Happy Columbus Day! A Brief History (Some of It True)

Nearly every school child has heard the rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” to help cement the date when Columbus discovered America. This blog is to set the story straight.

Here are some well known facts:

Columbus came from Genoa (now part of Italy). Originally, he tried to secure a commission from Portugal and England to find a new, shorter trade route to Asia. They turned him down. But the Spanish rulers King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella took a chance on their new Italian friend. Think World Cup Soccer. Few of the US players are American born. They hail from across the soccer-playing globe (which is made up of nearly every country but the USA), and they serve in one of the oldest professions around: mercenaries for hire. Similarly, Columbus was an explorer for hire, one with no particular loyalty to any country other than the one paying his salary and commission.

The Spanish rulers commandeered three ships for Columbus which he dubbed The Moe, The Larry, and The Curly. However, Queen Isabella had the idea to give the ships a more Spanish and decidedly feminine-sounding ring.

After this point in the story, history has a divided view. For example, did Columbus discover America? Columbus explored the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, St. Croix and other Virgin Islands. Fellow-Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to the Americas, explored Guyana, Trinidad, and Brazil. They both landed somewhere on the fringes of South America, but neither set foot on North American soil. So let’s say that Columbus discovered South America.

But is “discover” the right word? How do you discover something that’s not lost or unknown, something that’s already occupied? Last month I broke into my neighbor’s garage and discovered a Porsche. I claimed it as my own. Although my court case has yet to be resolved, my lawyer tells me not to get my hopes up about my claim of ownership. Rather, I’ve been told to expect to receive of charge of Breaking and Entering.

And how did Columbus treat the inconvenient, indigenous people he found squatting on his “discovery”? About them he wrote:

They would make fine servants….With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

On this fact, Geoffrey Symcox of the University of California said: “[Columbus was]  an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing to advance his ambitions. The fact that Columbus brought slavery, enormous exploitation or devastating diseases to the Americas used to be seen as a minor detail…in light of his role as the great bringer of white man’s civilization….

So how does that relate to Columbus Day? Well, starting back in the 1920s, Italian-Americans had a public relations problem. Every American knew the name of Al Capone from Chicago. Italian-Americans were getting a bad rap as thugs, criminals, and murderers when they really wanted to be known as tax-paying, peace-loving pizzeria owners, operatic tenors, and Latin lovers. The Irish already had their own day, so Italian’s lobbied congress for a day of their own, a day to honor the achievements of a great historical Italian figure.

Italian-Americans created a short list of famous Italians to consider. The finalist were Leonardo DaVinci (inventor/artist); Yogi Berra (quotable NY Yankee); Domenico Ghirardelli (chocolate Hall of Famer); and Christopher Columbus (mercenary/slave trafficker).

Some historians believe that Yogi Berra garnished the most votes. Which is unlikely since in 1934, the year Columbus Day was recognized as an official holiday, Yogi was only 9 years old. But in truth, history can be tricky and unreliable since it’s written by the victors. If I had it my way, Italian-Americans would celebrate Rudy Malnati Day in honor of the chef who created the original Pizzeria Uno recipe and who went on to raise Lou Malnati who started the pizza restaurant of the same name. But that’s just me.

In the end, all that matters is that federal workers and school children have a day off their labors to celebrate Columbus Day any way they choose. I plan on Portillo’s Italian beef for lunch, Lou Malnati’s pizza for dinner, and an angioplasty for dessert.

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