NEW BRITAIN – With the controversy about Christopher Columbus still sparking passionate debates across the nation, Dr. Mary Ann Mahony said it is important to ask why people continue to celebrate the explorer’s legacy.
“This is a very serious question that we have to raise for ourselves and for others, and we have to be careful that we are not falling back on knee-jerk responses about venerating what has become in the United States, a ‘civic saint,’” said Mahony, a Central Connecticut State University professor of history and director of the Latin America, Latino and Caribbean Center.
As part of the university’s virtual Scholar for Life Speaking Series, hosted by university faculty and guest speakers, topics range from poetry to police reform. Mahony’s presentation on Monday, “Reckoning with History and Memory: The Columbus Controversy or Columbus on Trial?” explored the history behind the controversy over Columbus and his memorialization in the United States. She also gave an overview of the first years of European colonization of the Caribbean and the reasons why Columbus has been both venerated and despised.
What Mahony found interesting over the years is whenever the Columbus debate resurges, an issue that’s been around since the 19th century, the focus has always been on whether or not his behavior was good or bad.
“There is a whole series of other problems,” she said, including the mythologizing of his role as a symbol for scientific freedom and discovery, his actual knowledge, and the extent of his accomplishments.
While original historical sources are still sparse, Mahony said some facts are known. Such as his birth in 1451 in Genoa, then an independent city-state, that he was mostly self-taught, and he had a long interest in finding a new route to Asia by sailing down the African coast. He joined the merchant marines as a young man and eventually became a trader. Columbus spent a lot of time in England, Portugal, and Spain, and made several proposals to each country on his project to sail west. They were all rejected, until Spain agreed to sponsor his voyage in 1492. According to Mahony’s presentation, he made four voyages, the last in 1502, and they all landed in the Caribbean.
Much of the mythologizing problem actually perpetuated from a fictionalized biography of Columbus that was written by Washington Irving and published in 1828. The “Headless Horseman” author embellished much of Columbus’ history and experiences, said Mahony. Because the book was widely read, she said it really influenced how Columbus is still being viewed today.
“The notion that Columbus was coming into a very simple area with simple people who were not organized is really very problematic,” she said, stating that based on journals kept by Columbus, he presented the natives as submissive, forced them to travel to Europe as souvenirs and that they will make good slaves.
With that in mind and tackling the issue from a different angle, Mahony said the controversy over Columbus Day is being fought once again not only in parts of the US where there are significant populations of people with Italian and Irish Catholic ancestry, but also where there are groups of Latinos, and people from Puerto Rico, Hispanola, and Cuba.
“As Connecticut changes, these issues no longer just concern Italian and Irish Americans, but to Native and Latino Americans as well, in particularly the Puerto Rican community,” she said.
The reasonings behind that is because a large percentage of the Latin American population are of mixed-ancestry, including European, Indigenous, and African. Based on national research, Mahony said about 60 to 65% of Puerto Rican DNA has some indigenous ancestry.
“When we talk about Columbus, this realization of ancestries makes it an even more complex issue,” she said, referencing to the term Borinqueneers, the original indigenous Taino name for Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived, which became the nickname for the segregated 65th Infantry Regiment during the Korean War.
“We’re dealing both with communities in terms of Italians and Irish Catholics who call on Columbus to show that they have something to contribute to the Americas, and a community from Puerto Rico, who in some cases celebrates Columbus, but in many cases is aware of what happened to the indigenous population in the Caribbean,” said Mahony, who also believed that the controversy is getting stronger because of the development of the indigenous movement in the 1970s, the Chicana movement, and emergence of DNA testing.
“So in Connecticut, this is becoming an issue that I think if we want to be an inclusive society, we need to think through it in ways that are empathetic and thoughtful, rather than knee-jerk reactions,” she said. “As more and more people become aware of the complexity of the issue, it’s a conversation that we will keep having.”