The Two Faces of Columbus: How a Genocidal Tyrant Became an Anti-Discrimination Icon for Italian-Americans
On Thursday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that he was not ready to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from New York City because of what it means to Italian-Americans, specifically the role the figure played in helping to usher Italian-Americans into the America’s social mainstream. His comments, along with the destruction and removal of several Columbus statues across the United States, sparked a discussion about the role of Columbus in American life, but missing from the discussion was an acknowledgement of the role that the flawed symbol of Columbus played in standing against exactly the kind of racism and oppression that the vile real-life figure of Columbus perpetuated. The dual nature of Columbus as evil man and hopeful symbol needs unpacking to fully understand how the same statues can represent completely opposite ideas to different groups with shared antipathy to white supremacy.
Nobody in the United States much cared about Christopher Columbus until Washington Irving wrote his famous 1828 biography, which cast Columbus in a mythic role as the discoverer of America and a champion of science in the face of Catholic darkness. In the eighteenth century, for example, historians and writers referenced him as the first to reach the New World, but his association with the Spanish possessions to the south of the United States kept him at a remove from a narrative Americans preferred to start with English settlers. Irving, however, helped to rehabilitate Columbus as a founding myth for the United States rather than Spanish America, and he depicted Columbus as bravely championing a round globe against belief in the flat earth—something that never happened.
Columbus, however, did not immediately become a superstar of history. Between 1828 and 1892, a debate raged over whom to credit as the mythic founder of America’s story. Rival claimants included the lost white race of Mound Builders, the Viking Leif Erikson, the Welsh prince Madoc, and the first English settlers. Hashing out whom to honor took decades, and was complicated by white supremacy.
The U.S. government began to promote Columbus celebrations as a way of enforcing the Monroe Doctrine and asserting its connection with and leadership of the Western Hemisphere nations. But many white Americans had difficulty accepting Columbus as a symbol of the United States, particularly as tension rose with dramatic increases in Italian immigration to America in the 1880s.
As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World approached, these tensions came to a head. The U.S. tried to make Columbus part of America’s claim to Western Hemisphere leadership with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. But white Americans and their European allies reacted with violence and anger. At the Fair, for example, a group of white supremacists held a conference to promote the Scottish noble Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney as the true discoverer of America and listed in rapt attention to an anti-Italian speech that called for, basically, death to Italians:
But to some of the brightest minds of America the burning question has of late been whether the Latin or Saxon race is to have the supremacy of their country; the intense activity of Roman Catholicism contrasted with the apathy of Protestantism giving philosophers and statesmen pause as to the near results, notwithstanding the power of science and reason. The glorification of Columbus in the discovery centenary of 1892 was an aid towards the threatened Spanish or Latin domination; and Scandinavian energy has been in movement, especially at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, to counteract the southern tide, by ascribing the discovery of America to Norsemen of the Teuton stock, including, as principal factors, the English and the Dutch. [We], especially of Canada and the United States, have the strongest personal interest in such a gigantic Armageddon contest of blood and belief, if it is to be early fact.
In New Orleans in 1891, white residents lynched eleven Italian-Americans and declared that all Italians could receive extrajudicial punishments at the hands of whites as a matter of course, in a divisive incident that polarized white American opinion. Future New York police commissioner and president Teddy Roosevelt called the murders “rather a good thing” and the New York Times came out in favor of murdering “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians,” while Pres. Benjamin Harrison reacted by declaring the 1892 anniversary of Columbus’s landing a national holiday for the first time, cementing its connection to Italian-Americans. Harrison falsely called Columbus a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment,” but the message he meant to send was that Italian-Americans were human and part of America’s story from the start. Or, at least, that he didn’t want to piss off the Kingdom of Italy during a tense diplomatic period.
Columbus Day didn’t become an annual holiday until 1934, but Italian-Americans’ embrace of the holiday already had come to symbolize their effort to be seen as fully American and not as an invasion of foreign olive-skinned “dagos.” In short, Columbus had become a giant middle finger to white supremacists who didn’t see Italians as white.
This was a massive reversal—and an accidental one. The real Columbus, of course, was a genocidal tyrant who saw Native peoples as subhuman scum. He wrote Catholic fan fiction about how white Europeans would deliver a world emperor to rule the world. But nineteenth century race theorists had become so obsessed with white supremacy that they only considered Germans, Scandinavians, and inhabitants of the British Isles to be the highest level of white. Consequently, the extremism of their race theories placed people we would today call white—Italians, Spaniards, French, etc.—in the category of “Latin” peoples and second-class whites.
Not to belabor the point, but the statues of Columbus that represent oppression to people of color also represent opposition to that same white supremacist oppression for Italian-Americans, all because Anglo-Americans were even more racist then than they are now. The difference is that Anglo-Americans gradually came to see Italian-Americans as full-fledged equal members of society (more or less) and even as white (more or less), while people of color have not yet achieved true equality. Sadly, that’s because Anglo-Americans hoped that adding more provisionally white people to the census count would help them maintain political and social hegemony.
Columbus the man was no hero, but “Columbus” the statue and the symbol has two irreconcilable meanings that cannot be easily untangled. The statues need to go because Italians don’t need them and people of color and Native people don’t want them. They serve only as a reminder of a legacy of oppression and a history too closely tied with identifying “whiteness” with full citizenship and equality.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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