When little is known about an historical personage, that person becomes like an ink-blot test: we project onto them perceptions born of our present needs. In her very informative book called America Discovers Christopher Columbus, historian Claudia Bushman looks at how Americans have used Columbus to their own cultural ends. Early on, Columbus was seen as a visionary who foretold the American Experiment, and later he became the “first immigrant.” We know more about Columbus now. Today, many see him only as the man who brought slavery, genocide, and disease to an idyllic New World. His earlier reputation, for many, is voided.
In my view, Columbus as proto-immigrant suits him best, with this seeming distinction: later immigrants knew where they were going, and Columbus did not. But really, Columbus sailed off toward his illusion of where Asia and its riches lay; this illusion sustained him through his voyages. Even with his intimacy with the Caribbean and its peoples, the explorer spent the rest of his days believing he had found a new route to Asia (to his credit, he died young). His obsession with finding the westward course to Asia cost him naming rights for the “New World”. We could refer to this hemisphere as the Columbias, but instead we call it the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci.
Many of our ancestors, too, set off with illusions of what they’d find once they reached the Western Hemisphere. One early American colonist, having been lured across the Atlantic by letters describing great natural abundance to be found here, later mused that such letters must have been written during wild strawberry season. Idealism has sustained many an ocean crossing, and undoubtedly inspires today’s immigrants, too. Once reality sets in, though, the belief that must sustain any immigrant, and indeed any person getting up and going to work, is that a day’s toil somehow improves the life of one’s self and, if so the case, of one’s progeny.
All our ancestors answered the call to adventure: they left life as they knew it and set off to a strange land. The strange land called, but something also pushed them out. Was it eviction by a landowner? Religious oppression? Hunger? Indeed, some came here with no beckoning from the New World at all, but instead by the prod of slave traders.
My own call to adventure for this Columbia journey came when my landlord in Brooklyn announced he was kicking everyone out so he could renovate that three-storey brownstone and move in with his family. Within days I was saying: “This is great!” I was too comfortable in my New York life, and for an artist, comfort can be life-sucking.
I’d already been wondering—how will I make that body of work that will move my career to the next level? That knock on the door was my answer, and it’s been a great adventure since. People let go of what they know to build a better life all the time—it’s how we grow. But in that an ancestor’s name had lead me to Columbia, and Columbia comes from Columbus, I am conscious that I follow the footsteps of explorers and adventurers who came before me.
No matter how we view Columbus’ actions once he landed at Hispaniola, nothing can take away from his daring act of sailing off in a direction toward which none of his peers had ventured. When I think of judging his later actions, I think of my own ancestry: my ancestors enslaved Africans and murdered Native Americans, as did many others. Columbus and these ancestors were products of their times. But we must acknowledge that many of their contemporaries did not make these same choices. I can only hope that were I living then, I would be following that alternative path.