“You can look it up,” my grandfather used to say. This was usually about something rather bizarre, like his claims to have seen Steve Brodie jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Brodie may or may not have jumped in July 1886, but Pop wasn’t born until 1888, so looking it up wasn’t the whole story here. He also told many other wild tales, many of which were spun in the tenements where he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but the one that fascinated me the most related to Christopher Columbus: he said that one Giovanni Lana, a shepherd by trade as well as a fisherman, accompanied Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. After first hearing this when I was a little boy, I have been fascinated by the story of Columbus ever since.
As an Italian-American, I enjoyed thinking that the great Italian explorer “discovered” America (with my ancestor tagging along), following in the footsteps of another great paisano Marco Polo who “discovered” China. The truth is, as many have pointed out, that China was there all along, as was America. Polo didn’t discover it, but he opened a door and that was the importance of his travels there, no doubt inspiring many others who came after him, including Columbus.
Even if Columbus didn’t discover America, he did something much more important: he created a new world. He dared to do something that others before him would not: he crossed the forbidden sea despite rumors of sea monsters and the fear of falling off the end of the earth. When I think of Columbus, I always remember a painting of him I saw in a book: he was making his case for the journey as he stood before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He supposedly produced an orange that was meant to show them that the world was round, not flat, and he explained how he would sail around the globe to reach India. He was so convincing that they believed him and financed the voyage, and Columbus set sail and faced the tempests and monsters in his quest for fame and fortune.
Well, what young boy wouldn’t love this tale? It is filled with danger and excitement. Thinking that my ancestor was no doubt hoisting a sail as Columbus stood at the wheel of his ship, I was filled with pride and thoughts of how I could match this in the future. What worlds would I discover? Then along came Star Trek and I had my new passion: my eyes turned up to the stars and I listened to the voice over by William Shatner as Captain Kirk saying, “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Whew!
This is why Columbus still matters. Besides giving us a nice three-day weekend in early October, one that inspires retail sales and parades, Columbus started something: Something big; something really big. He opened the door as did Marco Polo, inspiring all those who came after him to shake the dust off their boots and breeches and leave the isolation of Europe to explore the world.
Yes, we have those who wish to denigrate his memory, and I understand their sentiments. Native Americans can look harshly at the man with good reason: he opened a door that they could only hope remained closed. They lived here in the Americas with relative peace and stability, and Europeans brought many things they didn’t need: greed, violence, and disease. Blacks can also rightly question why we celebrate the day for a man who brought slavery to this land.
There are others who will contend that he discovered nothing. The Vikings were here way before him, as were probably Phoenician, Roman, and Polynesian explorers. All of this is without a doubt a way of saying that Columbus didn’t come first, but it in no way lessens the biggest contribution he made to history: he changed the world forever by proving something everyone else said couldn’t be done. It doesn’t matter that others did it first; what matters is that when he did it, the world took note and followed him.
In his time Columbus became famous and wealthy. His fame spread across Europe, and he started what would be a juggernaut of expansion, travel, and discovery. Yes, bad things happened in the course of these events, but it’s not as if these same terrible things had not always happened before. Greed was always there, so was violence and slavery and everything else. The truth is that Columbus is being judged in 2010 by standards that were unknown in 1492. Wrong is wrong no matter when it happens, but at the time Columbus thought he was doing the right thing, and what he did changed the world. There is no disputing that fact.
Many years have passed and my grandfather is long gone, but I can still hear his voice. He told great stories, and I cherish them. I still think of Giovanni Lana when I look at my own son, and I wonder if our ancestor really was there to first see that land after a long gruelling voyage from Spain. If it is true, I imagine the fear that turned to joy when he left the ship, and I picture him kneeling on that beach on San Salvador, lifting the sand in his hands and watching the grains pour through his fingers as he laughed hysterically. I also wonder how it was when he returned to his fishing village outside of Genoa. Did he still cast his nets, tend to his flock, or was he forever changed by stepping on those sands of a new world?
Whatever you think about Columbus, he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. After many brutal weeks at sea, he came upon a place that was an island. When he stepped off that ship and onto that sand, he started something. After all these years, people are still stepping off ships and planes and following in his footsteps coming to America. The world as we know it changed that day, the first Columbus Day, and if you don’t believe me, you can look it up.