This event was sponsored by the Wellesley Historical Society at the Wellesley Free Library.
Below is Stephen Puleo's open letter to the Town of Wellesley.
Real history matters:
Why Wellesley needs to keep Columbus Day, and add Indigenous Peoples Day
On Columbus Day 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rescinded an executive order requiring all Italians living in the United States who were not citizens to register as enemy aliens. This came as a great relief to my paternal grandmother, who was forced to register in February of that year as part of FDR’s Executive Order 9066.
The more controversial part of that order called for Japanese-American citizens to be relocated from the West Coast – their homes and property confiscated – and interned in camps in Montana and other western states. But once Italy and Germany declared war on the United States, non-citizens of those nationalities were forced to register as enemy aliens. My grandmother was required to press her thumbprint onto the “alien card” to assure her identification, even though she already had one son serving in the U.S. Army (two other sons, including my father, would be drafted later).
Italians were furious at FDR’s order. Most had supported Democrats, including the President, in large numbers. But as the 1942 midterms approached, Roosevelt’s advisers were frantic that Italians would not back Democrats for Congress by the same margins, or perhaps turn on Democrats altogether. They urged FDR to lift the enemy alien order.
That the President chose Columbus Day to do so was no accident. Timing-wise, it was just a few weeks before the midterms. But of greater importance was that Americans of Italian heritage cherished the country’s recognition of the Italian-born explorer who sailed for Spain. They viewed his voyages and his navigational achievements with pride, and in many ways saw his remarkable journeys as the forerunner to their own sojourns from the Old Country to America. Columbus had taken a massive risk in 1492, and four-hundred years later, so had Italians when they left Italy. FDR recognized the symbolic importance of Columbus Day to Italian-Americans.
I was honored to speak in Wellesley last fall to discuss my book, The Boston Italians, where I covered my grandmother’s story and FDR’s executive order. In the coming weeks, the Town of Wellesley will debate whether to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. This would be a mistake on so many levels – such an action would not only be a disservice to Italian-Americans who, correctly, view Columbus as a great navigator and intrepid explorer, but also be anti-historical, intellectually lazy, and unnecessarily divisive to Wellesley residents.
The town would be far better served by coming together to support Article 43, which seeks to preserve Columbus Day and observe anew Indigenous Peoples Day.
That Italian-Americans view Columbus Day as significant to their own story and culture is just one reason to maintain the holiday, but not the most critical. Americans of all backgrounds should honor Columbus for his navigational skills and his bravery as an explorer – embarking on a journey literally into the unknown, and making four voyages to the new world before sailors had any idea about longitude. He did not touch the mainland of the United States, but his voyages began the migration of millions of people from the Old World to the new, and ultimately, led to the creation of the freest, most prosperous nation in history. The greatest navigator of his age, Columbus may not have “discovered America,” a tired refrain repeated constantly by his detractors, his achievements helped make the founding of America – and the modern age – possible.
Efforts by some over the past quarter-century – and by some in Wellesley today – seek to besmirch Columbus entirely by accusing him, inaccurately, of the vilest acts against indigenous peoples; indeed, to accuse him of virtually everything that was wrong about the brutally violent 15th and 16th centuries. Most of this is ahistorical hysteria and rhetorical revisionism that lays out a sloppy and false narrative simply not supported by documents and facts.
These arguments are often precipitated and perpetuated by those employing what I call the “arrogance of presentism,” which in this particular case overlays a twenty-first century template onto Columbus’s world as it existed more than 500 years ago. Once the template is applied, Columbus detractors then resort to a familiar formula: rely on cherry-picked “facts,” strip away context, shout down any dissent, and seek to find Columbus guilty and punish him without any semblance of a fair trial.
This kind of historical kangaroo court serves no one well. Columbus is often lumped inaccurately and unfairly with other bad actors, Spanish conquistadores especially, who committed despicable deeds against indigenous populations. Calling Columbus the “Hitler of his time” and comparing him to Ku Klux Klan night riders in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American South are easy soundbites meant to inflame emotions and cut off reasonable discourse (“How can you support a murderer?” shout the Columbus detractors), but they are appallingly inaccurate and historically dangerous.
Can Columbus be held accountable for the actions of his men or the men around him? Of course – he was a weak governor and despite his deep religious faith, an ineffective moral voice – and in many cases his men appear to have blatantly disobeyed his orders without any repercussions. But Columbus was neither a murderer nor a sexual enslaver.
