Will the real Columbus please stand up? 

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A few weeks ago, the Vatican formally disowned the Doctrine of Discovery, a development that immediately turned my thoughts to Mario Bucci.

I had been thinking off and on about Bucci, the current mayor of Genoa, Italy, and a onetime Rochesterian, since last November when the Rochester Beacon published my colleague Peter Lovenheim’s interview with him.

Lovenheim had learned that Bucci, who worked for Kodak in Rochester for more than a decade, has a strong connection to Rochester. On a trip to Italy, he sought Bucci out.

Will Astor

Much of Lovenheim’s interview dealt with Bucci’s dismay over what Bucci calls the current “cancellation” of Christopher Columbus, a Genoese native still celebrated in his hometown for his “discovery” in 1492 of what Shakespeare a century later called a brave new world, which we have come to know as North and South America.

“It is totally unacceptable, and I will not give into the cancel culture,” especially when it concerns one of our illustrious fellow citizens,” Bucci had written in an opinion piece published in a Genoese newspaper before Lovenheim interviewed him.

“Cancel culture to me is wrong by definition,” the Genoese mayor told Lovenheim. “You cannot cancel things that have been done in the past. What you need to do is understand what has been done, try to understand the reason and learn the lesson.”

What nagged at me was that on the topic of Columbus, Bucci seemed to be ignoring his own advice. He was fine with celebrating Columbus’ accomplishments, but was disinclined to consider any lessons from what many now see as the negative consequences of Columbus’ four voyages to the New World.

The Vatican’s recent refutation of the Doctrine of Discovery returned my mind to Bucci’s defense of his native city’s hometown hero because Columbus is directly and intricately linked to that doctrine, which critics say laid the foundation for European nations’ colonization of North and South America, appropriation of native people’s land globally, and for the capture and forced deportation of millions of Africans the slave trade.

Derived from three 15th century papal bulls, the Doctrine of Discovery laid out a moral and religious justification for Christians to subjugate and enslave non-Christians and to appropriate lands they lived on.

The first two bulls, issued in 1452 and 1455 by Pope Nicholas V, declared that King Alfonso of Portugal had the right to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

The last of the three, issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, built on the first two by establishing what has become known as the Line of Demarcation.

The third bull came as a direct response to Columbus’ voyage. It purported to grant rights to own and exploit the non-Christian lands Columbus discovered to Spain and granted similar rights to Portugal to exploit and develop lands in Africa and the East Indies east of the line. As with Pope Nicholas V’s earlier bulls, privileges granted included rights to enslave non-Christians.

Catholic scholars point out that the 15th century bulls did not constitute actual church doctrine and were expressly reputed in the 16th century in a bull issued by Pope Paul III. Still, 500 years later the Vatican was again moved to formally disavow the Doctrine of Discovery. This time, it did so not through a papal bull but in a press release.

Bucci denounces slavery, but denies that Columbus had any involvement in the practice.

“It’s right and good that people condemn slavery and the slave trade—this has to be understood by everybody,” Bucci told Lovenheim. “What’s wrong is that they consider Columbus one of the guys who mistreated native peoples. That was not true historically. There were a bunch of other explorers who did that. Fighting against those others to me is acceptable, but doing that from a historic standpoint is not acceptable. In a word, it doesn’t make sense.”

In his 2011 book, “Columbus, the Four Voyages,” which cites contemporary accounts by Columbus and close associates as sources, historian Laurence Bergreen paints a different picture. He writes that in Columbus’ day, “slavery was deeply woven into the fabric of the Genoese economy” and that “every Genoese household, even modest ones, had one or two female slaves.”

While Christian doctrine forbids slavery, Bergreen explains, “an exception was made for non-Christians. Slave traders sold (non-Christian captive teenage girls) to Genoa on a regular basis,” an exception that, Bergreen posits, Columbus likely felt free to apply in the New World.

Citing as a source Michele de Cuneo, a companion and friend who traveled with Columbus on his first voyage, Bergreen writes that during that trip, “Columbus ordered the seizure of 1,500 men and women on Hispaniola (home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Of these, 500 deemed to be most desirable for the slave trade were confined on four caravels bound for Spain.”

In a second voyage to the Caribbean, whose islands Columbus never acknowledged and may not have understood were not the East Indies, Bergreen writes, Columbus proceeded with plans to claim the islands he discovered for Spain, establishing outposts and trading with natives including Caribs and Tainos. Columbus and soldier-sailors he brought to establish colonies traded with the natives, exchanging trinkets for gold nuggets, which they shipped back to Spain.

According to Bergreen, “Columbus had planned to establish a regular slave trade between the Indies and Spain. It would focus on the menacing Caribs thereby allowing the more peaceful Tainos to remain in place and it would last until the gold mines functioned.”

