Columbus History
 

Columbus History

Modern-day United States of America was first found and inhabited by humans around 14,000 BC. The very first ‘Americans’ arrived by foot, crossing into Alaska from north-eastern Siberia via a land bridge that was at the time accessible due to a lower sea level. By 11,000 BC, humans had reached and settled the farthest southern extents of the continental United States, and 1,000 years later inhabited the southernmost point of South America. The land bridge was entirely covered by the sea around 9,000 BC, leaving no physical, and thus no cultural or historical connection between the humans in the Eastern and Western hemispheres. 

 

Some 10,000 years later, an Icelandic merchant explained that his ship was blown off course on its way to Greenland, and that he had sighted land to the west; what would have been modern-day Canada. The Norse explorer who heeded the merchant’s account, Leif Erikson, set out to retrace the route. When he and his crew of 35 did so successfully in c.1000 AD, they became the first documented Europeans to make landfall in continental North America, though there are accounts of several Icelandic merchants having inadvertently landed there by shipwreck not long before Erikson’s expedition. Vikings continued to sail west to this land for at least the next decade, but never created a long term settlement. When Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 for the Spanish crown, he was unaware of the landmass on which the Vikings had already set foot.

ItalianHeritageDay_BeringStraitReliefMap
Modern-day relief map of Siberia & Alaska at the Bering Strait, now covered by water
image: Allan Marini
ItalianHeritageDay_SilkRoadMap.jpg
Map of the Silk Road
by Ravi Punekar & Shiva Ji

A Westward Route

Toscanelli & Columbus

Christopher Columbus (15th-century Genovese: Cristoffa Corombo), born in the Republic of Genoa 420 years before the unification of Italy as a country, was for years eager to find financial support for a voyage to the Indies - as the lands of south and east Asia, including India, were then known to Europe. Trade routes to the Indies were of extreme importance to the Europeans, as the Indies were rich with items highly valued to them, such as silk and spices. 

 

This transcontinental trade can be traced back to 130 BC, when trade routes expanded from the previously limited Persian Royal Road, which spanned from north-eastern Persia (in modern-day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea, via modern-day Turkey. The catalyst for this expansion was the Han [Dynasty] of China’s desire to acquire larger and faster horses from the west, in efforts to equip cavalry to fight off attacks from their nomadic neighbors, the Xiongnu, as well as the Huns. The success in acquiring horses spurred Han Emperor Wu to consider what else might be gained through continuous contact with the west, thus beginning trade along routes that became known in Europe as the Silk Road. When, in 1453 - after centuries of successful trade - the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, the routes of the Silk Road became increasingly dangerous to travel, and in many areas completely closed off by the Ottoman Empire. European and southeast Asian navigators began attempts to find accessible direct sea routes to continue trade, at a time when Columbus was an infant. 

 

The first proposition for a westward route across the "Ocean Sea" (the Atlantic) of the period came in 1470 from Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, an astronomer from Florence. He suggested to King Alfonso V of Portugal that this would be a quicker trade route than the most common one being sought at that time, around the southern tip of Africa. The king rejected this suggestion, but 4 years later Toscanelli’s map with his idea of an Atlantic route was viewed by Columbus.

 

Columbus became enthralled with Toscanelli's idea, and through the 1480s worked on proposals to achieve it. When instead the southeastern route was opened for possible voyages in 1488 after the Portuguese reached the southernmost point of Africa, Toscanelli’s idea and Columbus’ proposals hit a ‘roadblock.’ That was, until Columbus found a party as staunchly in desire as he of the wealth to be gained from a faster route.

 
 

Spanish Funding

Miscalculations & Confidence

King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille had unified their territories through marriage when Ferdinand succeeded his father as King in 1479. Under one crown, they had united vast swaths of the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain, Portugal, small parts of southwestern France, Gibraltar and Andorra). After several time and resource consuming military campaigns throughout remaining parts of the peninsula, namely the Granada War, the crown was ready and raring to set up new trade routes.

