An increasingly popular sentiment about Columbus and his voyages.
Sorry about the lack of postings, but I have been under the weather lately. Nothing serious, just terribly annoying.
Now on to the discussion. Today is the day the U.S. government sets aside to honor the first transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus back in 1492. The discoveries he made are well known and their story is not going to be repeated here. But what will be discussed is whether or not Columbus is worthy of being considered a hero.
Given the primitive state of ships and navigation in that era, Columbus proved himself to be an exceptional seaman and navigator. Unfortunately, he falls far short of being heroic when it comes to character.
For starters, he was a very dishonest man. True, he lied to the natives, but all the explorers of the New World did. But Columbus also lied to his sponsors (the Spanish royalty). The professors at the University of Salamanca knew that Columbus’ figures concerning the circumference of the Earth, the extent of Asia, and even that of Europe were seriously fudged and tried to warn Ferdinand and Isabella about that.
He also lied to his crew, especially on the first voyage when he kept two separate logs, an accurate one for his private use and another falsified one for showing to the crew.
And it seems that Columbus had an idea that where he was going was not the wealthy areas of China and Japan. One third of the cargo capacity on his vessels was taken up by cheap junk such as glass beads, hawkbells, and other trinkets. If one was going to one of the richest nations on Earth, you wouldn’t bring junk to trade. But, if you knew there were going to be primitive people who would be in awe of such junk, a move like that would make sense.
Now, where would Columbus get that kind of idea? Here is a plausible theory. It is known that when Columbus was a sailor on a merchant vessel, one of the ports that he visited was in Iceland. And Iceland was settled by the Vikings, the folks who discovered Vinland and set up a settlement at L’ans Aux Meadows in Canada (being the first confirmed Europeans to visit the New World – there have been claims that some Irish hermits might have come earlier, but their style of discovery that Dr. Beachcombing describes as “kamikaze exploration” pretty much rules out returning to report said discoveries and bragging about them) in about 1000 AD, which lasted a few years until the Vikings were driven out by a native insurgency campaign. One can imagine Columbus sitting in a local Icelandic bar with his shipmates when a local guy tells them a weird story that there were these lands across the Atlantic inhabited by primitive people (a memory of Vinland). This could have fired Columbus’ imagination and spurred his desire to check it out for himself. Figuring that there were lands across the ocean in warmer climates than old Vinland, he probably started formulating a plan.
So, even he was not the first to sail to the New World. Yet, even with all his character flaws and ending up in disgrace, losing every accolade his discoveries brought him, he is still regarded by some as a hero. Why is this?
The answer is obvious. Italian-Americans, like every other ethnic group, felt a need of a hero of their own. Nothing wrong with that. But I feel that there are better choices, people who are of better character than Columbus. One example might be Gugielmo Marconi, the man who invented radio communication. While Marconi’s wireless could only handle Morse code, it laid the groundwork for radio and television. Then there is Enrico Fermi, a brilliant physicist who used his skills to aid the U.S. war effort in World War II.
But, if the Italian-American community wants a hero whose courage and character is beyond reproach, might I suggest none other than John Basilone? Basilone served in the Marines in World War II and, with a small handful of men, helped hold off a massive Japanese assault on an airfield at Guadalcanal in 1942. His feats of heroism and great strength (at one point he had to run while carrying a 90-lb+ machine gun and a large load of ammunition in order to bring it back to the American lines) earned him a Medal of Honor. The government then had Basilone sent back to the United States and put him on a war bond drive. He was also offered a promotion to be an officer and spend the rest of the war in the U.S. But, he felt a sense of duty to his comrades in the Pacific and went back. Basilone then distinguished himself heroically at Iwo Jima in 1945, but was killed. Here is a more detailed account of Basilone and his heroism.
Isn’t John Basilone a more worthy hero for Italian-Americans than a superb sailor and navigator who was dishonest and is increasingly viewed as a villain?