The United States is a proud multicultural society. And one of our founding precepts – e pluribus unum (out of many, one) – underscores this storied diversity.
However, in removing Buffalo’s Christopher Columbus monument – and stripping the park of its namesake – the Federation of Italian American Societies of Western New York has violated the spirit of this hallowed dictum.
Such an action is craven, not proactive. Rather than fostering harmony between Italian Americans and Indigenous peoples, the group unilaterally surrendered to the vandals and the rabble rousers. What’s more, former federation President Donald Alessi and Mayor Byron W. Brown displayed their profound historical ignorance.
Cristoforo Colombo is neither the despoiler of a New World Garden of Eden nor a 15th century Adolf Hitler. And Columbus Day is not a feast day celebrating a happy-go-lucky sausage-and-pepper proletariat.
Columbus’ voyage across the wine-dark Atlantic led to the discovery of a terra incognita, ushering in the Age of Exploration and a globalization of peoples, plants and traditions known as the Columbian Exchange. Had he not embarked on his epochal oceanic trek, today’s rich and variegated Hispanic culture would not exist.
Absent the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, there would be no Columbia University, no Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia), no Columbus, Ohio, and no Apollo 11 Columbia command module.
Is Alessi aware that Italian exceptionalism helped forge the “last best hope of Earth”? Does Brown know that historian Germán Arciniegas Angueyra called the discovery of the New World “in part an Italian enterprise”?
Italian Americans can trace their origins to the land John Milton hailed as “the seat of civilization and the hospitable domicile of every species of erudition.” Italy had been the seat of the Roman Empire, the birthplace of modern science and the epicenter of the Renaissance.
Like Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, Paolo Toscanelli, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Amerigo Vespucci – our nation’s namesake – and Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), Christopher Columbus was an exemplar of that selfsame patrimony.
According to Carol Lowery Delaney, an anthropologist who served as assistant director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, and who is a professor emerita at Stanford University and a research scholar at Brown University, the notion that Columbus pillaged Native Americans en masse and committed unspeakable atrocities is apocryphal.
Delaney maintains that Columbus was religious, not avaricious. Moreover, he never personally owned slaves. Nor did he initiate the African slave trade. Having read the Great Navigator’s actual letters and published “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” she claims that more than a few “people know nothing about Columbus, and they are blaming him for things that he did not do.”
“He was friends with the natives he met (and) he remained friends with them throughout his four voyages,” Delaney asserts. “… He took six of them back and they were baptized, and baptized people could not be enslaved. One of them became the godson of Columbus and remained his loyal interpreter for all of his voyages.”
The Indigenous peoples populating the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere were not monolithic. Some tribes were genteel and hospitable; others had a penchant for human sacrifice, ritual misogyny and cannibalism. Qhapaq hucha was the Inca practice of human sacrifice. That is, the Incas performed child sacrifices during famines or the passing of a Sapa (ruler).
In “Mesa of Sorrows,” James Brooks details the wanton slaughter of Hopi men, women and children in Arizona’s Awat’ovi village – situated on the Antelope Mesa – in the fall of 1700. The raiders came from nearby Hopi villages.
The Admiral of the Ocean was a complicated icon. As Samuel Eliot Morrison noted: “He had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great – his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission.”
Indeed, as Paolo Emilio Taviani wrote in “Columbus: The Great Adventure”: “Christopher Columbus of Genoa was the greatest and most spectacular actor at the beginning of the modern age.”
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, averred (on the Joe Rogan podcast) that Columbus’ journey to the New World “was the most significant thing to ever happen in our species.”
Rosario A. Iaconis is chairman of the Italic Institute of America and an adjunct professor in the Social Sciences Department of Suffolk County Community College.