Goodbye Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt and Princess of Braganza

Goodbye Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt and Princess of Braganza

As last week was Columbus Day weekend, it’s probably as a good time as any to talk about Christopher Columbus and his troubles after accidentally “discovering” America while trying to find India. All around the country, people are taking down statues of Columbus. They note that there were already people here when he got here. There’s no statue honoring Columbus anywhere in the Hamptons, but in Huntington there is a statue of him, and periodically there are demands that the statue be taken down.

There’s also a movement nationally to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. It’s already come about in many cities and states around the country. Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles have already abandoned Columbus Day.

And in New York City last Monday, on the holiday itself, activists demanded that Mayor DeBlasio change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

So here in the Hamptons there may come a day when you rent a place from July 4 to Indigenous People’s Day.

Honestly, there is nothing wrong with Columbus himself. The thing wrong is the word “discovered.” Had he and the queen who sent him here acknowledged that people were already here, and said that he “opened” this new continent to the west, there’d have been no problem. Nobody is after Commodore Perry for “opening” Japan to the West, after all.

At some public schools in California, old man Christopher was even put on trial last week. On trial was not only Columbus, but also Queen Isabella, who financed the trip. “Queen Isabella had slaves,” a teacher at a school there told me. As I recall, she had no slaves, but her family did. And upon her death, she freed them, apparently keeping in mind what might happen sometime in the future because of her association with Columbus.

I apologize if I seem sort of snide about all of this. But I sometimes think people can go way overboard in the changes they want to make.

In New York City, activists demanding Indigenous People’s Day also demanded a statue of Teddy Roosevelt be removed from the front steps of the New York Museum of Natural History. It shows Roosevelt on a horse while Indian and African stereotypes walk on foot alongside him. One might think that put the indigenous people in subservience to Roosevelt. Those objecting to this statue declare it “the most hated statue in New York City.” Well, maybe by some people. Personally, I’ve always liked it.

Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History

Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History, Photo: Alexey Kokoulin/123RF

There are also issues with the museum itself. Inside, there are displays of dinosaurs and wooly mammoths, but there are also displays of indigenous people from early human cultures in Asia, Latin American and Africa, who subsequently got colonized by Greek, Roman and other white people who brought them Western Civilization. The protesters want these displays of the colonized moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Greeks and Romans and other colonizers are showcased for their culture and science.

I agree with the protesters about this. But not with the rest. Didn’t our presidents do good? Off with them. Take Teddy Roosevelt off Mount Rushmore. And take those slaveholders Jefferson and Washington off, too. As for Lincoln, well, he had to have had something wrong.

Return Mt. Rushmore to being just a mountain. It’s time to honor the mountain-ness of Mt. Rushmore. Save the environment.

Then there is the matter of the Village of Whitesboro, New York. Two weeks ago they changed their town seal. The old seal, used for more than 200 years, shows the founder of that village, Hugh White, having a wrestling match with the chief of the Oneida Indians, who he had found there. The two are shown side-by-side, facing each other.

The Oneidas today do not object to this wrestling match. It indeed took place, it was friendly enough, and they are happy with it. But in the original seal, Mr. White has his hands up around the Oneida chief’s throat and the chief is stumbling backwards. Because that looked like murder, residents in 1927 modified that seal. Mr. White was redone still pushing the chief backwards, but now was doing so by pushing on the Chief’s shoulders. But this year, it needed further modification. The new town seal shows each of the men with their arms pushing each others’ shoulders. The two are evenly matched. No one is “winning” at this point.

Southampton Village changed its seal at one point. The early version—which I personally saw on the sides of police cars years ago—showed a pilgrim and a Shinnecock signing a piece of paper together, apparently confirming the “sale” of the town to the settlers. Well, the Shinnecock Indians objected. There was no sale, they say. Get it off that police car. Various attempts were made to get the pilgrim and the chief together in some other context, but nobody was happy. The new seal doesn’t show the Shinnecocks at all. The pilgrim faces the viewer, carrying a document. Behind him, the sun shines.

Twenty years ago, East Hampton sculptor and painter Audrey Flack won a competition to design an enormous statue of Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess after whom the borough of Queens was named. It would be 35 feet tall and, atop its pedestal, 50 feet tall, and stand at Hunter’s Point in Queens facing out to the Statue of Liberty. It would be the tallest sculpture in New York City other than the Statue of Liberty. Ships would be welcomed to the new world between them.

Everyone was in favor of this at first. And Audrey started small, building her first model here in East Hampton, 18 inches high, then another model 6 feet high and another 20 feet high. But as she began the full 35-foot-high sculpture, objectors came out of the woodwork. The princess would have her BACK to Queens. The princess was an envoy to Spain at a time when Spain burned 50 people at the stake because they were Jewish. The princess became part of a deal in which Portugal and England became allies against France and Spain. The princess moved to England for a while. And all during this time, the American colonies were under the British thumb. No statue, please.

Audrey Flack’s statue was never erected in Queens. Instead, the 20-foot version was completed and today stands on the shore of Portugal near Lisbon, facing in the direction of Queens. Portugal is not so picky about whom their statues depict.

People lead their lives and some of them try to do good. When they do, people take note. Even if other things they do are bad, or they live in times that were bad. Truth is, no matter how many statues are taken down, nothing is going to change history. But, frankly, if we decide to discontinue the celebration of good things done by people in a particular time and place and setting, well, that’s terrible. I bet even Mother Theresa did some things wrong.

By the way, a statue of a soldier on Martha’s Vineyard was put up after the Civil War to honor soldiers who fought in that war. Those honors are for the Union soldiers on three sides of the square pedestal upon which it stands. The fourth side honors the Confederate soldiers who died.

On the Fourth of July, Martha Vineyard’s residents sing patriotic songs and otherwise celebrate around the statue. One of the songs they sing is “Dixie.”

“Americans on both sides have to be honored,” one official commented, apparently not noticing one side wanted not to be part of America.

Guaranteed there is soon going to be hell to pay about this statue.

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