Who The Heck Was Columbus?

Italians have him, but other ethnic groups may want to stake a claim. Or maybe not.

Illustration by Michael Witte

Illustration by Michael Witte

Each October, we celebrate Columbus Day. Children celebrate because they have no school that day. Many adults celebrate because they have a three-day weekend. Italian-Americans, who constitute New Jersey’s largest ethnic group (1.5 million individuals), celebrate because they believe one of their own discovered America. Columbus Day is as Italian as St. Patrick’s Day is Irish.

Or so I believed until I arrived in Spain one October 12th and discovered that Spaniards celebrate Dia de Hispanidad (National Day of Spain) or Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race). Spain, as any schoolkid knows, provided Columbus with the ships. It made me wonder: With the Spanish-speaking population of New Jersey skyrocketing, will a day come when Italian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans argue over who gets to claim Columbus? Will there be competing parades? Will they debate over whether to call Columbus by his Italian name, Cristoforo Colombo, or his Spanish name, Cristóbal Colón? His name was definitely not the anglicized Christopher Columbus.

Several recent books complicate things further. They argue that it is not coincidental Columbus’s first voyage was in 1492—the year the Spanish monarchy expelled the Jews from Spain. Columbus’s heritage, they say, was at least partially Jewish, noting that he was from a Spanish-Jewish family that, two generations earlier, had fled from the Spanish Inquisition to Italy. They add that the navigator on his voyage was definitely a Jew, and that Columbus wrote to his son in Hebrew. These books suggest that Columbus’s voyage had nothing to do with obtaining spices from India; it was to find a sanctuary for Jews in the New World, and that he neatly covered his tracks by calling the people here “Indians.”

Should New Jersey’s Jews jump into the debate with Italians and Hispanics? If  Columbus indeed had an Italian, Spanish and Jewish heritage, he might be seen as emblematic of our multicultural land—especially New Jersey, by some measures the most diverse American state.

Then again, we must ask, in what sense did Columbus discover America? The people he discovered had already been here for upwards of 15,000 years. Still, if we insist that our land was discovered by a European, what are we to make of the archeological evidence that the Norsemen, led by Leif Erikson, arrived in Canada half a millennium before Columbus? Perhaps Norwegian-Americans should compete with Italians, Hispanics and Jews for the honor of having discovered America.

That’s assuming it’s an honor at all. Historians believe that Europeans brought small pox with them to America; it likely is what killed 90 percent of native people. The jury is still out on whether Columbus’s men brought syphilis to the New World or whether they carried it back to Europe with them. In any case, we can be sure native peoples didn’t cheer when Columbus, or whoever, “discovered” them. And considering how advanced the Aztec, Maya and Inca peoples were, the discovery of America meant the death of civilizations superior in many ways to that of the newcomers.

The people of Berkeley, California, do not celebrate Columbus Day. They call it Indigenous People’s Day. Other cities and even states have followed suit. When Seattle renamed the holiday, a certain Ralph Fascitelli declared, “We don’t argue with the idea of Indigenous People’s Day. We do have a big problem of it coming at the expense of what essentially is Italian Heritage Day.” The issue surfaced in New Jersey in an episode of The Sopranos in which Tony’s mob was indignant at the idea of Columbus Day being anything but an Italian-American festival. They attacked American-Indian protesters who had hung Columbus in effigy.

Is all this too complicated? Perhaps I should spare you the increasing speculation that the Chinese may have landed on the West Coast of America long before Leif Erikson or Columbus landed in the East.

Anyway, Happy Columbus Day!

Michael Aaron Rockland is a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University.

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