Throughout 2020, dozens of Christopher Columbus statues in the United States have been dismounted; some vandalised, and others demolished. This in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and increased examination of American systemic racism. The veneration of Columbus, epitomised by the national holiday dedicated to him, has come under renewed and heavy criticism from anti-racist organisations.
While Columbus needs to be dethroned from his exalted position as a pioneering explorer, it is also necessary to guard against the recycling of pseudoarchaeological pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories. In the effort to challenge racist scholarship in the United States, demolishing the myth of Columbus as the original navigator and intrepid entrepreneur is essential. We must stop mythologising Columbus, and his voyages, as motivated by scientific concerns – no, he was not out to prove the Earth is a globe.
Centuries before Columbus, the Vikings successfully navigated their way across from the Old World to the new. There is extensive archaeological evidence to prove this contention beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, the question of ‘who was before Columbus’ has opened up a field of speculation, pseudoscientific nonsense and fringe theories that do harm to the cause of anti racism.
We are not questioning the longevity and solid evidence of the presence of indigenous nations in the Western Hemisphere. Whether the native peoples crossed the Alaskan land bridge – prior to the emergence of the Bering Strait – or not, it is indisputable that the indigenous nations formed their own civilisations before the arrival of Columbus and his conquistador practices.
Since the death of Columbus, numerous theories about pre-Colombian trans-oceanic contact with the indigenous American civilisations have proliferated. Since Columbus was acting as a paid agent of the Spanish crown, rival colonial powers have encouraged the spread of pseudoscientific scenarios which challenged Columbus’ status as the pioneering navigator.
Columbus himself, dissatisfied with the financial compensation offered him by the Spanish crown, began legal proceedings and thus, earned the hostility of the Spanish monarchs, who quietly encouraged rival theories of pre-Colombian trans-oceanic contact to spread. The French, English and other colonial powers – including Venice, the fierce rival city-state of the Genoan Columbus – all had motives to deprive Columbus of credit as the original navigator.
The English monarchy, desiring to lay claim to extensive lands in the Americas, promoted the Welsh folkloric myth of Prince Madoc (or Madog) who purportedly sailed to the Western Hemisphere in 1170. This has in turn given rise to a flurry of racist speculations about ‘Welsh Indians’, which holds that Native American peoples mixed with, or are descended from, the Welsh.
Not to be outdone, long term Turkish President Reyyip Erdogan suggested in 2014, that it was the Muslims who first traveled from the Old World to the Americas. His claim is based upon a long line of pseudoscientific and dubious ‘scholarship‘, which suggests that Columbus – and the ensuing Spanish conquistadors – observed mosques in the Western Hemisphere.
This is a deliberate obfuscation; when the Spaniards said they saw mosques – mezquitas – they were referring to the indigenous American places of worship. The only non-Christian referential experience the Iberian kingdoms had was of Muslim civilisation. Not long before Columbus set sail, the Reconquista had been completed, expelling the longtime Moorish (Muslim) present in the Iberian peninsula. When the Spanish explorers observed the indigenous American women, they commented on how they resembled the moriscas – Moorish women.
The late Ivan van Sertima, an African American scholar, published a multivolume history purportedly demonstrating that black African navigators made their way to the New World, and seeded what became the Olmec Mesoamerican civilisation. The origins of the Olmec is still shrouded in mystery, and so various pseudoscientific alternative theories have circulated.
The notion of ‘black Indians‘ has been promoted by numerous Afrocentric writers over the decades. Responding to racist scholarship, and upholding the originality and vitality of African civilisations prior to the rise of Europe, these writers have unfortunately reflected a kind of distorted ethnic supremacist view of history. The Olmecs have been subjected to an Afrocentric perspective, where their civilisational achievements are reported to be ‘African’ in origin.
We could go on with the list of African – and ancient – peoples which have supposedly pioneered trans-oceanic contact with the New World: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Malians, Egyptians, Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Arabs, biblical Hebrews – and this article would run into volumes responding to each claim. Continuing to play this game of ‘who was first’ is counterproductive and unresolvable.
It is advisable to listen to Danielle Battisti, associate professor of history, who wrote that while Columbus Day may have had value for Italian Americans in the past, it is now time to abolish it. Responding to white racism, Italian Americans promoted Columbus as an exemplar of entrepreneurial ingenuity, a typical American story of how an immigrant picked himself up and found success. Unfortunately, this appeal to pluralism was predicated on Italians becoming ‘white‘, and thus reinforcing the racial pyramid that is American capitalism today.
It is urgent now more than ever, to abolish Columbus Day, if for no other reason than a basic recognition that Columbus was a genocidal maniac, intent on exploiting to death the indigenous nations he contemptuously dismissed. There are numerous Italian Americans who actively fought racial discrimination and economic inequalities. They are better anti-racist icons for our times.