Christopher Columbus: When Did the Hero Become a Villain?
By Janice Therese Mancuso
In 1892, Columbus was an American hero. President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed 1, “Friday, October 21, 1892, the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus, as a general holiday for the people of the United States.” (The 21st reflected the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1582.)
Columbus was honored over 100 years earlier, though, in 1775 when one of the first war ships of the newly formed Continental Navy was named after him. In moving away from Great Britain, the Revolutionary War was a turning point for a young nation; and after gaining independence and seeking a unifying bond for the United States of America, Columbus emerged as a representative – an adventurer – in leaving the old and discovering something new. As poems about Columbus circulated throughout the states, Columbus and Columbia were associated with liberty, and in 1791, the District of Columbia was founded as the new nation’s seat of federal government.
In August 1792, the cornerstone for the first monument in America dedicated to Columbus – an obelisk 44 feet tall 2– was set in Baltimore. (The base of the obelisk was damaged in 2017, and repaired; however, the plaque dedicating the monument to Columbus was not replaced.) That same year, for the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, several cities held celebrations with the largest in New York City sponsored by the Tammany Society (at the time a social association).
In the early nineteenth century, Columbus continued on a symbolic climb as an American icon; and Washington Irving – acclaimed for his widely-read literary and scholarly works – wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828. While researching and writing about Columbus, Irving, who was well-versed in Spanish, was living in Spain and had access to historical documents in the Spanish archives. (He would later become U.S. diplomat to Spain 3.) Released in several volumes, at the time, the book was considered an imperative detailed biography of Columbus.
In 1849, Boston became the first city to display a statue of Columbus 4. In the following 100 years, statues of Columbus would be showcased in towns and cities throughout America, with one of the most well known standing tall in New York City 5 since 1892, surrounded by Columbus Circle. (The 76-foot tall monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.) Columbus was also honored by Constantino Brumidi, “the Michelangelo of the Capitol,” who painted Columbus the Explorer on the ceiling of the President’s Room in the Capitol Building in the late 1850s. Around 20 years later, Lord Alfred Tennyson – at the time, Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland – wrote the poem, Columbus 6.
As more Italians immigrated to America, although most were harshly discriminated against, they also became aware of the growing attention Christopher Columbus, a fellow Catholic Italian, was receiving and were soon celebrating him in annual events. The founding of the Knights of Columbus in 1882 brought even more awareness to a Catholic who was an important part of American history.
In 1891, The Life of Christopher Columbus from His own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time by Edward Everett Hale 7 was published. A journalist, Harvard graduate, and minister, Hale wrote in the preface, “This book contains a life of Columbus, written with the hope of interesting all classes of readers. His life has often been written, and it has sometimes been well written. The great book of our countryman, Washington Irving, is a noble model of diligent work given to a very difficult subject. And I think every person who has dealt with the life of Columbus since Irving's time, has expressed his gratitude and respect for the author.” (Hale’s great uncle was Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale.) The following year, Sir Clements Robert Markham – an English explorer, geographer, and writer – wrote The Life of Christopher Columbus.
Among all the admiration for Columbus, though, the year before his quadricentennial brought an international confrontation. The lynching of 11 Italian immigrants (from Sicily) in New Orleans tarnished U.S. and Italian relations, and some note that the extravagance of the Columbus celebration was, in part, to appease the Italian government.
The World’s Columbian Exposition 8 was a spectacular event; the dedication ceremony held in October 1892 was preceded by a letter in July, 1892 from Pope Leo XIII 9 stating, “Now that four centuries have sped since a Ligurian first, under God's guidance, touched shores unknown beyond the Atlantic, the whole world is eager to celebrate the memory of the event, and glorify its author. Nor could a worthier reason be found where through zeal should be kindled. For the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity.” The fair grounds opened in May 1893.
Annual celebrations of Columbus continued, statues continued to be erected, and books about the explorer’s accomplishments continued to be published. In 1906, The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 was printed “to provide individual readers of history, and the libraries of schools and colleges, with a comprehensive and well-rounded collection of those classical narratives on which the early history of the United States is founded, or of those narratives which, if not precisely classical, hold the most important place as sources of American history anterior to 1700.” The book begins with “The Saga of Eric the Red.”
With most states celebrating Columbus Day, in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress decreed by annual proclamation that October 12th be designated as Columbus Day; but it was not made an official federal holiday until 1968.
In 1942, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus by Samuel Eliot Morison, an historian and scholar, was published. The book earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and gave Morison recognition as an authority on Columbus. In March that same year, Morison – who was a friend of President Roosevelt – requested from Roosevelt a commission of Lieutenant Commander 10 to be an eye-witness and chronicle the naval battles of World War II. (In December 1941, Roosevelt had proclaimed “all natives, citizens, denizens or subjects of Italy” over fourteen years old as “alien enemies.”) Morison wrote a 15-volume series, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.
