Category Archives: geographic mobility

The New World in Practice: Placing Columbus in a New World

Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery,” but also the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage has assumed in a search for national identity. If Columbus the Genoese navigator was hit upon as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centennary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse.

The engraved map–a reflection of the prominent role Rand McNally played in the organization of the Exposition of 1892, promoting the prominent place that the mapmaking company had gained in the design, dissemination and marketing of instructional printed maps in the later nineteenth century, just a decade after the Chicago-based printshop primarily producing train time-tables expanded its role in a growing educational market for globes and printed wall maps, using its engraving methods emblematized in its dramatic bird’s-eye view of the exposition.

And although it did not design the commemorative silver half dollar that included a caravel of the Santa Maria moving on creating ocean waves above the very anachronistic map that suggests the continental expanse of North and South America–as if Columbus’ guidance of the historic transnational voyage in three caravels he captained was based on a mastery of modern cartographic knowledge. The clear-sightedness of the navigator below the legend “United States of America” linked fearless scrutiny of the global expanse to the foundation of a nation, as the coin designed by the U.S. Mint sough to give circulate a discourse of national unity in the first coin printed in the United States to include the likeness of an actual individual, after hopes to copy a Renaissance portrait by Lorenzo Lotto were replaced by an austere profile suggesting intellectual grasp of space to be sold as souvenirs to visitors of the national fair. Yet the notion of hemispheric dominance was not far off: the explosion of the American naval frigate in the port of Havana led to charges to attack Spain in the press to exercise dominance ridiculed in the Spanish press–

The hint at hemispheric dominance in these maps mirror a push in the 1890s against how “the self-imposed isolation in the matter of markets . . . coincided singularly with an actual remoteness of this continent from the life of the rest of the world,” as a shift in global governance and prominence; the earlier celebration of the continental expansion of the United States to an area “equal to the entire circumference of the earth, and with a domain within these lines far wider than those of the Romans in the proudest days of their conquest and renown.” Casting nationalism in such cartographic terms mirrored the embedding of Columbus in legacies of nationalism and colonization,–the coin that gave the navigator currency, if it silenced the recognition of the other, presenting Columbus as emblematic of a conquest of space.

If we are realizing the loaded nature of the erasure of earlier inhabitants in the celebration of arrival in ‘America’ as a prefiguration of the nation, the condensation of this genealogy in the coin As ethnicity was understood in sectorial and distinct terms of labor in the late nineteenth century–erased by the notion of an “end of ethnicity” and melting pot of the late twentieth century–the image of Columbus as a “white” hero, the image of the discoverer was purified of his own ethnic origins, at a time when negroes and Italians were excluded from social orders, and lived in Chicago sequestered in enclaves like Little Sicily, or Five Points in New York City, President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 promoted Columbus Day as a “one-time national celebration” to quell international tensions after lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans’ Little Palermo between Italy and the United States: the image on the commemorative coin of a pacified globe of continental unity as if it were included in Columbus’ fashioning of his own prophetic identity affirmed Columbus’ whiteness, as it erased the identity of indigenous subjects and silenced the other.

Long before Italian-Americans came to promote the day as a regular celebration to incorporate their centrality in a civic record of national identity, as New York Times editorialist Brent Staples has put it, purged of racial connotations that continued in the popular press, only after the celebration of Columbus Day opened a pathway to integration in the face of racialist slurs. As those Sicilians who segregated in their dwellings in New Orleans were seen as targets of racial persecution, and as northern newspapers used stereotypes continued to magnify charges of poor hygiene and linguistic differences, casting Italians as vermin unfit for public schooling, Columbus provided a figure to flee from dispersion as a “Dago”: as immigration from Italy faced official restrictions by 1920, and Italian immigrants were subject to at the start of the first great Age of Mass Migration, as Calvin Coolidge barred “dysgenic” Italian-Americans from entering the country.

