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Columbus: Swashbuckling hero, bootstrapping immigrant or genocidal monster?

The answer depends on your politics

Christopher Columbus is at the center of the battle over what America means. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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It is a Columbus Day ritual to disagree over the legacy of Christopher Columbus. Defenders of Columbus’s place on our calendars and monuments seek to honor the achievements of an intrepid explorer. Critics insist that Columbus commemorations willfully obscure the genocide and slavery that indigenous communities in the New World suffered as a result of Columbus’s exploits.

These disagreements have gradually intensified over the past few decades and suddenly exploded in recent weeks. But the practice of crafting one-sided stories about Columbus to advance particular agendas actually dates back to the 16th century. At stake in these stories has always been the power to employ Columbus’s legacy for political and professional ends that transcend the explorer himself — a reminder that history is an ongoing debate in the present rather than a definitive account of the past.

From the beginning, as his transatlantic journeys unfolded, Columbus fashioned a narrative of his explorations in order to secure further economic support from King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. In the ship log of his first crossing, as well as in subsequent correspondence and official reports, Columbus touted a fleet on track, dreamed of treasure just over the horizon and described Christianity and Spanish power as freely accepted by indigenous communities in the Caribbean. Columbus’s own allegedly historical archive is in this sense a kind of fiction.

Columbus’s second son, Ferdinand, reframed and developed this fiction in an admiring biography of his father, penned in the late 1530s. The illegitimate son of the explorer and Beatriz Enríquez de Arana in 1488, Ferdinand was nevertheless named as an heir to his father’s estate. Ferdinand perhaps intended his biography, composed during the two years before his death, as a final token of gratitude for his father’s recognition and financial support.

But this first account of the explorer also had a public agenda: to buttress the Columbus family’s claims to ownership over huge swaths of the New World. Having recognized the scale of Columbus’s discoveries, the Spanish Crown was understandably reluctant to honor those claims. Litigation ensued. However unlikely it may seem for a bastard son to play this apologetic role, Ferdinand was one of the Columbus family’s most steadfast defenders in this dispute.

Ferdinand’s biography of his father was important for literary as well as legal and economic reasons. Presenting Columbus as a daring adventurer and pious knight, the text was a mash-up of at least two prose genres: travel narrative and chivalric romance. It wove the staid primary source documents concerning Columbus’s voyages into dramatic scenes of New World first encounters.

For Ferdinand, the Columbus myth also served professional ends, as it helped him justify his idiosyncratic scholarly pursuits in book collection and bibliography. Seeking to publicize the distinction of having built one of the largest private libraries of the Renaissance, Ferdinand conceived for his own tombstone a design that included images of globes and library indexes.

In this way, he linked the visual emblems of his father’s conquest of a literal New World with his own obsession with acquiring and cataloguing the metaphorical new world of printed books. Like 19th- and 20th-century depictions of Columbus, Ferdinand’s 16th-century version served diverse claims to professional, as well as political, legitimacy.

In writing an influential account of his father’s travels, Ferdinand played a key role in the crucial early phase of the Columbus myth. Yet his ready-made heroic portrait of Columbus was one that subsequent historians did not hesitate to embellish. Rewriting Ferdinand’s triumphant Columbus in the 19th-century’s sentimental register, while also drawing on archival sources that were unfamiliar to Ferdinand, in 1828 the American writer, historian and diplomat Washington Irving published the first full-length English language history of the explorer, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.”

Readers devoured Irving’s romantic vision. Like Ferdinand’s Columbus, Irving’s embodied the appealing lesson that a daring and enterprising man could accomplish great things. Irving’s Columbus overcame more than rough seas, though. Misrepresenting the scientific and religious milieus out of which Columbus emerged, Irving manufactured the myth that Columbus also overcame his contemporaries’ insistence that the earth was flat.

Why did Irving tell Columbus’s story in this way? Confronted with Iberian archives in all their rich disorder, Irving abandoned his plans for a primary source translation project and instead wrote a comprehensive history that might be, as he put it in his prologue, a “more acceptable work to my country.” In crafting his narrative of a maverick Columbus, Irving made Spanish imperial history relevant and accessible to a broad audience.

Put less generously, Irving sold Columbus to Americans as a pioneer of the Americas.

Despite the inaccuracies of Irving’s history, it was his Columbus who late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian immigrants to the United States embraced as a symbol of their own transatlantic experience. By funding hundreds of Columbus statues across the country and vocally supporting the establishment of Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1937, Italian Americans played a decisive role in enshrining Columbus in our national landscape. They did so in order to claim their own place in American history.

Columbus the immigrant hero was an instrument to combat the pernicious stereotypes of Italian Americans as criminal or disloyal citizens. If the United States could assimilate into its national story a Genoese explorer who never made it beyond the Caribbean, then it could adopt some Sicilians and Calabrians, too.

Today, Columbus remains to some a universal symbol of assimilation and adventure. Others attack him as an emblem of colonial-era violence and ongoing racism in the Americas. The history of how Columbus’s memory has been deployed over the course of several centuries points toward the hidden lesson of this contemporary debate: At stake is not principally the particularities of Columbus’s endeavors in the past, but rather the power to delineate the legitimate uses of Columbus in the present.

To recognize this lesson in the current context of exceptional discord over Columbus Day and Columbus statues offers an opportunity to put the contested nature of history itself on public display — and even to re-imagine what a historical statue can look like. Learning from Ferdinand’s effort to marshal the image of his father to the divergent ends of family apologetics and bibliographic research, historical monuments ought to depict disagreement about what Columbus and other controversial figures have meant at different moments in history.

Consider such monuments as tributes to historical thinking. They would illustrate our national character while at the same time reminding us that no nation exists apart from the history of how it has represented — and misrepresented — its heroes.