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Commentary Last Updated: Oct 9th, 2006 - 01:42:35

Columbus, the gold, and phony Italians
By Luciana Bohne
Online Journal Associate Editor

Oct 9, 2006, 01:40

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"One who has gold," observed Christopher Columbus in his travel log, "does as he wills in the world, and it even sends souls to Paradise." The man was not only a cynical practitioner of "real-politick" (a la today's and yesterday's Neocons), but he was also a psychic.

Who can deny today that the United States, the richest country in the world, practices what he preached? In the name of God, freedom, and democracy, it loots the world, subjugates people, steals their resources, and reduces them to penury. Just look at Iraq. The conquest continues, as "America" seeks to "discover" the world in order to subdue and loot it.

Obviously, Columbus was the prototype for today's hardcore, god-touting, warmongering, colonizing, profiteering, and imperializing US "patriot." So, it is quite fitting that certain kinds of know-nothing, heavily propagandized, deceptively hyphenated, US-patriots should wish to celebrate the "discovery" of "America" by like-minded Christopher Columbus, the thief and pirate of the "New World."

However, let one thing be clear: this is not celebrating "Italian heritage." This is celebrating that part of the "Italian heritage" that led to Mussolini's fascism -- his racism, imperialism, and criminal wars -- and to the attempted reestablishment of Vatican power in Italy's secular state. Many Italian-Americans, cut-off from the mother culture more than a century ago, know nothing of this history. They should know it, however, for without knowing it they cannot properly call themselves "Italian." At best, they are related to Italy the same way that some naive American blacks are related to modern Africa -- that is, nostalgically, inauthentically, and "virtually."

Far from representing emancipatory currents that would come to shape modern Italian culture, such as the philosophers, scientists, and artists of the Renaissance, Columbus, the adventurer and soldier of fortune, worked for the transnational Vatican through his employers, their "most Catholic majesties," Spain's Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. In addition, there was no such thing as "Italy" in Columbus's time. At best, it was a geographical entity that could be called the "Italic peninsula." This piece of real estate, admittedly one of the most beautiful on earth, had been savagely "discovered" by the Romans, annexed by the sword, and the people made to toil on the farms that fed imperial Rome.

A few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Italic peninsula had become a patchwork of weak statelets (like the former Yugoslavia today), dominated by the Vatican, which made sure that it remained weak, divided, and vulnerable to invasions invited or caused by the Pontefix Maximus in Rome until, against the Vatican's will, the Italian state was born in 1870 -- more or less.

In that year, the walls of the last Jewish ghetto in Europe fell with the liberation of Rome from papal domination. The newly independent, secular, parliamentarian Italy wanted no part of its feudal, autocratic, Vatican-dominated past with its legacy of racism, war, and occupation to trickle into its democratic future. The Vatican retaliated by threatening to excommunicate citizens who voted in the first parliamentary elections. The Italians payed no attention to the papal fatwas. They voted en masse for a modern state and made sure that the new constitution would keep the pope and religion out of the government.

This is the Italy whose heritage I am proud to celebrate as an Italian-American. And this is the reason why you won't find me marching in any Columbus parade, for such a parade celebrates the heritage of what is worst -- illiberal, undemocratic, reactionary -- in both countries. It is, quite literally, a culturally fascist celebration, for it reveres what Mussolini revered -- and Columbus before him -- when he poison-gassed the people of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Libya. I know. My father was there, in Mussolini's "conquest" of Africa. He told me.

In a humorous aside, I could add that, as a Venetian, I should find nothing to celebrate in the achievements of a son of Genoa, the rival maritime power to Venice, although this silly, provincial, but enduring ethnic rivalry points to the invented nature of modern nationalism. Indeed, I feel more Venetian than Italian, and never more so than when I'm having a tough time understanding a farmer from Friuli or Sardinia! Being an Italian in Italy, is a far more complex issue than being one in America, where spaghetti, the pope, and the Madonna (and probably the mafia) stand for the whole.

As an Italian-American, I know that Italian immigrants had it tough; honest folks working like dogs, living in inhumane and overcrowded tenements that bred killer epidemics; feeding families on exploited labor; educating their children to enrich the settler's colony that became the ruler of the world. They were discriminated against and often legally persecuted, but must their descendants now celebrate a victimizer to prove to their insecure egos in Protestant "America" that they are no longer marginalized victims? Why is it that former victims so often fail to learn the first lesson in victimization -- to aver that "never again" will they support cruelty to any peoples and, instead, join the triumphalist narrative of their former oppressors?

Why is it that Columbus, who launched the genocide of the Americas, should be selected as the symbol of Italian-American heritage, when, in fact, he had so little to do with actually living Italy and everything to do with what "America" has been and become? Because, as you will have to agree, Columbus Day in "America" has nothing to do with Italy and everything to do with US triumphalism and US identity as a noxious, hegemonic, and genocidal superpower!

Genocidal? This is how Bartolomeo de Las Casas, chronicler of the conquest, characterized the effects of Columbus's "discovery." He wrote that in little over a century from 1492, the population of Mexico fell from 25 million to 1.2 million and that Peru's fell by 95 percent. Las Casas estimated that between 1495 and 1503 more than 3 million people disappeared from the islands of the Caribbean. Columbus first set foot in the "New World" at Barracoa, Cuba, which I visited. There is an ugly, squat statue to Columbus on the scrappy, melancholy beach, very near the US Guantanamo base, in an almost scandalous confluence of imperialist symbolism, past and present.

The Council of Castile, immediately after the return of Columbus from his first expedition, resolved to take possession of a land whose inhabitants were unable to defend themselves. As classical liberal economist Adam Smith wrote in the 18th century: "The pious purpose of converting [the defenseless inhabitants] to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project. But the hope of finding treasures of gold there, was the sole motive which prompted them to undertake it. . . . All the other enterprises of the Spaniards in the new world, subsequent to those of Columbus, seem to have been prompted by the same motive. It was the sacred thirst for gold." Hern�n Cort�s, conqueror of Mexico, does not deny it: "We Spanish suffer from a sickness of the heart for which gold is the only cure."

Official figures set the amount of theft and transfer of treasure from the New World to Spain between 1521 and 1660 at 18,000 tons of silver and 200 tons of gold. Some historians double those amounts. As the native inhabitants were forced to work and die in the mines, the Spanish king used the treasure to pay off debts and finance more wars and plunder. As the native population diminished, they were replaced by African slaves. It was a good time for capitalism, for the riches of the western hemisphere not only fattened the coffers of individual Europeans -- including slave traders -- but also they funded the Industrial Revolution, with the results that are with us today -- wars, racism, imperialism, greed, injustice, inequality, and global warming.

Celebrate Columbus Day? Celebrate genocide, slavery, theft, subjugation, and the death of the planet? Whatever for? One might just as well have a parade celebrating the dropping of the first Atomic bomb! For, to the peoples of the lands that came to be known as the "Americas," Columbus was indeed a comprehensive weapon of mass destruction, whose killing power, in its effects and ideology, continues to this day.

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at

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