Stanford cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney wrote a book entitled Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, in which she argues convincingly that Columbus did not sail to find and conquer people but to find gold. His purpose? To fund a Christian crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world. Many people at the time thought that the apocalypse was coming because of plagues, famines, earthquakes, and other disasters, and it was believed that before the end, Jerusalem had to be back in Christian hands so that Christ could return in judgment. His goal was to reach China and meet with the Grand Khan, who had expressed an interest in Christianity. If he could set up a trading post with China, he could obtain funds to fund a crusade. “As far as I can tell, Columbus never killed a native, took a native woman, or had any slaves, nor did he intend to get slaves when he went across the ocean,” she said. “There was no intention of killing or enslaving people belonging to the greatest empire in the world (Spain).”
And Columbus did possess personal morality. When natives destroyed the first settlement he established, killing all the Spanish present and burning their buildings to the ground, he showed restraint when his council wanted to kill various indigenous people in their midst. Columbus explicitly ordered his crews not to rape or maraud, though many disobeyed him. When he convinced six indigenous people to return to Spain with him after his first voyage – Delaney insists that they were not enslaved – he became Godfather to one who later accompanied him on his travels; one other man remained in Spain and the other four returned home.
Many anti-Columbus crusaders also employ another familiar ahistorical tactic: take a well-known passage of Columbus’s diary or one of his letters out of context. Then pretend it is gospel and representative of the navigator’s beliefs, intents, and actions. For example, one charge against Columbus is that Spanish settlers under him sold young girls into sexual slavery. Anti-Columbus voices cite a letter he wrote to a friend of the Spanish queen as “proof” that they did so with his endorsement. The passage they cite is: “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.” The inference is that Columbus approved of this action and even bragged about it – but the opposite is true. In the very next passage, Columbus decries the practice, asserts that those who practiced it were “violent” and “injured” him. “I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world,” he wrote. This passage is ignored by Columbus haters.
In fact, the vast majority of the atrocities attributed to Columbus emanate from a single source document written by his chief political rival of the day, Francisco Bobadilla, who hated Columbus and sought to discredit him in the eyes of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus spent years of his life refuting the document as a vicious libel and turned down as a matter of principle lucrative agreements with the Spanish crown that did not correct for history what he regarded as calumny.
These facts do not excuse any of the terrible treatment indigenous people received at the hands of some of Columbus’s men, or from many other vicious conquerors, including Europeans and members of other indigenous tribes. Sadly, slavery was widespread and considered morally acceptable virtually around the world – it was an integral part of societies in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and yes, among indigenous peoples in the Americas. As evil and horrific as slavery was, it was considered a “normal” part of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as it had been for thousands of years. We should no more “cancel” Columbus than we should “cancel” the great accomplishments of the ancient Egyptians in math, science, and astronomy because the entire Egyptian society was based on slavery.
Columbus’s time was also a period of staggering violence, a level of which we find hard to imagine today. Beheadings were normal as punishment, as were drawing and quartering. Violence against women was astonishing in virtually every society in the world. Innocent people were hanged, burned alive, and pressed to death if they were found to be witches or warlocks. Children were murdered routinely to teach lessons to warring factions. European conquerors slaughtered American natives, and Indigenous tribes in the Americas routinely tortured their enemies, enslaved their captives, and engaged in human sacrifices. Of course, we find this level of violence appalling today, but again, in Columbus’s time – and for a couple of hundred years afterward – such brutality was considered neither unusual or extraordinary.
Imposing our own standards to judge behavior that took place five centuries ago is both historically unwise and breathtakingly arrogant.
There are two critical sets of facts in this story.
Fact one: America’s indigenous people suffered enormously when Europeans arrived, both from widespread violence and diseases that commonly are transferred when huge migrations of people occur (it is absurd to blame Columbus for spreading diseases to which indigenous people were not immune). In later years, indigenous peoples were subjugated further by North and South American governments, including that of the United States. Wellesley needs an Indigenous People Day to honor anew indigenous peoples to commemorate their suffering and to recognize the numerous cultural contributions of native peoples.
Fact two: Christopher Columbus was a superb navigator and explorer, a hero to Italian-Americans and most immigrants from the Old World, who has been inaccurately and unfairly maligned as a mass murderer, portrayed falsely as a “symbol” for all that was wrong – and there was much wrong – with his era. He had weaknesses as a governor and is certainly not blameless for the actions of his men; but he also had many virtues, including bravery and curiosity. His diaries resonate with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the beauty of the New World, and several times he praises the indigenous peoples he encountered here. His entire record should be studied and elucidated – not eradicated. Wellesley needs to continue to honor Christopher Columbus too.
No matter who does it, hiding history’s truths behind a veil of false narrative is wrong.
I urge the people of Wellesley to observe Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day as part of their community calendar. Replacing one with the other would do a disservice to both, and a disservice to the town by unnecessarily dividing thoughtful and well-meaning members of the community.
Stephen Puleo is an author and historian. He has written seven books, including his latest, Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission; as well as The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, from the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day.