In the very years wen immigrants were both sectorized and accorded new status as “whites” who were eugenically suspect, and rates of immigration were slowed under the banner of eugenics, the figure of Columbus proved an able image to launch a powerful agenda of alternative immigration reform: in the very regions where the share of population of Italian origin was most pronounced by 1920, in those very counties the erection of Columbus monuments grew. They appeared in interesting fasion from the eastern seaboard inland to the Great Lakes, into the Chicago area on Lake Michigan, to the Texas and Lousiana seaboards, and San Francisco area in northern California: the dispersion of Columbus monuments in the nation by Peter van der Krogt lacks dates, but rather strikingly mirrors proportional levels geographic concentration of Italian Americans in 1920 in the United States–

The increased transatlantic migration that occurred around the 1920s could recast the topos of overseas arrival as embodied by Columbus. The figure of Columbus as an intellectual, a civil servant, and of the statue as a monument of civic pride all encouraged the appearance of the navigator in public monuments. Of course, they recuperate the image of the placement of the flag of authority overseas, as much as vanquishing native one of the first global maps, planting the flag of authority overseas.

The question of such exportation of royal claims was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority was seen in Martin Waldseemüller’s 1514 printed global map as a pair to the discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama. overlooking and surveying coastal toponymy in a statuesque manner, bearing the figure of the flag and cross as an ambassador of the most Christian monarch.   The arrival of Vasco, as of Columbus, recuperated tropes of imperial migration that derived from early church history, and were given new lease in the Holy Roman Empire by imperial chroniclers and pre-Colomban universal histories, as a spatial migration of imperial authority: in maps, the Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels born by sea monsters who embodied the oceans, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition not initiated by Waldseemüller,–the very same cartographer who named the continent after the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci–

Waldseemüller world map, 1515
https:/Tabula Nova partis Africae, in Lorenze Fries’ reduced woodcut of Waldseemuller, (1541)

–and would echo the prophetic cast Columbus had assumed in his letters, and would give as he cast his exploratory voyage in terms of one of renaming, conquest, and discovery, rather than exploration, as he cast himself as acting as of an emissary of and invested with authority by the monarchs of Spain, and a delegate of royal sovereignty who had himself moved across the map to lay claim to unknown islands that he named after his royal patrons. The naming that was cast as emblematic of civility and civilization of new lands, and indeed the foregrounding of the cartographic prominence of the insularity of the lands of discovery, greatly magnified in Waldseemüller’s map to reveal the prominence they held in the European imagination as a revision of Ptolemaic geography, the islands alone doubling the territoriality of the Spanish monarchy–by expanding it to a transatlantic set of islands that were cartographically inflated in size, and not only to accommodate the toponym “Spagnuola” but magnify the scale of the discovery.

The discovery of course altered the scope of Spanish sovereignty, as much as the cosmography Ptolemy set forth based on the astrolabe he proudly held in the upper right of this twelve-sheet wall map. In this fractured world of multiplying insular fragments, where the entire of the modern South America, here island-like, if immense, labeled “America” and below the island of Hispaniola, was “discovered by the command of the King of Castille”–island-like as Waldseemüller most likely was forced to add the to the pre-1491 global maps that perhaps remained his source–dotted with even greater abundance of islands, all acting as if beckons to potential sites of untold wealth. The figure of Columbus may be absent from the map, but the caravel identified as sent by the European monarch seems to provide the basis for information in the 1507 global map–where it seems as if the emblem of Columbus–

I found myself recently standing in New York City’s Columbus Circle, a towering column constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor, it was hard to imagine how the towering figure of the navigator once stood above the circle. The statue must have been a reply to the lady who stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants; funded by the Italian language newspaper that had begun publication only a decade earlier in 1880, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery served as a proclamation of civic dedication as well as rected; the encounter was monumentalized as an auspicious arrival of a man who seems to proclaim the New World’s settlement before a group of shrinking natives, who retreat behind foliage, in statuary made in Rome during the centenary of 1892, as if to stand as a rejoinder to the midwestern Columban exposition that celebrated the expansion of Chicago and the opening of an American West.

1. The conceit of Columban arrival inspires something like an immediate obeisance, in this fantasy of encounter, that is legitimized by the banner of Spain, not Portugal, from which natives witness only from foliage, as if in awe of the arrival, while he is tranquil and equinanimous as Columbus strides on the New World. His robed presence, as if hardly worse for wear after transatlantic travel dominates the scene of arrival in the foundation to the seventy foot column on which he stands–in this monumental image funded by the Italian-American newspaper il Progresso as a monument that affirms assimilation and longstanding presence in American life–showing the navigator as an arriviste, setting foot on the shores without any wear for travel–

–in an iconic image of the arrival of civilization in an uncivilized land, even if his Catholic religious identity seems temporarily suppressed.

