columbus Day celebration in Pennsylvania,” and successfully “opposed the erection of a statue of Columbus in Richmond, Virginia, only to see the decision to reject the statue reversed.”
Attempts to quash Columbus failed, but they have re-emerged in our own time through the actions of far-left groups who want to see his legacy buried and diminished forever.

Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891 was the worst lynching in American history?

Answer: Can't even keep this up. It wasn't, as Adam Serwer pointed out in Buzzfeed last year, even the worst lynching in New Orleans, where 34 African American citizens were killed in a mass action of 1866.

Nevertheless, it's nice to see our conservative brethren taking an interest in the sufferings of our dark-skinned minority immigrant populations (which the Italians of Louisiana certainly were, as Serwer went on to note):
At first, Italians came to Louisiana to replace black Americans in the fields. According to historian Paolo Giordano, Louisiana attracted more Italian immigrants than any other state, more than 64,000 between 1860 and 1920, complicating white Southerners’ attempts to enforce the color line in the aftermath of Reconstruction.
New York Sun article in 1899 described Italians as “a link connecting the white and black races. Swarthy in color the Sicilians are darker than the griffes and quadroons, the Negro half-breeds of southern Louisiana.” Many Italians seemed not to grasp the nuances and rituals of Southern white supremacy, and their willingness to hire, do business, and socialize with black Americans infuriated their white hosts.
Question: Is it true that modern rhetoric about Columbus mirror attacks on him in the 19th century by anti-Catholic and anti-Italian groups?

Answer: I don't think anybody nowadays is calling Columbus Day celebrations a plot engineered by the Pope to conceal the proud Nordic heritage of American colonization, as the Klan organ American Standard asserted in 1924 in articles with titles like "Columbus Day, a Papal Fraud":

Or focusing on the unique wickedness of the Spaniard, as The Hill reports of the earlier anti-Columbus agitation:
Historian Philip Wayne Powell wrote of this smear campaign: “The basic premise of the Black Legend is that Spaniards have shown themselves, historically, to be uniquely cruel, bigoted, tyrannical, obscurantist, lazy, fanatical, greedy, and treacherous; that is, that they differ so much from other peoples in these traits that Spaniards and Spanish history must be viewed and understood in terms not ordinarily used in describing and interpreting other peoples.”
It began as a tool of Anglo supremacy over its Iberian foes during the competition for territory on this continent, but as Powell notes, it was “extended to form part of a larger picture of English moral, racial and religious superiority over the Spaniard” — and we might well add, those who sailed for Spain.

By which they presumably mean Cristóbal Colon. (The English weren't above hiring Italians themselves, like the Venetian Zhuan Chabotto.)

I think "modern rhetoric about Columbus" focuses mainly on things that Spanish, Portuguese, and English imperialists had in common, like stealing other people's stuff, occupying their land, and enslaving them (and when the indigens turned out to be inefficient slaves, with an inconvenient habit of dying on the job, replacing them with imports from Africa), of all of which Columbus stands at the historical forefront:
Columbus's soldiers killed and enslaved with impunity at every landing. When Columbus fell ill in 1495, "what little restraint he had maintained over his men disappeared as he went through a lengthy period of recuperation. The troops went wild, stealing, killing, raping, and torturing natives, trying to force them to divulge the whereabouts of the imagined treasure-houses of gold." According to Las Casas, 50,000 natives perished during this period. Upon his recovery, Columbus organized his troops' efforts, forming a squadron of several hundred heavily armed men and more than twenty attack dogs. The men tore across the land, killing thousands of sick and unarmed natives. Soldiers would use their captives for sword practice, attempting to decapitate them or cut them in half with a single blow.[121]
The historian Howard Zinn writes that Columbus spearheaded a massive slave trade; in 1495 his men captured in a single raid 1500 Arawak men, women, and children. When he shipped five hundred of the slaves to Spain, 40 percent died en route.[49] Historian James W. Loewen asserts that "Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual... other nations rushed to emulate Columbus."[58]
Las Casas writes that when slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus switched to a different system of forced labor: he ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to collect a specified amount (one hawk's bell full) of gold powder every three months. Natives who brought the amount were given a copper token to hang around their necks, and those found without tokens had their hands amputated and were left to bleed to death.[49][122]
The Arawaks attempted to fight back against Columbus's men but lacked their armor, guns, swords, and horses. When taken prisoner, they were hanged or burned to death. Desperation led to mass suicides and infanticide among the natives. In just two years under Columbus's governorship more than half of the 250,000 Arawaks in Haiti were dead.[49] The main cause for the depopulation was disease followed by other causes such as warfare and harsh enslavement.[123] [124] [125]

