Discovery of the New World

















Attributed to Celestino Degoix, [Monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus. The navigator is portrayed in 15th century clothes with the left arm leaning on an anchor. At the foot of the statue stands an allegoric female figure, Genoa, Italy], 1862-ca. 1875 (640.1983.qq)


William H. Martin, The Four Great Chief’s Now Living, 1909 (2006.20.383)


Morris Gordon, [Italian-American mothers carry flags to honor their sons who have served, Columbus Day ceremony, New York], 1942 (2013.112.138)

The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus first set foot in the “New World” when he discovered the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. An event that is celebrated in New York each year during Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. The Italian explorer never traveled that far North to reach North America, nevertheless was being commemorated in the United States since the 1700s, after the country gained independence from Great Britain.

The Italian-American community has been celebrating Columbus Day in honor of their heritage, roughly since the late nineteenth century. The first wave of Italian immigrants settled into the major cities during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, during which they experienced severe and violent racism and discrimination. When in 1892 President Benjamin Harrison first called on the national commemoration of Columbus Day –in celebration of Columbus’ 400-year anniversary to discover the New World- the Italian-American community saw this celebration of the achievements of their Italian countryman as a way to be accepted by their fellow American citizens.

Over the years criticism about celebrating Columbus Day, and specifically Christopher Columbus for his accomplishments, has become increasingly loud. The celebratory biographies from the nineteenth century heralded Columbus as a generous and adventurous individual, who treated the native community with pride and respect. Today it is known among both academics and the public that the explorer was a greedy and racist man who tortured the indigenous population and sold them into slavery. Over the past decades more and more states have chosen to rename Columbus Day and refer to the holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day (Berkley, California), Native Americans Day (South Dakota) and Discovery Day (Hawaii).



About claartjevandijk

Assistant Curator, Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York
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2 Responses to Discovery of the New World

  1. Bill Becker says:

    “The Four Great Chief’s (sic) Now Living” is not by an unidentified photographer — there’s a signature right in the image: William H. “Dad” Martin of Ottawa, Kansas (1865 -1940). The “101” next to his name indicates this photograph is from Martin’s extensive series of the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch, a real ranch that produced a touring Wild West Show.

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