 

Columbus had spent the latter part of the 1480s proposing his westward sea route to monarchs and leaders throughout Europe. The Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Spanish crown (initially), King Henry VII of England, King Dom João II of Portugal, and King Charles VIII of France all rejected Columbus on the grounds that his calculations were inaccurate. 

 

A myth, popularized by American short-story writer Washington Irving hundreds of years after Columbus’ lifetime, went that Columbus found it difficult to procure support because his contemporaries believed the earth to be flat, thus he would fall off its edge; it was he who had proved the Earth round. On the contrary, an overwhelming majority of western nobles and scholars had understood the earth to be spherical since the time of Ancient Greece, when Pythagoras introduced the theory (~500 BC), Plato concurred and more widely circulated it (~400 BC), and finally Aristotle presented it on geometric grounds and physical evidence (~350 BC). Columbus was rejected, rather, because of two major geographical miscalculations.

 

Columbus believed the Earth to have a circumference of about 18,000 miles at the equator. Around seventeen hundred years earlier, Erathosthenes of Greece used mathematics and observations in astronomy to determine the Earth’s circumference, with remarkable accuracy, to be 24,663 miles, with a margin of error of -2.4% to +0.8% based on the unit of measure used, stade. We now know the Earth’s real circumference to be 24,901 miles, a far cry from Columbus’ measurement. Erathosthenes’ circumference had been circulated for centuries, with Columbus himself having studied vigorously a work that included it - Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum, an encyclopedic collection of Eurasian knowledge compiled by Enea Silvio Piccolomini of Siena, published in Venice in 1477. Columbus’ copy, which contains the detailed annotations that he made in preparation for his voyages, still exists today in Sevilla, Spain.

 

Additionally, Columbus believed the Eurasia landmass to cover a greater longitudinal span than most scholars of his day, and a far greater range than it spans in actuality. He may have used the 225 degree estimation of Marinus of Tyre, while the 180 degree estimation of Ptolemy was that most widely accepted at the time. This compares to its real span of 130 degrees. 

 

These two miscalculations, with a smaller Earth but larger Eurasian landmass, left Columbus with a belief that the sea in between was markedly smaller than it was understood to be. At that time, no ship in the world could have come close to traversing the actual 10,600 nautical miles from Spain’s Canary Islands to Japan (or Cipangu as it was known in southern Europe), but Columbus believed he could achieve his mistaken 2,400 nautical miles calculation. 

 

After having already once declined Columbus in 1487, the Spanish crown of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I changed course in January of 1492. Fresh from a decade’s long war to conquer Granada - which ended promptly on January 2nd, 1492 - and with a strong desire to prevent the Portuguese from monopolizing trade with the Indies following the success of their southeastern sea route around Africa, the king and queen were keen on taking chances.

 

Despite being firmly advised that Columbus’ plan was unfeasible, they were willing to take the risk. At worst, they would stand to lose 2 ships (the 3rd being chartered by Columbus) and a finite amount of money, along with a crew that they would not be entirely concerned about replacing. At best, they could begin trading again with the Indies, now along their own faster route, gaining undefinable amounts of wealth. 

 

Had Columbus’ proposition gone the way he had intended it - had he not happened upon land in between that he was unaware of - the Spanish crown’s bet and his plan would have seen his Spanish captains, the mostly Spanish crew of 87 men, and himself perish at sea.

note: continuing sections soon to be added
ItalianHeritageDay_ToscanelliColumbusMap
The map Columbus followed,
with Japan as close as Mexico.
Actual Americas shown in light blue
map: John Bartholomew & Co.
ItalianHeritageDay_WaterVendor_edited.jp

Origins of Mass Emigration

Life in Italy  |  Hope in Ameica

1876-1885: 84,000 Italians immigrate to the United States

 

Despite some of the early achievements of Italians in the U.S., and despite their slow, almost inconsequential trickle in before the 1880s, resentment still awaited most arrivals. Every disembarkation of a new ship from Italy was regarded as a problem by Americans. They viewed it as an invasion; an ever-growing population of a people neither Anglo-Saxon nor Protestant, who would be a threat to their social and economic welfare. This idea was mainly propagated by the earlier immigrant groups from Germany and Ireland. These feelings would foreshadow what was to later come when the number of Italian immigrants rapidly increased.

