Bust of Christoforo Columbo

In the median of Oakman Boulevard near the intersection with Michigan Avenue, Dearborn

You might ask about the correct spelling of the name of the man who is credited with being the first European to sail to America.  There is no easy answer.  It depends upon the language you select.   Italian was just emerging at the time of his birth in Genoa in 1451. His family probably spoke a Genoese dialect.  In that language, his name was written as Christoffa Corombo.  Those who spoke and wrote Italian in Genoa would have written his name as Cristoforo Columbo.  Latin was still used in documents so his name may have been written as Christophorus Columbus.  He sailed for the Spanish crown and they used a Spanish version of his name: Cristôbal Colón.  He spent time in Portugal and two of his brothers worked in Lisbon so there is likely a Portuguese version of his name.  The standard Anglicanization of his name is Christopher Columbus.

Many immigrants coming to the United States are, shortly after arrival, uncertain of their status and may often be stereotyped as un-American or unassimilatable.  With some frequency, leaders of those immigrant groups erected statues or monuments to illustrate that the group made important contributions to this melting pot nation or to show that the ethnic group’s history shares many elements of the history of the United States.  There is the impressive statue of General Thaddeus Kosciuszko at Michigan Avenue and Third Street and another one of Casimir Pulaski at Michigan Avenue and Washington Boulevard.  The statue of Johann Friedrich von Schiller reminds us of the German contribution to the literary heritage this nation shares with Europe.  The impressive bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in the small park at West Grand Boulevard and Rosa Parks and the statue of Joe Louis in the lobby of Cobo Hall remind us of the contributions of African Americans. 

Christopher Columbus apparently completed little formal schooling even though his father was a skilled wool weaver.  As a teenager, Columbus went to sea and spent most of the rest of his life sailing except for the final two years when he lived in Spain.

Columbus was fascinated by stories of Marco Polo’s remarkable overland voyage from Italy to the Orient and return in 1271.  Indeed, substantial trade developed on that route until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks.  Westerners were no longer able to maintain a trade route across the Islamic area, leading to great interest in a water route to Asia.  The Turkish conquest of Constantinople propelled western European sailors to seek a water route to China.

There was considerable knowledge of geography and the spherical shape of the earth at this time, but no one was aware of the diameter of this globe. Actually, the Greek astronomer, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, determined the circumference and diameter of the earth in about 190 BC.  For him, it was as easy as pi, but his finding were not known by Columbus and other Fifteenth-Century mariners.  They erroneously thought that earth was very much smaller than it actually is.

Columbus traveled throughout the Mediterranean and the western coast of Europe and the Atlantic coast of Africa.  He may have sailed as far north and west as Iceland in 1477.  As early as 1484, Columbus tried to convince the Portuguese king, John, to finance an expedition that would sail to Asia by going west from Europe. Columbus had two brothers who were employed as cartographers in Lisbon, suggesting his family had a long interest in travel and maps.  He had no luck convincing the Portuguese government to make that investment.

In 1491, Columbus successfully obtained support from Ferdinand II and Isabella I in Spain for an exploration to sail west to reach Asia and its gold.  On August 3, 1492, Columbus and his three ships departed from Spain, the Niña captained by Vincente Yañel Pinzon; the Pinta captained by Martin Alanzo Pinzon and the Santa Maria captained by Columbus.  The crew totaled about 90 sailors.  Columbus—still misunderstanding the circumference of our globe—was surprised by the length of his journey.  Finally, on October 12, 1492, Columbus and his compatriots sighted land.  He expected large cities and much gold.  He found small islands and a few Indians.  He put off 39 of his crew on present-day Haiti to found a Spanish colony and departed from the New World on December 25, 1492 with about 25 Indians.  He returned to Spain on March 15, 1493 believing that he had reached islands near Japan, but had no gold to deliver to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Columbus led three more trips to the Caribbean and Central America believing that each one would be the successful one that would take him to the fabulous destinations Marco Polo had reached two centuries earlier.  By the time of his second voyage, other Spanish mariners were taking up the search for gold and Asia and the Spanish government began sending officials to administer the developing colonies.  Remarkably quickly, the Spanish were populating the Caribbean isles.  On his third voyage, Columbus sailed to Panama and learned of the Pacific Ocean to the West, but I do not know if he realized that it was necessary to cross that huge body of water to get to Asia.

His third voyage ended poorly since he believed numerous crew members were insubordinate and had some of them hanged.  Local Spanish authorities in the New World complained of his cruel behavior, arrested him and sent him back to Spain in chains.  I believe that Columbus also thought that he should be or would be appointed governor of the colonies, but other administrators disputed him.  Political intrigue bedeviled Columbus shortly after his discovery of America.  Columbus exonerated himself at his trial that followed his third trip to the New World.  His last voyage was from 1502 to 1504.  By this time, the Spanish had successfully colonized several Caribbean islands and gold was being taken from the New World to Spain, but in much smaller quantities than expected.  Colonial authorities apparently disliked Columbus very much, and after returning from his fourth voyage, they had him arrested and he was held in jail for six months.  He lived out his days as a fairly rich man because of the gold he had acquired.  After his death, his heirs conducted prolonged litigation to obtain a share of what they believe was rightfully his.

The sculptor, Edward Chesney, was born in Detroit in 1922.  Always interested in the arts, he began his career—after service in World War II—with voice lessons, but a few years later, studied painting.  He did not find that rewarding so he moved on to become a wood craftsperson who designed large wood carvings.  In the 1960s, he moved to Carrara, Italy to study how to carve marble.  He returned to the Detroit area and enjoyed a highly productive and successful career as a sculptor. Chesney also studied with Detroit area sculptor, Fernec Varga.  Two of his works are shown on this website, his statue of General Casimir Pulaski and his bust of the astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik that is on the campus of the Detroit Public Library.   Chesney died in 2008.  One other of his large publicly displayed works is portrayed on this website—the statue of Father Clement Kern that is located in a small park along Trumbull in Corktown.  This is another bust of Christopher Columbus on this website, the one at East Jefferson and Randolph sculpted by Augusto Rivalta.  The Italian group that sponsored that one used the name Christopher Columbus.

Sponsoring organization: Dearborn Italian American Club
Sculptor:  Edward Chesney
Cast in bronze by: Fred Petrucci
Date of original installation: October 11, 1975
Date of reinstallation: 1992 commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America
Website describing works of the sculptor: http://www.venturesmith.com/chesney/chesney.htm
Use in 2010:  Public sculpture
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not Listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; July 22, 2010
Description prepared: November 2011

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