Columbus’ Seemingly Impossible Mission — All In A Foreign Language

Italy - Circa 1991: Stamp Printed In Italy Show Of The DiscoveryAll across the nation, Americans observed Columbus Day – some with a patriotic commemoration of the audacious roots of our nation, others with biting criticism of the damage wrought in the new world by the advent of European colonialism, and some others without much thought at all of the historical implications of a day off of work or school. And, of course, a sizeable part of the nation is taking the chance to party. Columbus Day parades in places such as New York and San Francisco hearken back to the 1860’s, when the holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October was first appropriated by the nation’s numerous Italian-American community as a day to celebrate their heritage.

The reason is quite simple – despite having sailed the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María under the Spanish flag, Christopher Columbus was born and raised in the Republic of Genoa, reminding us that although the various Italian republics, duchies and kingdoms of the time had no official part in European exploration and colonization of the New World, they left their mark on a very personal level. Together with fellow explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazzano, Columbus is part of an important group of Italians who rendered their services to European powers other than those they were born to and are now an integral part of American history and toponymy. Just think of Columbus, Ohio and the homonymous capital of South Carolina, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn along with its less famous cousins in Rhode Island (the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge) and Maryland (the Verrazzano Bridge), and the very name of our continent.

And yet the simple fact that not one of these explorers sailed under an Italian flag indicates that in order to successfully carry out their mission they surely had to learn to communicate with their crew in a foreign language and, perhaps more importantly, with their royal sponsors.

The mulitilingualism of Columbus in particular is very neatly evidenced by the number of names he used. Probably known at birth by the Ligurian name Christoffa Corombo, he would have been Cristoforo Colombo in the rest of Italy and, although he often used the Latinized Christophorus Columbus abroad, he also went by Cristóvão Colombo and ultimatetely Cristóbal Colón. After much travelling around the well-beaten routes of his native Mediterranean and some trips to the British Isles and perhaps as far away as Iceland, the explorer settled in one of the nations most interested in pushing the boundaries of the known world. It was here in Portugal that he met his wife, had a son, and matured his desire to discover what lay beyond the mighty ocean pounding the tiny nation’s coast. During his time in Lisbon, he tried to convince King John II to fund a westward voyage. Met with no success, he pled his case back in Genova and in the rival maritime republic of Venice and even dispatched his brother to King Henry VII of England to seek support. Finally, he realized that the Catholic Monarchs of Spain were his best shot.

The success of Columbus’ engagement with the monarchs – and in particular with Queen Isabella – is historic, but the correspondence from this era gives us ample evidence that he had the typical difficulties of a foreigner in writing the Castilian language. We know that his spoken Spanish wasn’t perfect either. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who most famously authored A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicled some aspects of Columbus’ journeys based on testimony of his father Pedro, who had accompanied him on his second trip in 1493. Las Casas wrote that Columbus was quite obviously “son of another language, as he knows perfectly neither the meaning of words of the Castilian language nor the way to speak it.” However, while Columbus may not have spoken perfect Spanish, he was clearly an effective enough communicator to convince the Spanish monarchs of the validity of his cause – certainly no small feat.

Columbus Day is a holiday that stimulates various reactions. It can be seen as a celebration of the “discovery” of the New World or as an occasion to reflect on the injustices that made up a large part of the colonial practices resulting from the discovery. It can also be seen as a time to remember the contribution of the Italian-American community to the nation’s growth. Perhaps we can remember the tenacity of the Genoese sailor who managed to win support for and carry out a seemingly impossible mission – all in a foreign language.

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