Cultural Corner

It’s time to stop scapegoating Christopher Columbus

By Aileen Riotto Sirey and Angelo Vivolo

October 13, 2019 New York Post

Why are we so eager to search out scapegoats for the injustices of history? Whatever the reason, Christopher Columbus is now the fall guy for the sins of slavery, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the rape of natural resources and most of the legal, financial and territorial abuses that followed the first European steps in the New World. His accusers want to eliminate Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Columbus is a 15th-century man in a 21st-century court, and the jury is stacked with self-righteous, injured parties who have 20-20 hindsight. Vilifying him won’t change the unfairness of history, but it will delegitimize the outright and undeniable contributions of Western civilization. Tearing down statues to him won’t undo the damage from two worlds colliding, but it will mask the progress and achievements that emerged from two worlds converging.

Columbus Day exists for two reasons. The first: Columbus was the explorer who completed four recorded voyages across the Atlantic, showing great courage, determination and skill. His audacity and vision revolutionized worldwide human migration. Hundreds of millions of immigrants have followed his brave example over the course of more than five centuries. Today, his legacy endures in every immigrant who seeks opportunity and a better life.

The second reason is that on March 14, 1891, Italian Americans hit a low point in the long, arduous hazing period that every immigrant group seems condemned to suffer before emerging into the status of respectable American-hood. That year, an angry New Orleans mob lynched 11 Italian immigrants after they were cleared of murder charges. Perhaps the largest lynching in US history, it was condoned by the New York Times and a future president, Teddy Roosevelt.

Italian Americans desperately needed a hero to stand for them, someone to symbolize their contributions to their adopted land. The following year, Italian Americans in New York City erected a statue to Columbus at what became ­Columbus Circle and inscribed it, “To the world, he gave a world.”

So, when the attack on Columbus is as virulent as it is, the Italian American community is understandably distressed. He is the icon who represents our presence here, and symbolizes our enduring love for and commitment to this haven for immigrants.

Critics assign him the most mal­evolent personal motives. Yet cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney notes that Columbus himself never owned a slave and adopted an ­indigenous child as his son.

Why must he shoulder the guilt for the entire 15th century? Slavery was already here in the New World. So were cannibalism and human sacrifice, neither tolerated in the Old World.

But the forces that shaped the New World were out of the hands of any single man: The Doctrine of Discovery, human greed, free enterprise, international competition spurred by Old World mercantilism, abuse of power — all unleashed on a playing field without rules.

These are dangerous days for our republic. We are being pitted against one another as never before, weakening the pillars of our rational but still imperfect democracy. The attacks on Columbus feed into that conflict.

“Is this an attempt to obliterate the history and contributions of Western civilization?” said one angry man at a recent meeting of Italian Americans. Another said, “It’s an attack on Catholicism”; still another, “It’s an insult to all Italian Americans.”

Let’s not take that path. Let’s not squabble over injustices of the past only to wind up creating new ones. With the knowledge and tools we have acquired, let us remedy the unfair conditions for today and tomorrow — and let’s do it together.

Indigenous Peoples Day should be a holiday … and it is: Aug. 9. And November is Indigenous Peoples Month.

Thanks to Christopher Columbus’ efforts, the floodgates of immigration were opened. We were granted the “possibility of a world” … a new and just one. Many, many others have worked hard since then, but particularly over the past 243 years, to make that possibility real. It is up to us, the immigrants, to carry on.

At bottom, we are all immigrants. Whether we walked across an iced-over Bering Strait with our Native American siblings or we came in chains or desperation or hope from Africa, Europe or Asia, we are all immigrants here.

And we are all Americans.

Aileen Riotto Sirey is founder of the National Organization of Italian Women. Angelo Vivolo is president of the Columbus Heritage Coalition.



Sicily under Muslim conquest (827 to 1072)

Compiled by Anna Mattei

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD the invasions of Italy by many groups had began. This included the work of Muslim conquest of Sicily and parts of southern Italy which lasted 75 years. The first naval direct attacks by Muslims in Sicily, a region previously belonging to the Eastern Roman Empire, occurred in 652.

Between  806 and the 821 pirates from Africa and Muslim Spain  repeatedly attacked Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and, on a later date, the island of Lampedusa (where today so many boats land with migrants) was plundered and the island of Ischia (near Capri) was devastated.

Finally the Arabs landed in Sicily and drove away the hated Byzantines.  Over 9,000 Byzantine soldiers were massacred around 845. The Muslims called it a jihad by attacking Sicily with 70 ships, doing much damage to the civilian population.

Slowly the conquest of the island began. In 831 Palermo was declared the Islamic capital.  All the cities were given Arab names. More than a decade was required to bend the resistance of the inhabitants.  The Arab conquest did not stop there but continued along northern Calabria.  In 1040 they were finally defeated and, after an internal revolt, the Arabs were forced to leave Sicily and retreat in the territory of Puglia.

The period of Islamic domination in Sicily, from 827 to 1072, was finally coming to a close.  Today there are still reminders of this period.  Many Sicilian foods, cities, and language still bear the Muslim influence.  Entire villages still stand, people still talk Arabian dialects. The present modern city of Marsala still bears traces of this influence.  The name comes from the Arab “Marsa Allah – the port of Allah”.

 As the capital of the Sicilian Emirate from 831 to 1072, Palermo had over 300 mosques, including the one that eventually became the present day Cathedral in 1185.  Today, of that important mosque, only a column with Arab inscriptions is left standing.

It was not until 1061, when the Norman king decided that Sicily would be a nice addition to his kingdom that ships arrived in Messina to begin the operation of conquest and displacement of the Muslims.  Today the religion of Islam is the second largest in Italy, second only to Catholicism.


Short fun facts about Italy – compiled by Anna Mattei

  • At 300 000 sq km (116 000 sq miles) Italy is only marginally bigger than New Zealand.

  • There are many dialects of the Italian language spoken throughout Italy. The official Italian language spoken today originates from the Tuscan dialect (of Latin).

  • Italian is a Romance language and is related to the other Latin languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian.

  • Italy manufacture most of the world’s top sports cars, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Maserati and Alfa Romeo being some of the most popular.

  • Don’t try to outrun the police in Lazio (Rome’s province) some of the officers drive a Lamborghini.

  • The upbeat Italian National Anthem (often played at the Formula 1 and Moto GP due to the past victories of Michael Schumacher, Ferrari and Valentino Rossi) is called “Inno di Mameli” or “Canto degli Italiani” and was written by Goffredo Mameli.

  • The “Promessi Sposi” is Italy’s literature equivalent of Rome and Juliet.

  • Many of Shakespeare’s plays were set in Italy, including Romeo and Juliet from Verona.

  • Opera is an Italian creation.

  • Around 85% of Italians are registered Catholics however less than a third of that are practicing members.

  • There are many “Mafia” organizations in Italy. The Mafia (known as “Cosa Nostra”) is only one of them and is based in Sicily. Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta are the other bigger organizations.

  • Democratic Italy is governed by a President who appoints the Prime Minister (largely a figure-head).