Columbus as a Symbol More Than a Man

Christopher Columbus: An Historian's Different Point of View

Updated 6 weeks ago Ron Musto
Christopher Columbus Stature in Cranston, Rhode Island
Christopher Columbus Stature in Cranston, Rhode Island

Westview's Ron Musto is a writer and scholar of Medieval and Renaissance History. His Italica Press at 595 Main Street sets the standard in publishing it its genre. After reading our feature on Christopher Columbus, he asked us to reprint a talk he gave 25 years ago, during the 500 year recognition of the navigator's first trip to the New World. His perspective is as modern as it is historical and enriched with a broader perspective.

After 500 Years: What Have We Learned?

Westminster College Columbus Symposium

November 24, 1992

My thanks to Art Cribbs the United Church Board my fellow panelists and to all of you in the audience

Finally, I would like to thank Ronald Reagan and George Bush for making this meeting possible, for without the past decade of misunderstanding, racial and ethnic hatred and economic strife, we would not have to be here attempting to heal the wounds that the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage have inflicted upon this body politic, society and culture, still grappling with hatreds that should have been put aside by the 1960s. 

Reference: The Digital Humanities by Roosevelt Islanders Ron Musto and Eileen Gardiner

But that dream of social equality and unity was somehow forgotten: that agenda of healing America has been a dream deferred.

So, what have we learned on the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage? 

That we as a people should never again allow ourselves to be divided by forces and for motives that are not of our making. For make no mistake, it is the ruling class in America that keeps us divided.

It has decided what is “European” and what is “American” what “African” and “Asian” about our cultures. Meanwhile it stands aloof from us all and seeks to suppress the emerging world culture of the next millennium.

From a Contemporary Perspective

What have I learned as an Italian-American? 

That after 500 years of Italian-American life here the portrayals of Columbus presented this anniversary year by many “revisionist” historians resurrect the stereotypes of Italian-Americans voiced in the ravings of the Know-Nothings and Nativists and in the hate speech of the Old South and of the New Religious Right.

For in the Reagan-Bush era “Columbus” became a code word for every bigot’s idea of Italian Americans: Columbus the secretive and deceptive, the hot-headed, ever sensing insult and injury, the Latin lover, the importer of a foreign violence to America’s innocent shores, the grasping and unscrupulous business man, the unlettered braggart, the fanatical, ignorant and bigoted Roman Catholic.

Frankly I am quite sick and tired of this Columbus year, and I am glad to see it sail away.

And yet neither I nor we can ever escape the legacy of Columbus, and I do not seek to do so here and now. “Columbus” must be grappled with, for without doing so we flee the very core of the divisions that sicken our society and we ignore what is at the root of the American dream.

I come from a most traditional “Columbus” background: as an Italian American, as a historian of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, as one of the few publishers of Italian works in America. 

I also come as a committed member of the peace and justice community; an opponent of America’s wars and its economic oppression both at home and in the non-white world. 

History: The Longer View

As a historian of both European religious life and of Catholic nonviolence I have studied and written long about the spiritual world that Columbus sailed from: its hopes and longings for a renewed age of peace and justice. I have also written about the devastation that his quest brought to this New World.  

None of us can deny the facts: the genocide, the destruction of cultures, the spiritual and material impoverishment of the native Americans whom the Europeans encountered here and of the African-Americans whom they dragged here. One statistic alone will speak for all the rest. 

Between 1532 and 1608 the American population under Spanish control dropped from 16.9 million to 1.1 million: the first and longest-lasting legacy of the “discovery,” accomplished by a mere 120,000 Europeans. 

Yet no one could claim that Columbus as an individual person was alone or chiefly responsible for all this. 

And The Myth

So, why are we here on his anniversary and not on that of Pizarro, or Cortez, or John Winthrop, or Kilian Van Rensselaer or William Byrd, or Mad Anthony Wayne, or Jefferson Davis, or Kit Carson, or George Custer, when we wish to address the issues of the oppression, marginalization, and dismemberment of peoples and their cultures?

Why? Because Columbus is, and always has been, a symbol. 

Even in his own lifetime he took on the stature of a myth.

Whatever works of his that have come down to us, even his own “secret log,” are in fact, not Columbus’ originals but synopses; every biography, every letter that we have of him is secondhand: the real Columbus eludes us not because of any deception on his own part but because of the nature of historical documents of his age.  

“Columbus” is a construct of biographers, deconstructionists and hagiographers. He is the invention of afterthought, the piecing together of accounts of those who knew him, or knew of him, or had a copy of a copy of a biography, or had a program to advance –- for good or bad –- by using his life.

From Bartolomé de Las Casas who first presented the Black Legend of Spanish atrocity, to the Protestant propagandists who used it to fight the Spanish, to the anti-Catholic preachers of New England, to the expropriators of the Italian Renaissance at Harvard and Yale, to the commercial and imperial promoters of America in 1892, Columbus has been a symbol to exploit for good or ill.

And yet I say forthrightly today that the peace and justice community has missed the boat on the Columbus anniversary because we have failed to understand what Jung has taught us: that symbols are multivalent and ambiguous things. One should not play with them lightly because they have powers that are independent of the uses we put them to.

We have seen — or have chosen to see — only one facet of this symbol and have ignored — to our peril — one that has far deeper meaning, far brighter reflections, far longer resonance for American culture.

And that is Columbus as he in known to so many Italian-Americans: Columbus as the symbol of liberation, of renewal, of hope for the shattered, the oppressed and the marginalized.

 Columbus In a Modern World

In the first decades of this century Italian-Americans erected statues of Columbus all across this country. Why?

Surely to commemorate a famous Italian in an age of outright bigotry against Italians in America, but also and most positively as a symbol of the journey that they had made in their own “discovery” of America. 

Just like Mexicans, Vietnamese, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Haitians today, those Italians sailed to escape a life in Italy that Booker T. Washington described as worse than that of African-Americans under slavery; lives of feudal bondage to landlords and to corrupt bureaucracies of church and state. 

That is the reality of the Columbus symbol for Italian Americans. When they heard and said that in America “the streets are paved with gold,” they were repeating word for word the Apocalypse’s (21:21) description of the New Jerusalem that Columbus himself thought he had found here.

The peace and justice community has thus handed over a potent symbol to the cultural and religious Right. While we focused on Columbus as a symbol of oppression for so many, we have forfeited him as a symbol of liberation for so many others. 

Perhaps, for example, if we had used Columbus as the symbol of the immigrant, we could have made the plight of Haitians and Mexicans, even of Eastern Europeans, a little easier. Instead, we made him the symbol of the hated outsider.

True, Columbus the historical man is a flawed and tragic figure: to his apocalyptic hopes for a new world he brought only the destruction and greed of the old.

Yet as a symbol, Columbus is America and its history: naive, driven by optimism, led to destroy what it grasps and cannot have, convinced all along of its divine role in doing so.

This Columbus is complex, worthy of condemnation as well as forgiveness. He encapsulates the hopes of America for all who have come after him and for those who were here before him: to overcome oppression, to find liberation, and to renew ourselves as individuals and as a society.

Only if we can come to grips with Columbus as a symbol of both of these forces, will we be able to come to grips with ourselves and with America as full of both sin and the possibility of redemption.

Thank you.

 © Ron Musto

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