After he retired, Morison wrote Christopher Columbus, Mariner. Published in 1955, it used material from his 1942 book Admiral of the Ocean Sea. In the Preface of Mariner, Morison wrote, “… I have rewritten the entire story of the Discoverer’s life and voyages, in the hope of reaching a wider public.” [Admiral is 680 pages; Mariner is 224 pages; including indexes.] “My account is a straightforward narrative, giving my own conclusions on the numerous controversial points in the Admiral’s career.”
Citing a 1508 census showing “60,000 of the estimated 1492 population of 250,000 still alive,” and “Fifty years later, not 500 remained,” Morison provides his “own conclusions” stating, “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” [p. 129] It appears that Morison is referring to “the Columbus brothers [were] occupied with subjugating and organizing Hispaniola in order to obtain as much gold as possible,” but Columbus died in 1506, and had not governed any of the islands since 1500 – eight years before the census – when the brothers were sent back to Spain in chains.
Morison’s conclusion that Columbus was responsible for genocide, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a race,” has turned Columbus into a villain. Morison’s claim has no credible ground and has caused more harm to Columbus than all other “controversial points.” The sentence was quoted by Howard Zinn – a self-proclaimed anarchist 11 – in his book, A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980; and is most likely the basis for a series of books accusing Columbus of horrific acts and labeling his accomplishments as myths.
Four years prior to the publication of Zinn’s book, Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth by Hans Koning was published, apparent from the title as an attack on Columbus, and listed in Zinn’s bibliography. It was rereleased in 1991, along with newly published The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy by Kirkpatrick Sale, and American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David Stannard in 1992. All condescending in attitude, extremely judgmental, and expert in altering historical facts to fit into the authors’ ideologies; and all in time for Columbus’s quincentennial.
Other books and articles of similar genres have followed, each taking a patronizing tone in demeaning Columbus for everything: his name, nationality, navigational skills, knowledge of tropical flora and fauna, leadership abilities, business acumen, work ethic, religion, and anything else the authors can cull from any source and make it detrimental to Columbus’s character. Additionally, many have labeled Washington Irving’s volumes on Columbus a “romanticized version.” National media and the rise of social media have easily disseminated all the negativity and misinformation.
Several additional factors, though, have also contributed to the vilification of Columbus. In the mid-1970s, a new discipline, psychohistory, worked its way into social sciences and humanities, first as a theory related to psychotherapy, and then applied to the study of history. It’s a controversial topic, but appeals to writers looking for another approach in researching historical data, adding human behavior and the resulting consequences on society to past events. This perspective allows a hypothetical slant toward historical fiction under the guise of historical fact.
In 1991, the city of Berkeley, in California, chose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day for the Columbus quincentennial in 1992. The movement took hold, and combined with the misinformation in books published at the time, has supplied a core of indignation that continues to grow.
In 2008, Howard Zinn distributed 4,000 copies of his book, A People’s History of the United States, to teachers throughout America. The misinformation taught in schools and colleges has contributed to an emotionally-based learning experience instead on one based on historical facts. In 2016, the Zinn Education Project initiated Abolish Columbus Day, supporting schools and educational institutions in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. (In 1994, the United Nations established International Indigenous Peoples Day as August 9th 12 every year.)
Nationwide, Italian Americans must work together to reclaim Columbus Day and educate all nationalities about Columbus and his legacy of bringing the Old World and the New World together.
1 - President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed
2 - An obelisk 44 feet tall
3- U.S. diplomat to Spain
4 - Statue of Columbus
5 - Standing tall in New York City
6 - Poem, Columbus
7 - Edward Everett Hale
8 - World’s Columbian Exposition
9 - Letter in July, 1892 from Pope Leo XIII
10 - A commission of Lieutenant Commander
11 - A self-proclaimed anarchist
12 - International Indigenous Peoples Day as August 9th
Four Centuries of Italian American History by Giovanni Schiavo
The Origins and Traditions of Columbus Day
The Meaning of Columbus Day
The Life Of Christopher Columbus From His Own Letters And Journals And Other Documents Of His Time by Edward Everett Hale
The Life of Christopher Columbus by Sir Clements Robert Markham
Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application
Christopher Columbus: The Hero
Lesson Plans: The Columbus Letter
Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. Samuel Eliot Morison; Little Brown, 1942
Christopher Columbus, Mariner. Samuel Eliot Morison; Little Brown, 1955