During his second foray, Columbus and his two brothers built three fortresses and imposed a tribute system, requiring natives to supply them with amounts of gold, or in some cases cotton cloth, in amounts that Bergreen writes, impoverished the natives, who found the demand for gold impossible to meet.

Bergreen quotes Bartolome de Las Casas, a friar and participant in Columbus’ voyages, who described the trials to which such natives were subjected as surpassing “even the cruelest of the Turks or Moors or the Huns and Vandals who laid waste to our kingdoms and lands and destroyed our lives (and) would have found such a demand unreasonable and abhorrent.”

Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In his own time, Bergreen writes, Columbus was alternately celebrated and reviled, noting that “while the drastic devaluation of Columbus seems a recent phenomenon, it actually originated at the time of his voyages.” 

After his first voyage, Columbus was lionized as the Admiral of the Ocean and the governor of the new lands he discovered. On his third return to the new lands, he was met with a rebellion and undermined by reports sent by rebellious colonists to his patrons Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. At that point, Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains. He eventually cleared his name and returned to the new world a fourth time.

Las Casas, a repentant onetime slave holder who in the 1500s settled in the new world, became one of Columbus’ severest critics, denouncing his fellow Spanish colonists who followed Columbus to the New World for causing the death of 12 million souls and subjecting native populations to the “most iniquitous and brutal slavery man has ever devised for his fellow man.”

In contrast, supporters like Columbus’ youngest son, Ferdinand, who as a 13-year-old accompanied his father on Columbus’ last voyage to the New World, preserved his father’s legacy as a celebrated explorer. A wealthy bibliophile, Ferdinand Columbus’ library included volumes his father had owned, each inscribed by Ferdinand with the words that it had been left by “Don Fernando Columbus son of Don Cristobel Columbus, the Admiral who discovered India for the benefit of all.”

In the Beacon interview, Bucci’s pushback against the so-called cancellation of Columbus came after Lovenheim asked him to respond to his observation that “in the U.S. recently, no fewer than 33 statues of Columbus have been defaced, torn down, beheaded, put in storage, or thrown in rivers.”

Whether Bucci—who as Genoa’s mayor successfully lobbied the mayor of Genoa’s U.S. sister city, Columbus, Ohio, to reinstall a removed statue of Columbus and sent an official to Chicago to help plan a Columbus Day parade—knowingly denies the negative aspects of Columbus’ forays into the New World or is unaware of them is unclear.

Whatever the reason for Bucci’s insistence on Columbus’ non-involvement with slavery, his pushback against Columbus’ statues’ removal arguably has merit.

In an epilogue to his exhaustively researched account of Columbus’ New World excursions, Bergreen addresses the contrast between America’s hagiographic treatment of Columbus and both the contemporary and recent “drastic devaluation” of the Admiral of the Ocean’s exploits.

“Columbus,” he writes, “held up a mirror to the Old World, revealing and magnifying its greed and inhumanity along with its piety, curiosity and exuberance. Columbus’ voyages revealed many harsh truths about the limits of understanding, but it is too late to undo the consequences of these voyages. Their crimson thread is now woven into the fabric of European and global history. For all the scorn Columbus engendered, his four voyages constitute one of the greatest adventure stories in history.”

A key figure in connecting branches of humanity that were previously unaware of and untouched by each other’s existence, Columbus set changes in motion whose complexity he hardly could have grasped at the time. Some were benign, others less so.

To name a few, Europeans brought horses, pigs and domestic cattle to the New World and took tobacco, potatoes, squash and tomatoes to the Old World. Diseases Europeans brought to the New World and a steady pace of their settlement across two continents displaced indigenous North and South Americans from lands they had called home for millennia.  

Thanks to an 1823 Supreme Court decision, the Doctrine of Discovery remains a force in U.S. property law despite the Catholic Church’s recent and past disavowals.

The precedent set by the 1823 case, Johnson v. McIntosh—that as a successor to land right first granted by European monarchs under the Doctrine of Discovery, only the federal government could validly acquire Native American lands—was noted as recently as 2005 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (insert Town of Sherril v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York), who wrote for an 8-1 majority that overturned two lower-court decisions that would have granted the Oneida Indian Nation’s bid to return former reservation lands the tribe purchased from Oneida County landowners to Oneida Nation sovereignty. (The Doctrine of Discovery was not the basis for her opinion, however.)

In many other ways, the clashes and syncretic combination of cultures including European, indigenous North and South American, and Africans brought to the New World in chains have created a global mélange that Columbus could hardly have predicted or imagined.

