An Open Letter to Christopher Columbus:
Best wishes, Viceroy and Governor General Cristóbal Colón! (You don’t mind me using your Spanish name do you?) Although you’ve been dead more than 500 years, you have the best of two worlds. Or rather, both the Old and New Worlds have the best of you. Spain has DNA proof that your bones are theirs, but Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) persists that their box of bones contains the true you. What if they’re both right? How does it feel to have two hemispheres haggle over your skeleton?
You’re so great that you are one of only two men to have his own U.S. federal holiday – even though you never even lived here. That other guy, Martin, didn’t come along until 500 years after you
dispossessed discovered the West Indies. And what’s left of his struggle for peace and equality is fragile. It’s much more fragile than your global enterprise of extracting materials and exploiting human resources.
But that’s enough talk about him, because Cristoforo Colombo– this is your day! (Since there is some uncertainty about your origin, I just wanted to cover myself by using your Italian name also.)
Time Measured by Your
You’re also only one of two people to divide history into B.C. and A.D. After Jesus lived, died, and ascended, we began to split timelines into Before Christ and Anno Domini. (This means: “in the year of our Lord”).
Ever since you landed in the Bahamas, the world has experienced the results of Before Columbus and After Domination. (Or insert: Disease, or Deception, or Decimation, or all of the above?) Well, the haters have to admit you gained more converts than Jesus did, right?
In spite of these honors, a few things have changed while your bones have been bleaching. Some historians say you didn’t exactly shatter the world’s belief in a flat Earth. They suggested that Europeans already knew the Earth was round. But, so what if Martin Behaim made the oldest surviving globe, in 1490-1492?How can this mere science fair project, “Erdapfel” (German: Earth apple), compete with your historical relevance?
Besides, fiction writer Washington Irving (author of Rip Van Winkle and Legend of Sleepy Hollow) invented the flat earth story line in his 1828 The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Why should you be penalized for not living up to Irving’s embellishment?
So, you did not spark scientific revelation or revolution, you did, however, discover “very many islands.” Please pardon our inquiry, however. How could you discover lands you acknowledge were already “filled with innumerable people”? Didn’t those innumerable people discover and settle those lands long before your arrival? (James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Columbus, 8.)
Oh yeah, Pope Alexander VI settled that question on May 4, 1493 in his Papal Bull, Inter Caetera. In very fanciful words, Rodrigo de Borja—Alexander’s name before becoming pope—declared that those lands weren’t truly discovered if they didn’t have Christian kings (like Ferdinand) ruling over them.
Alexander then established “a line from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole” going through Cape Verde. Everything “discovered” west of the Spanish pope’s Line of Demarcation was for you to exercise “divine clemency to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith.”
Hey Christovam, do you know if Alexander or Rodrigo wore his WWJD? bracelet while he wrote that bull?
You’ll be glad to know that the United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall reaffirmed the Doctrine of Discovery hundreds of years later: “the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands,” even though he admitted that Natives had some rights of occupancy. You must be proud of Marshall’s disregard for indigenous life, as well as his inconsistent analysis that has Natives occupying a land without first discovering it. See how influential you and Alexander have been?
Trail of Crumbs
So what if you didn’t really lead a scientific expedition to prove the world round, or truly discover new lands? And does it really matter if The Nina and Pinta weren’t really the names of two of your ships? You were an accomplished sailor, and they can’t take that from you!
Before 1492, you travelled to Greenland. There you likely heard of Norsemen who had crossed the ocean to Vineland (in what would become North America) five hundred years earlier than your first transatlantic trip. The Norse also told stories of an Irish monk who had travelled across the Atlantic before them. We know that you also took trips to West Africa, where griots still repeat oral histories of Mansa Abu Bakari’s travel across the Atlantic in the 1300s. (Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus ) I don’t know if you knew about these accounts, but a lot of people think you likely knew what you might find by sailing west.
Meaningful to Indigenous Peoples
That doesn’t mean you should worry about the longevity of your legend. Your enslavement and exportation of Arawak/Taino slaves to Europe, along with your family’s importation of African slaves to work the mines and plantations of the Caribbean, have ensured your
lurid legendary exploits have left an indelible stain mark on history that will never be erased.
On the other hand, you and your crew did plenty of erasing. In 1496, your brother Bartholomew took a census of Haiti, and the indigenous population numbered “1,130,000 people, excluding children and old people.” (James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Columbus, 4). Less than 50 years later, there were only around 600 left. The island was soon repopulated with Spanish colonizers and their African slaves, followed by French colonizers and their African slaves. So in this way, the preexistent world your ship crashed into became a New World.
Shall We Celebrate?
Because of your global impact on colonialism, racism, and human trafficking, your likeness will live on in textbooks and museums. What difference does it make if your contemporaries couldn’t describe you well enough for any of your portraits to resemble each other? You have more than 50 US counties and cities named after you. You know you have arrived when your name has been transformed into a verb – Columbussing!
So what if multiple states and cities are rejecting your holiday this year? Why can’t they appreciate how you saved heathen souls and brought civilization to the savages with the use of a little steel, gunpowder, and corrupted religion in the process? Everyone knows you gotta crack some eggs to make an omelet.
What difference does it make that the continent you allegedly discovered was named after a later discoverer, Amerigo Vespucci? Just remember, Christoforo, Cristóbal, Christoual, Christovam, Christofferus de Colombo, as long as you’re secure in who you are and where you came from – Spain, or Italy, or Poland – nothing the critics say can keep your skeletal fragments from resting in peace. It doesn’t matter how many places they might be scattered across.