The image of Columbus as an “indicator” of the path to colonization and the New World is drenched in blood, shown as he most often is removed from any geographical context, guarding a globe close to his body in a proprietorial manner. While the iconography of Columbus often–and insistently–depicts him as detached from the world, or as the incarnation of a cartographic imaginary of control over terrestrial space, if not of possession of the space of a terrestrial sphere, armillary sphere, and dividers, and the restoration of a new era of world history–the mastery conferred by the globe seems the division and distinction between self and other, as the tools of western civilization are aligned with the sailor.

And so, the celebration of Columbus Day offers a basis to revisit the contours and celebration of that world history, and examine the question of world making that carried so much weigh, and symbolic power, even though much of the world has been far removed from white, male hands.

1. We can imagine the difficulty of processing the extent of the Atlantic Ocean in earlier times, but the very idea of “discovery”–“a dude discovered America?  c’mon, like it didn’t already exist??!!?“–poses questions of privilege and race, in ways we are challenged to come to terms–or even perhaps fully admit. Questions of naming, mapping, and sovereignty, questions that are central to the debate about public statuary of Columbus–and the commemoration of Columbus Day, but already were addressed in the figuration of first contact with the New World, if in ways far more different and distinct than they were once celebrated as islands in the first accounts of the New World in De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494), which revealed Columbus as the prime actor in a new nature of transatlantic exchange that echoed the very hope of the discovery of the route to the Spice Islands that had inspired Columbus’ initial transatlantic trip–even if he did not vision it as such.

For if the image of Columbus as surveying space from an empiric remove with complete equanimity was recapitulated in the quadricentennary by Italian Americans who elevated Christofoo atop a seventy foot pedestal, in New York City’s Columbus Circle, in a piece of Roman statuary created with funds raised by the Italian-American newspaper Il Progresso as an emblem of Italian American mmigrant achievement, in a statue thirteen feet tall in stature \sculpted in Rome by Gaetano Russo, as if to respond to the recently erecged Statue of Liberty; standing on terra firma, and not in the Harbor, atop a granite column adorned by bronze prows and sterns of  the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, the three caravels by which he sailed to a New World, Columbus seems to inscribe the new land for Europeans in statuary that recapitulated Eurocentric maps,an aerial view in facing south to survey New York harbor that anticipated the mapping of the New World.

But is is in fact surveying not an ocean, but stood imperiously over Broadway, before being dwarfed by the increasingly commercially congested area of Columbus Circle, now almost overwhelmed by surrounding steel and glass monumentalism, ranging from Trump International to the Time Warner Center. If Columbus is so dwarfed by modern monuments beside with the statue seems quaint, and a relic removed in time whose gaze and posture is less imperious than was first intended,

Yet the monumental detachment of the figure of Columbus from the world–and from his surroundings–a point that the Italian Americans sponsoring the monument seem intent to foreground, by elevating the figure of Columbus as a complement to the 1886 arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, whose height of just over a hundred yards set a new standard for civic monuments, seems at the maximum potential height to be still visible from the ground, supported by the bronze anchors and ships’ prows that provided the evidence of the voyage that elevated his global status.

Yet does this remove Columbus from the drama of articulating the new map of colonial possessions in the new globe?

The problem of viewing the New World from afar was one that maps provided tools to address, but abilities of reading space on a map–let alone reading the networks of space that we readily digest from airplane route maps or Google Maps–were so foreign to being internalized that we must look beyond questions of cartographic literacy or the power of maps.  The ability to frame–and indeed unite–the Atlantic in what might be called the “first” spherical age of global mapping, although the globes only circulated among quite elite audiences, was based on a new epistemology of proximity, as the frame of the map–of a scale and expanse that was previously communicated only in the nautical map,–a fairly arcane document of professional use and expert reading, not legible to most, and drafted on sheepskin or vellum, and rarely exhibited to large audiences, or able to be read by then–suddenly migrated to a new audience of readers and a new reading public who rarely read maps or used maps as tools to process terrestrial (or territorial) expanse, but credibly stake sovereign claims to possession.  

2. We might do well to ask, in looking at them, what sort of work is done by images like maps, and the claims to sovereignty encoded in the islands that bore the names of sovereign but floated disembodied in a global sea in the Hunt-Lenox Globe–a small globe whose careful worksmanship suggested the power of contemplating the newly “discovered” lands.

New Islands Lenox Globe

Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/courtesy New York Public Library

For the mapping of the New World posed the almost existential questions of situating those individual mariners who sailed the highly maneuverable crafts of caravels across the Atlantic ocean, even before the “naming” of America.