This cultural blending has not always been smooth. We are currently engaged in a great culture war. Its battles and skirmishes are being by fought by partisans who at one extreme seek to, as Bucci puts it, “cancel” the influence of colonialist Europeans who followed Columbus to the New World, as another extreme seeks to banish and extinguish the voices of any “woke” critics who might cause the colonists’ descendants discomfort by asking them to acknowledge the role sins like slavery, racism or the exploitation of indigenous people played in our history.

Bucci at one point seemed to suggest that the best way to deal with our past sins and excesses is to take heed of the positive and forget the negative, to let bygones be bygones.

Ancient Roman military commanders practiced decimation, he noted, randomly executing every 10th soldier as punishment for losing a battle.

“That was stuff that was done 2,000 years ago, but we don’t complain about the Romans. The Romans did a lot of good things, creating civilization. I mean you don’t cancel the Roman culture. You just understand what the Romans did. If it was good things, you learn and try to repeat it; if it was bad things, you learn and don’t repeat it,” Bucci told Lovenheim.

Still, one might wonder, how do we learn to not repeat past sins if we don’t acknowledge them?

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

8 thoughts on “Will the real Columbus please stand up? 

  1. Thank you, Mr. Astor, for your lucid, informative, and thought-provoking research and commentary. Well done, sir, I appreciate your invaluable and quite original journalistic contributions on the subject.

  2. Let me add that most of us don’t know what happened in the past. We don’t educate. We just latch on to those who proclaim to have the intellect to criticize. At what point are we going to move on. At what point are we going to realize that the past was far from perfect and put our effort into doing things better. I find that those who constantly beat the drum of the past can’t seem to do anything about making the world a better place. Bitching, whining and moaning aint gonna get the job done. Doing gets it done. We don’t even teach the past anymore and we worry about repeating it?

    • I do not think the great historians who reveal history are “Bitching, whining, and moaning.”
      ” Doing” only gets done and makes things better if the past’s mistakes are not repeated over and over. History is a key educational discipline in the study of the human condition, while promoting and protecting a free society. Having evidence to correct or modify a view on history is not the same as thinly veiled personal attacks. Slamming historians and those that teach and write history is not consistent with promoting education.

      • Care to check and see just how much history is being taught today? Tell the NYS Educational system that, as you say, “History is the key educational discipline in the study of the human condition.” If that is the case our current system is missing the boat. I’m not slamming historians, what I am saying is that very few are even in a position to slam anything history. I aint being taught as something remotely important. There is no “thinly veiled attack” in my thinking. You can’t attack something that is invisible. Ask a high school student about basic history and you get a blank stare. Then your expectation from the college level student are no better. The only historians I have “slammed” in my writing journey are those that rewrite history. You know put a twist on things for their own political purpose. Very few are called on that. It does appear that many a historical intellectual inject a healthy dose of opinion into his/her writing. My father lived to be 101 and he use to laugh and cry at what was reported as history. He lived it. But when there is no one or a way to “check” some of these historical “truths”, the historian runs wild.

      • Individual opinions are part of the human condition and part of discussing what facts meant to a people or a time. As new facts are discovered opinions are often modified. It happens in every field of inquiry. It is the same for history as it is for the scientific method. As more info is verified there is an attempt to reach consensus in a field, or close to it. Sometimes there are problems because they say the winners write history and thus it may be self-serving. Two of my favorites are Studs Turkle and Ken Burns. Studs use sone of the first recordings made and did firsthand interviews of working people, including the poor, to see what they experienced during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Burns does similar research looking for as much firsthand info from people who were there, or their families if they have passed on. When history is sanitized to not offend anyone, parents, PTA, politicians, it becomes very boring for students.

  3. Mayor Bucci, and others, often confuse me with claims that someone is being cancelled. Columbus has not been removed from history but has only had his true history revealed. Once the truth is known, fewer people wish to celebrate his life. The subsequent trips to the New World by Columbus brought the first slaves from Africa. Native Americans were also enslaved by Columbus and his brother, and for the women that meant rape, and for female children as well. This was sanctioned by the church because if you were not a Baptized Catholic one was but a beast with no hope of salvation. Concurrently, back in Spain the government and church were partners in consolidating their power and wealth with the Spanish Inquisition as the instrument. Torture and horrible deaths were the methods of the Inquisition. Our Founding Fathers were well aware of this history and the history of many state religions. This gave us the Establishment clause in the First Amendment and separation of church and state. The corruption of dictators and religious leaders during those times is not cancelling, it is history. It is not condoned by any bible, or New Testament I have ever seen. Mayor Bucci seems to have the old Italian view of regionalism and City-States that made Genoa semi-independent. There are plenty of Italians that are celebrated for their contributions in many fields. Revealing the truth about Columbus, the Spanish Crown, and the Inquisition does not change that.

  4. No matter when topics such as this are discussed, the last word was already written by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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