The Christopher Columbus statue on President Street was toppled on July 4th, dragged to the harbor and dumped. Although my father’s name, as a contributor to the cost of the erection of said statue, can be found on its now empty base, I may well be the lone voice in Little Italy who did not take the toppling as a personal affront or as an attack on Italian American contributions to America.
I had stopped considering Columbus as an apt representative of Italian Americans long ago after reading texts by Catholic missionaries to the New World about his cruelty to the peaceful Taino people of Hispania, according to an accounting in AmericanHeritage.com. In these texts, Father Bartolomé de Las Casas described Columbus’ kidnapping of five young native men and seven native women and children. “Men are never accustomed to falling into a single error or committing only one sin,” he wrote, suggesting that Columbus stood more than ready to multiply his sins. And he did.
The kidnapping turned into a slave trade with more than 500 Taino sold in Seville markets, people Columbus referred to as “cannibals.” In a letter to his friend Andrés Bernáldez, Columbus referred to the Taino: “They came thus to this land as they had been born to their own and with no more embarrassment than if they were wild animals, of which all were sold and this proved to be very bad as they all died, being unfitted for the land,” according to AmericanHeritage.com. Father Las Casas raged against and documented Columbus’ abject cruelty upon the Taino in his search for gold. “What greater or more supine hard-heartedness and blindness can there be than this?” Las Casas wrote in the Historia, adding, “in the name of the Holy Trinity he [Columbus] could send all the slaves which could be sold in all the said kingdoms. Many times I believe blindness and corruption infected the Admiral.” Las Casas wanted Columbus returned to Spain in chains and in shame for his sins.
None of Columbus’ atrocities found their way into history books. Instead we learned about his greatness, the Italian explorer “who sailed the ocean blue in 1492,” to purchase spices in India, who conquered the fear of sailing over the edge of what was then believed to be a flat earth. The portrayal of him as the first European to discover America discounts historical evidence that the Vikings arrived thousands of years prior and that Columbus never set foot on mainland America.
Because history is whitewashed, stories of Columbus’ greed and cruelty toward the natives and his Spanish sailors have never countered the false ones of his greatness; Italian Americans are taught to embrace this man as a representative of their contributions to America. For them, the toppling of the statue represents a rejection of their contributions to the New World, a personal affront, an attack on their culture, an emotional re-wounding of persecution by the white power base that considered Italians as the race in-between whites and blacks. A week before the toppling, my 91-year-old mom refused to hear the truths about Columbus, saying I alone held “the wrong view.”
In truth, the abundant contributions of the Italian American community to America should not rest on the shoulders of a beastly man like Columbus. Instead, Italian Americans can honor Frances Xavier Cabrini, known as Mother Cabrini, the Italian born founder of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the first United States citizen to be canonized a saint for three decades of service to Italian immigrants. Or the first Italian to live in America, Pietro Cesare Alberti, a Venetian sailor who settled in 1635 in what would eventually become New York City. A small stone in New York City’s Battery Park commemorates Alberti’s arrival and life. Many other Italian Americans have made lasting contributions to America.
Of course, in Little Italy where I have lived my entire life, I will be considered a traitor. Already, the Facebook blocking and unfriending has begun. As the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri wrote in the Divine Comedy, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
Continuing to embrace ignorance by venerating Columbus who least represents the greatness of the Italian American contribution to America only furthers the moral crisis facing our nation as we deal with the painful wounds of the past still bleeding in our present.
Rosalia Scalia (email@example.com) is the author of the forthcoming book, “Stumbling Toward Grace.”