CONSTRUCTED COLUMBUS

Very excited about a Columbus Day themed piece that I got into The Nation. Rather than rehash the fact that Columbus was a bastard – which I think is fairly well established at this point, or at least there is a substantial quantity of content out there that makes that point well – I wanted to look at how and why Columbus became a Thing in the first place. There certainly is no obvious reason we should celebrate him. He was Italian, he sailed on behalf of Spain, and he landed in the Dominican Republic and Bahamas. And Europeans were known even in his day to have seen or set foot in North America before he did.

The politics of the American revolution and some bad historiography are largely to blame, and I get to throw in a bunch of historical arcana along the way. Which is kind of my favorite thing to do.

So, enjoy. There were considerable efforts to present this as a "Columbus was a prick" piece for reasons of internet appeal, but I am happy with the extent to which the things that make it unique and interesting were preserved.

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23 Responses to “CONSTRUCTED COLUMBUS”

  1. mago Says:

    Nice work Ed. Your essay is an extension of factoids and insights expressed here in previous posts and the elaboration is appreciated. Glad you're hitting the big time or at least moving toward it.
    I've said it here and elsewhere before but am known for repetition so yeah, Columbus was a colossal dick.
    Thanks Ed.

  2. Pretzelogic in Philly, PA Says:

    "…using Columbus as a national metaphor feels dated and naive…"

    Really? Maybe not in the ways some of us have long wished to. On the other hand:

    "…a man for whom casual killing was a leisure activity…"

    "Rather than celebrate what he did achieve, admit that fortune had something to do with his success, or recognize the horrors he wrought, he unapologetically defended himself and blamed any suggestion of failure or incompetence on others…"

    In some ways (ways many of us are still uncomfortable contemplating) still seems pretty spot on.

    ;-(

  3. errg Says:

    Very interesting article. I've been a long time hater of Columbus, but I hadn't know that the United States version of "Columbus" dated back to the revolutionary period.

  4. jack gilroh Says:

    Good essay Ed.
    Interesting that the first island discovered in the un-discovery of what evolved into the United States was the first island 'discovered' by Columbus in 1492—Dominica Today, Dominica is a mess after hurricane Maria…little known by NY Times Travel section writers that omitted the island in their article about destroyed Caribbean islands….why? Not many tourist go there.
    Hidden in the hills of Dominica are Carib indians…among the few who survived Columbus and other violent invaders.
    Jack Gilroy
    http://www.bensalmon.org

  5. democommie Says:

    @ Jack Gilroh:

    Well, they and the Puerto Ricans who will shortly be arriving in NYC to stay with relatives while they sort out what to do with their devastated homes, businesses and infrastructure will be excoriated as NON-MurKKKan freeloadin' illegullz by the Trumpliguturds.

  6. democommie Says:

    Sorry–Jack Gilroy.

  7. J. Dryden Says:

    Great piece. (Nothing more substantial to add, but still: Great piece.)

  8. Verbal Says:

    Agree. Nice work.

    We know he was a hero and a villain. But why did we pick this villain as our hero? Excellent explanation.

  9. Noskilz Says:

    Nice article. Keep up the good work.

  10. Bessemer Mucho Says:

    Some high-class snarkitude in the comments over there.

  11. circularreasoning Says:

    Congrats Ed. The Nation is a great "catch" if you will, and a publication I enjoy. I see they did it to you again though, by crediting you with "…blogs politics at Gin and Tacos." Perhaps you should refer them to your liberating post of about a month ago explaining what you really do here.

  12. Major Kong Says:

    The standard defense of Columbus is that he was "a man of his time".

    Of course, you could say the same thing about Genghis Khan or Tamerlane.

  13. democommie Says:

    @ Major Kong:

    "Of course, you could say the same thing about Genghis Khan or Tamerlane."

    Or Herod, or, shudddddddddder, Trumpligulamygdala.

  14. Benny Lava Says:

    I always wondered where that "Columbus discovered the world was round" myth originated. Silly stuff really.

  15. Riana E Anderson Says:

    YOU ABSOLUTELY WROTE THIS PIECE. It was amazing. I have shared it again and again and will reread it today. I'm really looking to get on your Asst. Prof level!!!

  16. Scout Says:

    Great piece, Ed. I'm very pleased that you are getting national exposure. You deserve it.

  17. anotherbozo Says:

    Ed, even bowdlerized, G-rated Ed, just gets better and better. My attention usually flags with articles like this but this was easy to finish—no lulls, no dull patches. Love the crisp style, appropriately violent verb choices. Ed may be an academic but thank God he'll never have to sound like one.

    Am I a sucker for historical arcana like Ed? What was here certainly kept my interest. The quote from Columbus about slaves was enough to convict in any court.

    Can "Indigenous People's Day" be far behind? Whatever happens, NYC sanitation workers will take the day off anyway. Capeesh?

    Interested in whether Ed's students will suddenly start paying more attention in class. Or do they know there's a magazine called The Nation?

  18. Kaleberg Says:

    Columbus was also the chosen icon of the Italian community in the US. As Italian immigrants Americanized, they chose Columbus as an important Italian-American symbol. The Italians were the ones marching in the Columbus Day parades when I was a kid.

    Columbus was also chosen by many in the Spanish speaking Americas. When Mexico started building its own identity in the 19th century, they put Columbus at the center of the Day of the Race celebrations. Mexico has a large mixed race population, so this celebration of the mixing went down well.

    There is no real excuse for the slave raiding, or cannibalism for that matter, but slave raiding was a big thing in the Mediterranean back in 1492. It was usually Christian versus Muslim, but no one was checking IDs back then. Living in a coastal town was risky. When a strange ship or fleet showed up, it made sense to head for the hills rather than winding up being worked to death in some strange land. Odds are you were being worked to death as it was, but at least it was home. This went on until the late 16th century when the Europeans achieved naval dominance after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. It's no wonder Columbus did what every other mariner seemed to be doing when he encountered a new port, figured out how many slaves might be taken.

  19. Tim H. Says:

    I read once that he oversaw the burning of islanders unwilling to convert, thirteen at a time, in honor of Jesus and the apostles, would have been bad enough with his sailors sharing the gift of venereal disease…

  20. democommie Says:

    And in other news:

    Roger Goodell, C.E.O.P.O.S., NFL has decided that the NFL has moved past the race thing and ALL players WILL stand for the Anthem to "Honor the flag".

    What.A.Fucking.Asshole.

  21. Major Kong Says:

    In fourteen hundred ninety three Columbus stole all that he could see.

  22. Tom Says:

    Made the mistake of delving into the comments at The Nation thinking it might buck the norm. NOPE.

    Instead of spelling errors and broad generalizations it's what I imagine people with advanced degrees in a field other than history but love being the smartest person in the room would say about this topic.

  23. TakomaMark Says:

    @ Kaleberg – I did not know, until this weekend, that Columbus Day was such a big deal in the Italian American community (there weren't many Italians in Grand Rapids, MI where I grew up). My cousin's wife (grew up in Boston) let me in on that knowledge just this weekend. Sounds like it's kind of a St. Patrick's day for Italians. In Grand Rapids Pulaski Days (Polish version of St. Patrick's Day) is always on Columbus Day weekend. They don't seem to make any acknowledgement of Columbus during the celebration but then I've never gone to the parade.

    I'm one of the few people who gets the holiday off (Federal worker, get all Federal holiday's off). I have no problem renaming the holiday but please do not repeal it…mid-October is a great time of year to have a long weekend. Maybe, if we pick something nobler to name it for more people can get a day off to celebrate.