The explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus is very much at the heart of current debates, in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s murder, over the legacy of European colonialism in the Americas. Across the United States, statues of Columbus are being torn down, with calls for Columbus Day and even places like Columbus, Ohio to be renamed. In response, the US President has issued an Executive Order on Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes, including the creation of a ‘National Garden of American Heroes’ in response to removal of monuments to Columbus and slave-owning Presidential American Zeroes such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Exactly what role did this early modern figure play in the spontaneous Columbustion of our times?
Columbus’s own identity is, for some, as fraught as his deeds and legacy. Theories abound that dispute the traditional view that he was born around 1451 to a family of Genoese weavers. A recent short BBC video outlines the theory of civil engineering professor and amateur historian Fernando Branco that Columbus was in fact Portuguese aristocrat Pedro Manuel de Ataíde. Among the evidence Branco adduces in support of his hypothesis is the fact that Columbus is sometimes referred to in Spanish court documents as Pedro Colón (Spanish for Columbus), a privateer who (according to his son) adopted this surname in honour of French privateer Guillaume de Casenauve Colón. Pedro Colón, Branco thinks, is none other than Pedro Manuel de Ataíde. DNA testing is currently underway to compare a sample from the 500 year-old bones of Pedro’s cousin Antonio with Columbus’s DNA, with results expected next year. Most historians, however, are still unconvinced by Branco’s supposed proofs, which make his theory Ataíde one in his eyes. But perhaps the DNA testing will reveal that Columbus was partially related to Pedro the privateer, which would at least make him a semi-Colón, not to mention a semi-Colónialist.
Whoever Columbus was originally, he is celebrated by some as a groundbreaking explorer and successful businessman: but he was not quite either. In 1492, he obtained the patronage of the Castilian crown of Ferdinand and Isabella to find a route to the Indies. In a small fleet of three, rickety ships, Columbus reached the Caribbean islands, but thought that he had arrived in East Asia. This may have been a ‘new world’ for later Europeans, but he was stubbornly convinced that he had reached Asia, showing that he was of an ‘Indies-dependent’ mindset.
In his second, much larger expedition of 17 ships, he sought gold and was commissioned to establish colonies in the ‘West Indies’ as he dubbed them. Although he surveyed islands of the Caribbean, he found no gold and the voyage was deemed a failure. In his third and fourth voyages, he went further south, establishing a colony at Hispaniola which ended up on the verge of rebellion, and desperately sought a strait through Panama to reach Japan. The worm-eaten ships on the fourth expedition had to be abandoned and another vessel chartered for his voyage home. He returned to Spain in disgrace and ignominy before his death in 1506. His so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas was a Colum-bust.
Columbus has been accused of genocide. While there is no question that he welcomed the kidnapping and sale of indigenous peoples as slaves, and that his voyages led to centuries of genocide, he did not himself engage in the mass extermination of inhabitants he came upon–as historian of Latin America Kris Lane argued in this 2015 opinion piece. He was a brutal governor of Hispaniola, though he seems to have treated his Spanish subjects as badly as the indigenous peoples under his rule. Still, the legacy of his failed ventures was undoubtedly a dirty, genocidal Colum-business with which we continue to reckon.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Columbus-hopping Studies Program