There’s an episode in the fourth series (or season for those across the pond) of the Sopranos where the Italians come into conflict with a group of American Indians who hold a protest on Columbus Day, the national holiday which falls in October each year and commemorates the explorer’s landing on October 12th 1492.
The show highlighted what a controversial figure he is, with the views on either side of the argument typically polarised. For the Native Americans he was a slave trader who subjugated their people, for the Italians he was a pioneer, the first Italian to leave Genoa for America, but foreshadowing the great migration that was to come in the last years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th.
In typical Italian style, the argument became muddied when one of Soprano family “soldiers” joins the arguments against Columbus. Why? Because as a Neapolitan, he has a dislike of anyone from the north of Italy (Columbus included), for the north basks in its wealth while the south battles poverty. Nevertheless many Italian Americans feel their heritage is threatened.
So who was closer to the truth? Several states in America have made their decision, renaming the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Although he was Genoese, Columbus didn’t sail from the port, or even from Italy. Remember this post? His voyage was financed by the Spanish monarchy, so the settlements he established were Hispanic rather than Italian. Nor were they on the American mainland, they were on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). His four voyages saw him explore the islands of the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America rather than North America. Of course even if he had, he would not have been the first. Leif Ericsson had completed that journey four centuries earlier!
As to the atrocities laid at his door? They seem to be largely true, and whether he was truly tyrannical, “acting under orders” or simply unable to control the Spanish soldiers, he was Governor when the first transatlantic slave ship sailed back to Europe, and both settlers and indigenous people were decimated by pandemics as disease spread rapidly during colonisation. The gold fever that would drive Cortez and the Conquistadors through South America began with Columbus; arguably the first Pirate of the Caribbean who cut off the hands of natives who refused him gold.
Barcelona celebrates his achievements with the great column overlooking the port, but Genoa seems a little more embarrassed. Yes he is commemorated with a statue atop a rostral column, but at the train station rather than in the port development. The image of subjugation probably doesn’t help.
He is depicted in a mural within the Palazzo Ducale (venue for that infamous G8 meeting), though here the message is that his intention was to spread Christianity. There is probably truth in that too; the Spanish court was fiercely Catholic and would one day send an Armada to re-establish Catholicism in England. That didn’t turn out to be their finest hour either.
I’d read that the house where he was born (also disputed though the property was owned by his father) stood near the defensive towers of one of the city’s medieval gates, but on my first visit there I was so distracted by those towers that I forgot Cristoforo Colombo. On the second I discovered a small cloister that is all that remains of a monastery that stood here from the 11th century until demolished in the 19th. I soon forgot Colombus once again, but why? There are no signs, no indications, no reminders that this is an important site. More evidence of mixed feelings?
The house itself is so small that I had walked past three times before I recognised it, completely dwarfed in the lee of those towers. Perhaps this is why the Italians of that TV show had so much pride. The gate is the Porta Soprana.