 
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Mineral water seller in Napoli, 1900
photo: Fratelli Alinari, from Alinari Archives
North & Central
South & Islands
Italy: social development indicators, including life expectancy & HDI (quality of life & access to education), from 1860-2000 data: E. Felice / by Midlander

If efforts for unification were successful, completed in 1870 with the annexation of the Papal States in central Italy, why did a mass exodus to the United States commence in the 1880s? Fundamentally, it must be understood that around 85% of Italian arrivals in the United States were from southern Italy. What, then, caused thousands of southern Italians to leave their ancestral homelands?

Booker T. Washington, a man born into slavery in 1856, who later became one of the most influential black leaders of his time and an advocate for disenfranchised former slaves in the American south, wrote of his time in southern Italy, “I have described at some length the condition of the farm labourers in Italy because it seems to me that it is important that those who are inclined to be discouraged about the Negro in the South should know that his case is by no means as hopeless as that of some others. The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States of America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.”

FamilyInSicily_GiorgioSommer_AlinariArch

Following the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the already substantial gap between the living conditions of the common people in the north and those of the common people in the south was exacerbated; a gap that, in modern terms, many in the southern regions still feel today. Before unification, of the 8 separate states in Italy, just one, the Kingdom of Sardinia, was not under the rule of foreign governments or papal control. Thus, the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was made up of Piemonte (at the far north of the peninsula), parts of modern-day France, and the island of Sardegna, was to take control of the newly unified Kingdom. The first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, was from Piemonte, along with a parliament made up almost entirely of Piemontesi and northerners.

 

This new government began implementing laws that, in practice, and often in intention, left the southern regions behind. The decade’s old constitution of the Kingdom of Sardinia was hastily forced upon all regions of the new Kingdom of Italy, with no regard for the different institutions, needs, and wishes of the now unified people. In addition, the south now paid more in taxes to the Kingdom’s institutions in the north, as a percentage of its economy, than did the north itself. In return, the south was not rewarded with a greater share of investment in economic and infrastructural development from the government, but instead with hostile militaristic control. Small-scale revolts ensued, which were met with force no less antagonistic than was seen during Bourbon rule.

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A family in Sicilia, 1895
photo: Giorgio Sommer, from Alinari Archives
North
Central
South
Italy: GDP per capita
data: Istat / by G273Y

Life in southern Italy devolved into a situation worse for the population than before unification, while the immediate beneficiaries were those in the north. By 1880, a decade after full unification, the peasantry of southern Italy was struggling to survive. So widespread and drastic was the poverty that a common practice became that of scraping plaster off of walls and adding it to dough, in order to prolong bread supplies. Local brigand groups formed and began sacking farms and villages. Furthering the turmoil, the Kingdom’s response was the arbitrary arrest and execution of citizens. An aged, downhearted Garibaldi, already dismissed from any governmental position years earlier, stated that, “the outrages suffered by the people of Southern Italy cannot be quantified” and that “it is a different Italy than I had dreamed of all my life, not this miserable, poverty-stricken, humiliated Italy we see now, governed by the dregs of the nation.”

 

The development of, and quality of life in southern Italy was stunted such that it remained this way well into the 20th-century. In 1935, famed writer Carlo Levi, from Torino, was banished to the southern region of Lucania [Basilicata] for his outspoken opposition to the fascist government. Internal exile to the south was now seen as punishment, and a substitute for the foregin exiling that had been previously used. As Maria Laurino put it in her book, The Italian-Americans, “The government’s decision to exile its opponents to the south is a stark reminder for Italian Americans that the bleak, impoverished life of their ancestors was barely a step above imprisonment in the minds of northern Italians.” 

ItalianHeritageDay_ChildrenOnStreets-Mor
Children playing Morra on the streets of Napoli, 1897
           photo: Fratelli Alinari, from Alinari Archives

Levi wrote a memoir of his time in the south as an exiled enemy of the state. In it, Levi details the decrepit conditions suffered by the people of Basilicata. The title of the book, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), derived from the belief of the peasants that Christ himself could not have made his way any farther south than the town of Eboli, south of Naples, and that humanity itself had abandoned them.

