Berger’s Burg: Community debates Columbus controversy

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Christopher Columbus’ mother: “I don’t care what you’ve discovered. You still could have written.”

This year, we observe Columbus Day on Oct. 14. Every year, I usually write a column on the “grand man of the sea” who “discovered” America 510 years ago; however, last year I didn’t. Many of you still are wondering why not. Well, here’s the scoop.

Two years ago, when my Columbus column hit the street, it created a hubbub. Yes, a real Queens-sized hubbub. More than a few readers objected to that column honoring dear Christopher.

Since I try to be as noncontroversial as possible, last year I deliberately skipped my customary column, exalting our “first immigrant,” and guess what? This created a second hubbub from readers who objected to my ignoring “Charismatic Chris.”

I then was besieged with fiercely opinionated letters requesting that I bite the bullet and plunge headlong into the Columbus debate. So, since their requests are my command, I will lift anchor, shiver me timbers, heave ho, walk the plank and sail on through unknown waters.

Scholars are heatedly debating the role Columbus played in the saga of mankind. Some historians view him as exceedingly “Eurocentric,” while others label him a “murderer,” “rapist” and a “mad fake.” His great discovery of America, they contend, was “the beginning of a holocaust.”

The American Indians equate the noted navigator’s voyages with the systematic exploitation and genocide of their people. They say that his “discovery” opened the door for Europeans to rob, trick and steal their land. You can’t discover what already was here, they say. There is proof, they add, that other explorers from Africa already had sent flotillas that landed in the Americas 150 years before Columbus. Consequently, the celebration of Columbus Day is a fraud and should be discontinued.

Because of this discord, many communities have decided to forego their annual Columbus Day parades. Other localities focus their parades on modern Italy and the achievements of Italian-Americans, rather than on Columbus. But I wonder, do most Americans subscribe to these negative opinions?

George Will, the noted columnist, wrote: “America is the most important thing that ever happened” and Columbus’ role in bringing it to the world’s attention was a truly monumental achievement. Other renowned historians have made it clear that Columbus not only was the first to venture into an unknown area — where even the most famous navigators of the time, the Portuguese, would not go — but in doing so also brought the beginning of the Renaissance spirit of expansion and discovery to the world.

When I interviewed Anne Paolucci of Whitestone, the director of the doctor of arts degree program in English at St. John’s University, she also refuted the “empty-headed factional rhetoric” of the contradictors. She stated that sooner or later someone else would have done what Columbus did. The need for expansion was a historical reality.

Paolucci added that Columbus was not a brutal man. Successful efforts of territorial expansion (Columbus’ discovery tripled the size of the known world) always have been accomplished by some measure of violence. Columbus, in fact, was replaced as administrator in Hispaniola (the first New World colony) because “he was too mild and compassion­ate.”

“Were the naysayers given these facts?” she questioned. “Are they reminded that we cannot judge past actions in retrospect, on the basis of current values, or laws, just as we cannot convict someone of a crime that he or she might commit five years from now? Aren’t African tribes still enslaving other Africans in Africa, as in Columbus’ time? Certainly the genocide … and massacres … [of] today are more horrendous than anything attributed to Columbus. Rewriting history doesn’t mean arbitrarily ignoring certain facts.”

Paolucci strongly urged that we all take a more historical perspective on the matter of Columbus and stop throwing our individual, racial and religious weight around to make gross and untenable points.

State Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) also deplores the negativism of Columbus’ exploits. “What [the naysayers] are talking about is equivalent to book burning. History is history. It can be warped by dissenters of various persuasions, but the history is there and there is no question that Columbus achieved a monumental discovery. The fact that the Native Americans were here does not diminish that discovery.” Whew! And the debate continues.

At this point, I ask you, my erudite readers, was Columbus a visionary spurred on by intellectual curiosity or was he simply a greedy product of an era of exploitation? Was he the first to discover the New World, or were others, such as the Africans, the Egyptians, St. Brendan (the patron saint of sailors), Leif Ericsson, or even Buddhist monks, here previously? Clear the decks before you ponder that one over.

There is also another simmering “Columbian” can of worms that I must mention — his ethnicity. Did you know that some historians embrace the theory that the Genoese captain was Jewish? I dare not touch that theory since one controversy surely is enough for one column. But whatever your views are about the man, Columbus’ voyages did mark the beginning of the one world in which we live. As historian William McNeil definitively put it, “no single man, and no single event, ever affected the lives of so many people.”

As for me, all I know is that Columbus Circle wouldn’t have had a name were it not for the sailing of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. For this alone, Chris should be fondly remembered. What do you think? But no hubbubs, please!

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 229-0300, ext. 140.

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