Detail of engraved Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/ from the 3D model
produced by Digital Scholarship Lab of University of Rochester

All of which should force more attention to the informational value of maps as transitional records, as much as the contents that they bear. Consuming, digesting, and materializing trans-Atlantic expanse was not only deeply challenging; it encouraged or taught abilities to mediate royal authority across vast oceanic waters, reframing relations of sovereign to land in ways that frontispiece to the first editions of his Letter rehearsed and sought to recapitulate by its iconography of a monarch observing from his throne indigenous peoples overseas where the three caravels arrived.  The rule over these islands was, perhaps, more easy to understand or perpetuate than sovereign rule over a new continent.

But rule over a continent is rich in the modern imagination, and perhaps offers a new optic for Columbus Day. When Donald Trump, as sitting U.S. President, outright celebrated national commemoration of “the legendary achievements of an intrepid Italian explorer,” defending the federal holiday against the proposed renaming of the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day, he seemed to relish the prospect of uniting the nation around its celebration. But in citing the “daring spirit that built our great civilization” as a foundational myth celebrated from Columbus Circle in Manhattan to Columbus, Ohio, he exploited a fault line running through the nation, in fact quite divided, and was promoting the further division of the nation. The divisions are sharp among the eleven states where Indigenous People’s Day is recognized, and the “defense” of observing, as if to defend native land: by no small coincidence, the celebration of Columbus Day mirrors the “heartland” Trump professes such ties–if it is also contested in the very red states in the map that Trump may be addressing, and seems pretty clear to be lying prominently in his head.

The foundational image of observing the holiday is not only restricted to the interior–and where the pedestal of Columbus in Columbus Circle was recently declared a national monument.

The image of an “attack” on Columbus Day Commemorations has become a bit of red meat for the white electorate, fearful of a changing national map–and the growing cities and schools opting to pass or consider resolutions to question its observance, questioning bearing witness to the seizure of lands and their violent conquest. as cities across thirty-four states observe Indigenous People’s Day, a concept introduced in Berkeley, CA, on the quadricentennary of 1992.

If the commemoration of Columbus Day is described as “under attack figuratively, and increasingly, literally,” in way that reverse the figure of the invasion of the New World and new world peoples, in response to the national project in re-remembering the navigator’s first of four expeditions of enslavement, land seizure, and unleashing smallpox, measles, and influenza to a continent they had not earlier existed, killing up to 95% of indigenous populations in the Americas. If the questioning of Columbus Day is leading to its abolition in many cities–

–the geography of division has never been more pronounced than in Trump’s America, as we almost forget what was being mapped in the discovery of the New World, so fearful are many of recasting the navigator as “a rapacious pillager and a genocidal maniac,” as if this were an attack on rationality, insulting the allegedly pious motivations of conversion that had long enobled Columbus’ oceanic voyages as a mission of vandalization. At the very moment that the legality of Trump’s acts as ahead of state are questioned, insisting on the vision of Columbus as a historical figure who must be removed from ethical examination was classic Trump.

Fot the figure of Columbus as an intermediary of royal authority over a global context was the first image to preface Columbus’ legendary epistolary accounts of the New World. The tension between a throned man in the lower left hand of the frame–the Spanish monarch Ferdinand–and the naked natives in thatched grooves is linked by the intermediaries of the four sailors in one of three caravels at the shore of these islands with palms.  If the woodcut suggests a division between its left and right registers, they overlap in a vision of a domesticated nature, at the base of the woodcut, extending at the foot of the enthroned monarch who dispatched the caravels, and the exoticized nature of the New World, far removed but imagined as if continuous with it, in a pictorial rendition of the continuity of the mapped globe. The most striking apsect of the frontispiece to Columbus’ letters remains the bridging of the ocean by a gesture, a representation of transatlantic communication, as if in the royal gesture could bridge the seas.

3. The discussion by Waldseemüller and Ringman in the first printed maps of the discoveries described the newly discovered region, America, as “an island, inasmuch as it is found to be surrounded on all sides by the seas,” the discovery of America by Columbus was quickly heralded as fulfilling a prophecy of empire, and indeed the mapping of discovery was taken as having evidentiary support in literary predictions of imperial expansion, as a “land beyond the stars, beyond the paths of the years and the sun,” and the concretizing of claims of discovery were figured in artistic terms, before cartographic ones, so difficult was it to assimilate the New World that lay at the imposition of a flag representing the state at such an actually unimaginable considerable spatial remove–as well as the process of naming this new land as an extension of the influence of the Portuguese crown across a previously unmeasurable space.