 

“I saw ... children with the wizened faces of old men, their bodies reduced by starvation almost to skeletons, their heads crawling with lice and covered with scabs. Most of them had enormous, dilated stomachs and faces yellow and worn with malaria.” - Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli

 

The unification of the Kingdom of Italy coincided with another nation-changing event elsewhere, across the Atlantic. The end of the American Civil War in 1865 began a period of reconstruction in the American south. With millions of formerly enslaved people now free, laborers were needed in southern states, while in the American north, rapidly increasing industrialization also brought with it a growing need for workers. America’s plantation and factory owners were in search of the cheapest labor the world had to offer, and they set their sights on southern Italy.

ItalianHeritageDay_Randazzo_edited.jpg
In the countryside of Randazzo, 1900
from Alinari Archives

The two primary ports for European immigrants at the time were that of New York City and that of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Louisiana state government ardently worked to convince southern Italians to immigrate to the United States. They formed a Bureau of Immigration, which in 1866 began sending and distributing pamphlets of propaganda throughout southern Italy (even to small mountaintop towns), especially in Sicily, to paint a picture of prosperity and opportunity at Louisiana plantations. Taking advantage of the basic desires of southern Italian peasants for survival, food and money, the selling of a dreamlike world gained hold in the imagination of the public. This means of propaganda spread until it was eventually pushed by factory owners, landowners, construction contractors and managers of railroads and mines. It extended even to agents of the shipping companies that pocketed overpriced ticket sales for the transatlantic journey to America, often costing the southern Italian all the money they had, or taking loaned tickets with 100% interest. In reality, the dream being sold was that of a situation so anguished that the first attempts of plantation owners to attract the white American population went fruitless, as they would under no circumstances submit to the work demanded for the money on offer.

 

1895 public advertisement of daily wages in New York, for work on the Croton Reservoir:

Common laborer, white:     $1.30-1.50

Common laborer, colored: $1.25-1.40

Common laborer, Italian:   $1.15-1.25

 

Emigration from Italy began increasing, and as it did, southern Italy began to lose a large portion of its able-bodied workers to foreign countries. With homes and farms abandoned, and shrinking youth populations in villages throughout the south, the economy further crumbled, leading to an ever-accelerating cycle of departures. By the 1880s, mass emigration from Italy was underway, with the United States among the most common destinations.

History 3

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History 2

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Sources

Columbus, Christopher. The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492–1493. Edited by Bartolomé de las Casas,

Translated by Oliver Dunn and Kelley James Jr., University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Columbus, Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus. Translated by Robert H. Fuson, Ashford, 1987.

Gandhi, Lakshmi. “How Columbus Sailed Into U.S. History.” NPR, 14 Oct. 2013,

https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/10/14/232120128/how-columbus-sailed-into-u-s-history-thanks-to-italians

Gould, Alice Bache, and Real Academia de la Historia. Nueva Lista Documentada de Los Tripulantes de Colón En 1492.

Spain, Real Academia de la Historia, 1984.

Gow, Mary. Measuring the Earth: Eratosthenes and His Celestial Geometry. Enslow Publishing, 2009.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper Perennial, 2015.

 

Klein, Christopher. “The Viking Explorer Who Beat Columbus to America.” History Channel, 4 Sept. 2018,

www.history.com/news/the-viking-explorer-who-beat-columbus-to-america

Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. HarperCollins, 1993.

Mark, Joshua. “Silk Road.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 1 June 2018, www.ancient.eu/Silk_Road

Morgan, Edmund. “Columbus’ Confusion About the New World.” Smithsonian Magazine, 30 Sept. 2009,

www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/columbus-confusion-about-the-new-world-140132422

Thompson, Todd A. “Astronomy 161: Lecture 4: Measuring the Earth.” Ohio State University, 25 Sept. 2011,

www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/%7Ethompson/161/measearth.html

Wadsworth, James. Columbus and His First Voyage: A History in Documents. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.