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Christopher Columbus is Dead


In February of 1986, news of the murder of Cristóbal Colón, a Vice Admiral in the Spanish Navy and direct descendant of Christopher Columbus, shook the world. The attack, carried out by Basque terrorists, had a direct association with the victim's first and last names. This crime underscores the ongoing challenges surrounding Columbus's legacy. The attack was not directed at the victim's military and aristocratic rank but clearly at the symbolic weight of his family name. ETA, which claimed responsibility, pledged adherence to the principles of Marx and Engels who, in the Communist Manifesto, pointed to Columbus as the father of Capitalism.

"The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.” Marx-Engels

Alternative Hypotheses and Controversies

Historical debates persist, with arguments about his potential Marrano or Jewish background explored by scholars like Salvador de Madariaga (whose point of view and extraordinary way of writing make his biography on Columbus my favorite). It is worth noting that while physical and character assassination are clearly not the same, the admiral’s descendant was a member of the military class in Spain closely associated with the monarchy. Meanwhile, many of the monuments erected to the memory of his ancestor were, as we can see in the document exhibited below, funded with small contributions by working-class immigrants in the United States, such as “The Italian People of the Bronx and their friends.”

Regardless, Cristobal Colón was not assassinated in 1986 because of his military or aristocratic rank but because of the symbolism behind the name of his ancestor. The press was quick to announce that Christopher Columbus was dead.

The Heritage Film Project
The murder of Cristobal Colon, underscores the ongoing challenges surrounding Columbus's legacy.

Columbus's Legacy: Challenges and Debates

The ethnicity, religion, and national origins of Christopher Columbus have sparked speculation since the mid-1800s. Historians widely agree that his family hailed from the coastal region of Liguria, with his birth and early years spent in the Republic of Genoa. Specific details point to his upbringing in Vico Diritto and later residence in Savona after his father Domenico's move in 1470.

The Italian Factor
Christopher Columbus, by Attilio Piccirilli, 1925

The Italian Factor
Certificate from the Art Commission of The City of New York

Additionally, controversies from the early 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan opposed monuments to Columbus, continued to influence the discussion. The Klan alleged connections between Columbus, the papacy, and Mediterranean immigration, fueling debates against Catholics and immigrants. Coincidentally, although the argument may stem from different interests, it remains a topic on the political agenda of various groups with varying arguments and motivations. This highlights the complex tapestry of historical emotions. In other words, opposing Columbus is as politically correct today as it was for the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.

A coincidence of sorts

During my first visit to Massa-Carrara, the birthplace of the Piccirilli brothers, I noticed the implicit connection between the Tyrrhenian Sea, where Columbus learned to navigate, and the ancestral home of the Piccirilli family, built on the remains of the Hebrew Ghetto of Massa. The association reminded me of the emotional complexity of interconnected narratives. By stepping out of the academic silos, one can experience the beauty of thinking outside the box, and it feels good.

Attilio's 1925 portrait of Christopher Columbus, initially placed in Public School number 45 in the Bronx, clearly aligns with the desires of the Italian American Community at a time when they were being targeted for character assassination by the most retrograde and xenophobic elements. Rescued from potential defacing and possible destruction, Italian American societies saved the bust from public view, and it is now awaiting final judgment.

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