Christopher Columbus’ public image may be at its lowest point since the late 18th century, when Americans began celebrating the anniversary of his first trans-Atlantic voyage.
Dozens of statues of the Genoese explorer were removed by local officials in cities and towns across the country in response to a renewed focus on Columbus’ treatment of the indigenous peoples he encountered on his four voyages. This anti-Columbus sentiment flowed from the massive protests against racism and police brutality that broke out after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
Thus, if the story of America were one of racial oppression and genocide, then it began with Columbus in 1492. If Confederate statues had to be torn down, then so too did monuments to the man who initiated European contact with the people he called Indians, triggering centuries of displacement, enslavement and death.
So as another Columbus Day approaches, many places will not be celebrating. Others have long since stopped recognizing the holiday at all. Fourteen states, the District of Columbia, and 130 cities now observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.
Once widely feted as an American hero, Columbus’ history-changing accomplishments now seem to matter little in light of his failures and faults, especially at a time of highly racialized politics and woke culture wars.
In this episode of History As It Happens, biographer and historian Laurence Bergreen discusses the many faces of Columbus as well as the myths, good and bad, that continue to cloud our modern understanding of his life.
“We know so much about him, and yet there is so much which is misunderstood. And he’s become more controversial. I couldn’t say that about Vasco de Gama or Marco Polo, that they are more controversial now than 10 years ago,” said Mr. Bergreen, the author of “Columbus: The Four Voyages.”
Across much of Central and South America, Columbus is still honored.
“For many people, Columbus is the quintessential Christian or messianic explorer, which puts all his mistakes into a somewhat different light,” Mr. Bergreen said.
Before early 19th century historians such as George Bancroft began weaving the great navigator’s feats into the origin story of the United States, it would have struck many Americans as odd to suggest that Columbus initiated the founding of their nation.
After all, Columbus never set foot in North America, and to the day he died he believed he had reached the outskirts of China by sailing west across the Atlantic.
“Columbus never knew America existed,” Mr. Bergreen said.
To Bergreen, Columbus was neither a mythic hero nor a genocidal racist, to name two modern caricatures. He was a brave, complicated man who excelled at maritime navigation but catastrophically failed at governing the islands he claimed to conquer for the Spanish crown.
Moreover, Columbus did not set out in 1492 with the intention of perpetrating cruelties on the people he expected to encounter. But after he reached the Caribbean (not China, as he had hoped) his expeditions were marred by atrocities in the quest for gold, glory and Christianity — the very reason why so many places have ceased celebrating Columbus Day.
For more of Mr. Bergreen’s remarks about Columbus’ legacy and the importance of origin stories, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.