LAWRENCE – As annual commemorations of Columbus Day (Oct. 10) are once again met with protest and demands to remake them as Indigenous Peoples Day, a University of Kansas literary scholar can comment on the history of explorer Christopher Columbus' popular reputation, noting that it began to suffer well before the Civil War.
In the latest volume of the journal Scholarly Editing, Laura Mielke, University of Kansas Dean’s Professor of English, has co-written a critical “microedition” of John Brougham’s 1857-1876 “Columbus Burlesque.” The first version of the comic play was titled “Columbus, El Filibustero!” That was a term applied to soldiers of fortune – more like privateers than mercenaries, though – in Brougham’s day.
Brougham was a popular Irish-born actor and playwright who traveled across 19th-century America, staging a series of historical burlesques that he wrote and directed and in which he starred. In the new microedition, Mielke compares different versions of the play with each other and shows how the text changed over time.
The play’s popularity was an early indication, Mielke said, that even while the nation was still in Westward Expansion mode, there was a growing recognition of the cost to Native Americans.
“For Brougham to call Columbus a filibustero is to indicate that the discoverer of the 'New World' — in air quotes — was no different from these men who were going off in the interest of personal gain and U.S. politics and trying to take control of other people's countries,” Mielke said.
Yet despite satirizing Columbus, Mielke said, it’s frustrating that Brougham only went so far, “end(ing) with a patriotic song … and a star-spangled banner scene.”
That, too, has lessons for today, Mielke said.
“We see his awareness, even then, of the problematic nature of the legacy of Columbus and the American use of Columbus as a national figure. He saw it, and he centered a play on it. And then he walked back from that in order to keep them laughing and paying for tickets.”