How Our Hero Columbus Has FallenRoundup
tags: statues, public history, Columbus, Christopher Columbus
Brian Regal is an associate professor for history at Kean University. His book Waiting for Columbus: The Battle over America’s Origin Story will be published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2022.
In 1972, when I was 12 years old, I heard there was a bust of Christopher Columbus in the park along the Passaic River in Kearny. Sculpted by artist Michele Salvemini, who passed away in 2020, it was installed in 1967. As I was just beginning my career as an adventurer historian, I rode my bike on a sunny summer day to see it.
I thought they had put it there because that was the spot where Columbus made landfall in 1492. The Passaic River, with its consistency of chocolate milk, seemed an odd place for The Grand Admiral to have arrived, but what did I know. Standing there looking at the bust mounted on a plinth, his gaze bothered me. It seemed more a scowl. I thought it odd they made his head so big.
Since my journey to Kearny, Christopher Columbus has had a few bad years. You know people have a problem with you when not only did Columbus, Ohio take your statue down, but in the nation of Columbia citizens tore down some of theirs. His reputation in the U.S. has had its ups and downs as well, and that was right from the start.
Columbus doesn’t appear much in early American history writings. Captain John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624) says John Cabot discovered America. Thomas Morton, in his New English Canaan (1637) doesn’t even mention Columbus. This situation slowly changed. In 1697 judge Samuel Sewall argued that the country should be called ‘Columbina’ rather than America. The next year Daniel Leeds of West-Jersey said in his almanac “1492, Christopher Columbus found America.”
With the American Revolution, Columbus’ stock began to rise. The African American poet Phillis Wheatley used the term ‘Columbia’ in 1776 for what is thought to be the first time. In 1828, Washington Irving published “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.” This book launched Columbus into superstardom as a revered national hero. Students were now taught about him, streets, towns, and organizations were named for him. Statues in his likeness went up, and a holiday was established.
By the 1970s, a growing aversion to colonialism and empires caused a reconsideration of Columbus’ legacy. History showed not only had Columbus not actually discovered America but that the entire enterprise was one to enrich himself. He not only treated the Tiano and Arawak people horribly but forced some of them to Europe as slaves. He also abused the Europeans he brought with him to set up a colony in what he always thought was Asia.
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