V. Columbus Across Time
Columbus’s reputation in history has followed a rather curious course. His navigational skills, his persistence, his knowledge and his sheer guts carried Europe across the Sea of Darkness. “ ‘The Admiral was the first to open the gates of that ocean which had been closed for so many thousands of years before,’ wrote Bartolome de las Casas a half-century later in a comprehensive account of the voyages, which remains to this day a major source of knowledge about Columbus.”(12) But by the early years of the sixteenth century, the accomplishments of explorers like Vespucci, Cortes, Pizarro, Vasco da Gama and Magellan robbed Columbus of his prominence. Many history books written in this time period either scarcely mentioned him or ignored him altogether.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, Columbus bedpan to emerge from the shadows of history. In l552, according to “the historian Francisco López de Gomara, ‘The greatest event since the creation of the world (excluding the incarnation and death of Him who created it) is the discovery of the Indies. Columbus came to epitomize the explorer and discoverer, the man of vision and audacity, the hero who overcame opposition and adversity to change History.”(13) By the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, Columbus was celebrated in poetry and plays, especially in Italy and Spain.
The association between Columbus and America prospered in the eighteenth century as the revolutionary colonists began to distance themselves from England. In Columbus they found a man who had challenged the unknown sea and who had distanced himself from the Old World while finding a vast continent for new beginnings, much as they were attempting to do. By October, 1792, King’s College in New York had been changed to Columbia University, the new nation’s capital was to be called the District of Columbia, and Columbus had become a national hero.
In 1882, the founding fathers of the Knights of Columbus chose Columbus as their patron because they declared themselves in the mainstream ot American social conscience and directly linked to the patriotic: ideals of the republic. This organization was instrumental in lobbying for the Columbus memorial in Washington D.C. and in seeking to have Columbus canonized.
The four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage was marked by a year long celebration throughout the United States. President Harrison praised Columbus as a man of progress and vision. In New York, a portion of Central Park was renamed Columbus Circle, complete with a statue honoring this hero. In Chicago, President Cleveland helped to celebrate the World’s Columbian Exposition, an event which covered six hundred eighty-six acres, with forty-seven countries participating, and a paid attendance of more than twenty-one million people. This exposition was considered to be the premier expression of the national spirit of the United States in its day. Columbus had arrived—he was now considered the spirit of American success.