The Daily Signal offers some evidence that Columbus's motives were not greedy, but oh, dear:

In fact, as contemporary historian Carol Delaney noted, even the money Columbus sought was primarily dedicated to religious purposes. Delaney said in an interview with the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus:
Everybody knows that Columbus was trying to find gold, but they don’t know what the gold was for: to fund a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world. A lot of people at the time thought that the apocalypse was coming because of all the signs: the plague, famine, earthquakes, and so forth. And it was believed that before the end, Jerusalem had to be back in Christian hands so that Christ could return in judgment.

He just wanted to make Jerusalem Muslim-free and Judenrein, as his patrons had made Spain when they completed expelling all the Arabs and Jews from Iberia! He was no greedy exploiter of indigenous peoples, merely an innocent white Christian supremacist eager to cleanse the Holy Land of all those filthy Semites! Thanks for clarifying.

It seems that this really was his plan, too, at least when he was pitching the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (when he made his proposals to the kings of Portugal and England and the doges of Genoa and Venice he doesn't seem to have mentioned the crusade). Ferdinand had a claim to be the legitimate king of Jerusalem, and that may have been one of the things that got him to sign on. It wasn't just Columbus's idea to fund a crusade, but to run it: once he got to India, he figured, completely wrongly as usual, he'd be close to the "undefended eastern flank" of the Ottoman Empire, and in a position to start recruiting allies for a war against the beastly Turks. He brought an Arabic interpreter on the first voyage for the purpose of the negotiations, a Jewish converso called Luis de Torres.

Ottoman Empire, via Wikipedia.

Only as we know his estimate of the distance was some 16,000 kilometers off, in opposition to all the scientists of the time, and so he made landfall in the Caribbean instead. What's worth mentioning is that whatever intention he may have had to further a crusade against the Saracens, he didn't henceforth lift a finger to further it. (He did write a book explaining that all his activities were fulfillments of biblical prophecies, and demanded that the Spanish Crown deliver him 10% of all profits derived from his voyage.)

But the point I wanted to make is that Columbus wasn't, dear Italian-Americans, even Italian, not really. He was obviously a Catalan. Well, no, people seem to be convinced nowadays that he was indeed Genovese by birth, but he spent almost no time in his native city after he was 22, wrote mostly in Spanish and never a word in Italian, married Portuguese and fathered Portuguese and Spanish children, and died in Valladolid. Also, he lacked any traditional Italian features of character: urbanity, cunning, pragmatism, and personal style. He was a religious maniac and a psychopath.

My (Truly) Modest Proposal is that Italian-Americans should dump Columbus in favor of a genuinely Italian hero of the age of exploration, the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), a humble provisions contractor for voyages to the New World who happened to be the guy who figured out that it was a New World, not "Las Indias" but a mass of continents and islands unimagined by Ptolemy and Strabo, which is what led the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to name the continents after him, America. It was Amerigo Vespucci who truly discovered America for the Europeans; Columbus merely collided with it, as a result of his scientific incompetence.

Vespucci also mapped the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, wrote superb ethnographic accounts of his experiences, developed an imperfect but decent method of calculating longitude, and ended up not scrambling for money but running a school, for navigators, in the Casa de Contratación in Seville. As to Italian style, his cousin's wife, Simonetta Vespucci, was used more than once as a model by Botticelli, and he himself modeled for Ghirlandaio in his youth.

Detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's Madonna della Misericordia (c. 1472) at the Ognissanti church in Florence, with portrait of the teenage Amerigo Vespucci.

Fa bella figura, no?

The tale of his first voyage shows him participating willingly in one vicious slave-taking exercise coming out of the blue at the end of the narrative, but that account is thought to be a forgery; I can't find authenticated evidence that he personally owned or traded in any slaves I am sorry to say he was definitely a participant in the slave trade (see here and here for what I can learn of his indirect involvement), and even the Wikipedia biography mentions five household slaves left to his wife in his will, but it was still on a much more modest scale than Columbus; and he has an unusual reputation as a non-rapist, see picture at top.

So what do you say, Italian America? Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October and Amerigo Day maybe around his birthday on March 9? It would really piss off the Klan.

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