Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery.” We must ritually contest that link as long as the observance of Columbus Day continues, to debate the value of commemorating the Genoese navigator. Columbus has become a lens to refract as much as come to terms with contentious legacies of colonialism and colonization, rooted in deep problems of the recognition of the other–and the inhabitants of other lands and the longstanding glorification–if not sanitization–of European arrival in the Americas, and to claim that place on the famous Waldseemüller map–as questions of the migration of royal authority across the oceans created an enduring concern, planting the flag of authority overseas was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority reflected recent discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama. The Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels and perched atop sea monsters as much as fish, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition that not initiated by Martin Waldseemüller,–
–but in its origins deeply literary and even scriptural.
It was inherited, after all, from the refiguration of the new world Genoese sailor Christoforo Colombo–latinized as befits a discourse of discovery as Columbus–and celebration of his transatlantic journey on three caravels. And in New York City’s Columbus Circle, constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery was erected; 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 for the quadricentennial of 1892.
The Colombian 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 is 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).
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 the increasingly commercially congested area of Columbus Circle in ways that once may have been majestic, but is now almost overwhelmed by surrounding steel and glass monumentalism, from Trump International to the Time Warner Center, modern monuments beside with the statue seems quaint, and a relic removed in time.
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.
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.
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 Waldseemuller 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.
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.
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.