A cartouche off the coast of this new continent describes how the land appeared suddenly, “at this very spot to the fourteen ships that the King had sent from Portugal to Calicut,” still of “unknown size,” but whose naked inhabitants provide, implicitly, targets of conversion in a spatially separated but not necessarily removed continent, where the tools of mapping offered tools of domination, a counterpart to the routes to the Spice Islands that the Portuguese monarch had already claimed, and the spatially removed networks of trade in pepper that had enriched German merchants, and the preparation of the map has been recently understood as a reflection of the interests that German merchants had in promoting Portuguese trading interests by diminishing Spanish hopes to discover an alternate route to the Spice Islands, rather than a new continent, as much as a disinterested declaration of cartographic abilities: such formulations did not exist, in the sixteenth century, as America was already a focus of political and economic interests in a global web of commerce. But the insularity of this new “America” was well established in literary terms, and derives from De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494), the first collection of Colombian letters, a powerful literary precedent.

Panel of Universalis Cosmographia, Martin Waldseemüller’s multi-sheet wall map/1507

The woodcut map was itself richly literate, and adorned by text. It could be that the map served offered an argument of spatial navigation and nautical travel. But the 1507 map was articulated a notion of sovereign authority , as much as spatial measurability or of nautical measurement. Only by the end of the century would Edward Wright, in a treatise on the errors of sailors, explain the mathematical transformation of global space in the Mercator projection that set longitude and latitude at right angles, and advocating sailors to make their own charts; the image of sailing along curved lines of longitude and latitude–intersecting at right angles on a curved surface–rather explained how a Catholic monarch in Lisbon could send ships across the ocean and transport and impose faith in the New World: Vespucci, whose education and trade Waldseemüller celebrated in his map cartouche, and whose travels on a Portuguese mission go acknowledged in the use of his name for the new continent, but whom Waldseemüller didn’t know, offered tools able to be shared in Europe that moved across networks of learning to translate Colombus’ first descriptions of a “tierra firme, grandissima, de que hasta oy no se a sabido,” into a marvel of terrestrial extent.

Marvels offered a discourse to grasp new worlds, and their possession. When the Genoese sailor Colombo passed the Orinoco, he marveled at the extent of outflow of the “great” river’s waters into the Atlantic ocean, and led him to marvel at discovering an “other world” to the Spanish Catholic monarch who was his patron, announcing fulsomely that the lands that might be possessed by the monarch outside his realms’ sovereign boundaries, marveling that the waters of “tan grande rio” might well have flowed from Paradise–as was confirmed to him by the considerable beauty of trees and animals at its delta; the marvel of the inhabitants of the land led the Venetian ambassador to Spain, Domenico Pisani, to marvel at its beautiful, naked inhabitants in 1501.

Vespucci marveled at the lands from which he had returned in 1502 as “deserving to be called a new world as knowledge of them was unknown to previous generations and about which is entirely new to those who hear about them [novum mundum appellare licet, quando apud maiores nostros nulla de ipsis fuerit habita cognitio et audientibus omnibus sit novissima res],” as a true continent more densely populated than Europe or Africa, he made a proposition of the value to colonize it.

2. The exact but simple instruments Vespucci used offered an ability to contract the considerable the spatial remove of this land, which earlier accounts seem to have left open as a question and a challenge. If the simple perspective bridged an oceanic remove, in the woodcut that prefaced Columbus’ letters, it had also invented the notion of transatlantic sovereignty, across space and sovereign borders, in the very first image that introduced Columbus’ letters from the marvels of the New World and its inhabitants, adopting a new relation to a New World.

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

As the set of letters bridge the New World and the Old, extending across the globe, in what we must take as a first image of globalism, they prepare the notion of the legibility of the map, able to bridge huge global distances, and the virtual continuity it frames between the Atlantic as a navigable space and a unified sovereign domain: the image of sovereignty that the frontispiece seems to celebrate, and declare, present the medium of letters as a basis to bridge space, and to perform a geographic transit across a network of sovereign rule, enacting the very claims of sovereignty that the naming of the islands perpetuates, and that the broad objections to the discourse of discovery, and the “discovery” of the Americas, presents.

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