Note: the article below is satirical
Stained glass windows honouring the two most famous generals of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, are being removed from the Episcopalian Church’s National Cathedral in Washington.
This follows hectic activity to remove memorials of a rebellion by slave states to maintain the abhorrent institution of slavery. Much work remains to be done. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks American hate groups, there are more than 1500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces, ranging from names of highways and schools to public holidays to monuments and statues, scattered across the United States.
A number have already been removed – notably the statute of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, which sparked parades by the Alt-Right and white supremacists and ended with the death of an innocent young woman.
But should the battle to expunge the dark side of American history end when the last Confederate statute is toppled and the last school renamed?
Absolutely not. The Confederates were not the only slavers in US history. Not by a long shot.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a New York City politician, recently proposed that a statue of Christopher Columbus be removed from Central Park. Columbus, despite his reputation as a mariner and the discoverer of a New World. He enslaved the Arawaks of Hispaniola (the island which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and as governor he was so brutal that he was jailed by the Spanish Crown.
“We have to look at history,” said Ms Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico. “We have to look at it thoroughly. He is a controversial figure and I know that some may take offense to that but for many of us that come from the Caribbean islands, we see him as a controversial figure.”
Ms Mark-Viverito’s bold proposal should be followed up by expunging the name of Columbus throughout the United States. He may be a key figure in world history, but that simply masks his participation in enslavement and genocide. We look forward to the day when Columbia University is renamed Upper Manhattan University, the District of Columbia is renamed the District of Piscataway, Columbus, Ohio renamed Shawnee, and so on.
Like the removal of monuments to the Confederacy slave state, expunging the memory of an explorer who enslaved and slaughtered will be a lengthy and painful but necessary process.
However, we must be bolder still. What about “America” itself?
The Florentine explorer, financier, and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci was a self-confessed slaver. He left Spain in May 1497 and returned in October 1498 with a cargo of indigenous slaves. Here is an account from his famous first letter, published in 1504:
it was resolved that since this people desired hostility with us, we should proceed to encounter them and try by every means to make them friends: in case they would not have our friendship, that we should treat them as foes, and so many of them as we might be able to capture should all be our slaves …
after a long battle (in which) many of them (were) slain, we put them to flight, and pursued them to a village, having made about 250 of them captives, and we burnt the village, and returned to our ships with victory and 250 prisoners, leaving many of them dead and wounded …
we thereon made sail for Spain with 222 captive slaves: and reached the port of Calis (Cadiz) on the 15th day of October, 1498, where we were well received and sold our slaves.
And it was after the author of these atrocities that both of the continents of the “New World” were named.
“America” effectively gives a shameful stamp of approval to slavery – an institution which grew to be one of history’s most heinous violations of human rights.
Again, dememorialising will not be easy and will meet resistance. But this must be crushed. Eulogising the achievements of a genocidal slaver is completely unacceptable.
Thankfully, there are so few monuments to Vespucci that removing them will be relatively quick.
The real challenge is a new nomenclature which breaks with the tainted past and points to a bright future. North “America” can be renamed Continent 1 and South “America” Continent 2. “Asia”, “Europe”, “Australia” and “Africa” are toponyms derived from the Greeks and the Romans, other cultures built on slavery. We should seize the opportunity to break with a Eurocentric, slave-friendly past and embrace a future built on the Enlightenment, as indicated by the use of numerals. Eventually the other continents can follow suit.
Renaming the United States of “America” will not be easy. The United States of Washington, for instance, simply swaps one slaver for another. The United States of Continent 1 is more expressive and accurate and can easily be abbreviated as USCONE. True, this solution is a concession to hemispheric hegemony, as the “north” is privileged over the “south” even though “up” and “down” are completely arbitrary. But it is hard to imagine that voters in the United States would accept the unpronounceable acronym USCTWO.
The task of purging history of its darkest pages is never-ending.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.