I grew up in a world where Christopher Columbus was seen as a brave man who took great risks. But that world doesn’t exist anymore. And I’m glad that it doesn’t.
The first time I ever really had an idea that Columbus wasn’t universally loved was at a parade in New York City in the early 1990s. Even though I had been a history-minded student all the way through college (and an American History major, no less!) it was a new concept to me that Columbus may have done lasting damage to the part of the world that he had “discovered.”
But now that I think about it, the idea makes sense. People who had inhabited the land prior to the arrival of Columbus and his ships were literally wiped out, by a combination of biological murder and enslavement. Nobody told me that Columbus brought human specimens with him back across the ocean to show his Spanish patrons. Nor had anyone told me of the promises of gold and slaves that Columbus had made to the Spanish crown, in the hopes of securing more financing for the purposes of additional plunder. No, Columbus was still a noble explorer who had changed the world for the better, in those pre-internet days of the late 20th century.
But the world in 2020 can never again be what it was back then, and neither can the reputation of Columbus himself. Today Columbus is viewed by many—including myself—as someone who would do anything in order to advance his own personal ends. And if innocent people were killed or enslaved in the process, that was just too bad.
The statue of Christopher Columbus—which was located just off Columbus Drive, of course—became a flashpoint of violence just over a week ago. It was the scene of a pitched battle between protestors and police, and it revealed just how silly it is to honor a man who, in addition to never having set foot anywhere in the current United States, led to so much human suffering and misery. So the statue came down the other night, removed not by force but by a mayor who decided that it was not worth the cost of defending it anymore.
Arrigo Park is located in the Little Italy neighborhood in Chicago, just off the Eisenhower Expressway, and it too had a large statue of Columbus. It wasn’t up on a tall pedestal like the one in Grant Park was, and it was not nearly as well-known. But removing the other Columbus statue would have made this one into a target, and so it was removed as well.
Since I don’t work too far from this “other” Columbus statue, and had walked by it several times in the past, I drove over to the site on Friday morning. There were news camera trucks parked nearby, and a police vehicle with its lights flashing, and a helicopter hovering overhead. I parked the car, walked to the scene, and saw a large void, encircled by a chain link fence and draped by red, green, and white streamers, and an American flag on a wooden stick, perhaps left as a mark of counter-protest by someone who might have considered Columbus to be one of this country’s Founding Fathers in some sense.
I circled the now-vacant base where the statue had been, took a couple of pictures for posterity, and was grateful for the change that had taken place. When that statue was put up in late 1980s, Columbus was held in a regard that he really didn’t deserve. And the changing view of him over the past three decades means that he wasn’t granted this place of honor for the rest of time.
As the old saying goes, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Columbus himself learned this during his lifetime, having been arrested and sent back to Europe in chains during his third voyage to the “New World.” His fourth voyage was a failure because, after all, when you promise rivers of gold where there aren’t any such things to begin with, the deceit will eventually catch up to you.
As I was standing at the base of the statue, I saw a man muttering a prayer to himself before making the sign of the cross and then walking away. I realized that his purpose for coming to the statue’s base was far different than mine was. I also thought of the Knights of Columbus, a large Catholic organization that my grandfather had belonged to. For them, the removal of Columbus by the city of Chicago probably feels like a slap in the face.
But perhaps this event can lead all of us to reflect on some uncomfortable truths for a moment. Columbus brought more to the “New World” than simply the faith of the patrons who were financing his expedition. He also brought death, in the form of diseases that the native peoples had no natural defenses against. This suffering had terrible consequences, both for those who died and for those who were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to work on the plantations that were carved out of the newly-vacated lands that Columbus considered to be a divine gift to himself and to the Spanish crown.
Columbus represented one thing to Europeans, and something entirely different to those on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s clear that Columbus forever altered the course of human history but, as Chicago’s actions indicate, the interpretation of these changes is far from a settled issue.