Flying from Rome to Boston on Alitalia on Columbus Day, I fell asleep and dreamed that Christopher Columbus was seated beside me. He had the window seat.
“What did I do wrong?” he asked in my dream. “Why do people hate me?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“How did I go from a hero to a bum?”
“Well,” I said, “people look at things differently these days.”
“Could it be because of that awful portrait Sebastiano de Piombo painted of me? He made me look like a thug or a Mafia don. I may not have been the best-looking guy around, but I wasn’t that bad. Sebastiano didn’t have the cojones to paint it while I was alive. He waited until I was dead.”
“No, I don’t think it was that,” I said, “not entirely, anyway.”
“Then what?” He looked out the window at the shining sea below. “You know,” he said, “it took me 42 had days in a rat-infested boat with a mutinous crew to sail from Spain to the New World. Now Italia does it in nine hours.”
“Eight, actually,” I said, “if the conditions are right.”
“I know how to navigate,” Columbus said, a bit miffed. “I made four voyages across the sea, from the Old World to the New. I was a hero, the man who discovered America. I did amazing things. I was Admiral of the Ocean. They named things after me, built statues in my honor and made Columbus Day a holiday.”
He was quite for a while. He was on his third glass of wine, sipping it slowly.
“How do you like the merlot? I asked.
“It is weak, not like the Spanish grappa we had aboard the Santa Maria. That grappa was so strong it killed the worms swimming in it. Good protein, worms. We would have made the crossing in half the time if the crew wasn’t drunk half the time. I miss those days. Alitalia should serve grappa.”
“Well, the reason people turned against you is because you killed and enslaved the indigenous people you met in the Caribbean and elsewhere,” I said. “They were a pristine people who had their own culture and civilization. You wrecked it. That’s your problem.”
“That’s fake news,” Columbus said. “I was a man of my times. I did what everybody did. That’s the way life was back then. Besides these indigenous people were killing and enslaving each other long before I came along.”
He pulled a dog-eared copy of the log from his first voyage.
He opened to an entry dated Oct. 12, 1492 when he encountered friendly indigenous natives on San Salvador. He said, “It goes like this: ‘Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them…I believe the people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases Our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highness [Isabella] when I depart in order that they might learn our language’.”
“See, I wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
“We all did it. Why am I singled out as the bad guy? Didn’t you guys come to America, kill the Indians and steal their land? I’m told now that the few Indians left are imprisoned in casinos. Is that true?”
“Well, something like that,” I allowed. “But how are you being punished today?”
“You call this place America,” Columbus said. “It was given that name by a dimwit German scholar in a pamphlet after I was dead. He claimed that Amerigo
Vespucci discovered this place, not me. That snowflake called it America. You’re lucky he didn’t call it Vespucci. Otherwise you’d be living in the United States of Vespucci.
“ Amerigo Vespucci was my student. He lived in my house. I trained him. He sailed after me, in my wake. And he took slaves, just like me. So, he gets a country named after him and I get the shaft. It’s that idiot German and the lousy portrait that did it. If it wasn’t for that this place would be called the United States of Columbus. Take a knee on that injustice,” Columbus said. “And get me some grappa.”
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