POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Celebrating Every American's Italian Heritage

by David Trumbull

September 24, 2004

It's an election year no Boston politician will dare miss the Columbus Day Parade in East Boston. South Boston's Saint Patrick's Day Parade may generate more publicity, but it's seven months before the election. Italian-Americans have their combination national holiday and ethic pride festival a mere four weeks before the November election and every office-seeker --fact all Americans-- will be Italian for the day in honor of the man who discovered America.

A hundred years ago Columbus was riding high. The Knights of Columbus was founded, in 1882, in New Haven, Connecticut. There was even a well-organized cause for the canonization of the explorer who bore Christ to the New World. By contrast, In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the first voyage, one group of parade marchers --I was pleased to hear them booed-- bore signs denouncing Columbus as a white male instrument of genocide.

For a more balanced view, try reading Samuel Eliot Morison's two-volume biography of Columbus. Harvard professor Morison's book came in 1942, halfway between the hagiographies on the 400th anniversary and the Columbus-bashing in 1992. Morison focused on the feat itself and on the man who pulled it off. A sailor, Morison, got in a wooden-hulled ship of about the same size one of Columbus's larger ships and set out to trace parts of Columbus's voyages.

Columbus's contemporaries knew, of course, that the world was round. But no one believed an east to west voyage to the Indies possible. With a 25,000 mile circumference, the earth was, they correctly thought, simply too large to circumnavigate in the ships of the time. You would run out of food and your wooden vessel would fall apart.

Columbus had his own calculations, wildly off it turns out, of the circumference of the globe. Read Morison and you'll conclude that Columbus was both the greatest sailor and worst geographer of his age. His knowledge of other fields was equally faulty. To assure a hospitable reception in the Indies, he carried with him a letter of introduction, in Latin, to the Grand Khan (a title already then a century or more out of use). He also brought along a Jewish interpreter to converse with the emperor of China in Hebrew and Arabic!

As we all know, Columbus did not bring back the riches of the Indies. After a few more attempts to find the Indies in the Caribbean, he retired to Spain where he spent the rest of his life lobbying the crown for a pension and for a title. He eventually got his title, "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." He even got the pension.

David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee; he may be contacted at (617) 742-6881 or Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.