Columbia, the gem of the ocean

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

Columbia calls
Columbia calls
Another anniversary of “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two.” Two facts that are no longer in dispute are these.

The Italian explorer stumbled upon the Americas. His “journeys marked the beginning of centuries of transatlantic colonization.” And he never actually reached what we know as the United States.

Yet, long before the Statue of Liberty, Columbia was the name given to the female personification of the ‘American spirit.’ “It was one of the earliest symbols that the colonies used to distinguish their collective identity from the Old World. [That meant] Britain in particular – and then rally behind in the Revolution. It became a popular, poetic reference to America as a whole.

“The name Columbia for America first appeared in print in 1738, thought to have been coined by Samuel Johnson. This was done so regularly in a weekly magazine that included debates of the British Parliament, which was illegal to do at the time. By the… 1760s, Columbia had become an alternative or poetic name for America. It also was consistently used for items reflecting American identity, such as ship names.

“Columbia’s look never became standardized in the way we view Uncle Sam. Usually, she was seen as a young or middle-aged woman with draping gowns ornamented in stars and stripes. Her headdress sometimes included feathers or a wreath, but most often was a cap of liberty.

“Early on, Columbia was portrayed as a goddess-like female, sometimes called Lady Columbia or Miss Columbia. It was not uncommon to see her depicted as an Indian queen or a Native American princess. Columbia Pictures began using her as its logo in 1924, appearing with a torch, much like the Statue of Liberty.”

Hail, Columbia

The 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival was called the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Growing up, there were two songs in our grade school songbook, a replica of which I own as America Sings (collection copyright 1935) referencing Columbus. Hail, Columbia! and Columbia, Gem of the Ocean were in the same section as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The former now serves as the Vice President’s ceremonial entrance march. You can occasionally find Hail, Columbia appearances in movies set during 19th century America.

Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean is “the ‘oldest well-known song of entirely American origin which could, by style or content, qualify as a national anthem. In the mid-1800s, [it] vied with other songs in the American “Patriotic Big Five.” They also including “Hail, Columbia”, the “Star-Spangled Banner”, “Yankee Doodle”, and “My Country Tis of Thee” considered for use as a national anthem.” The Star-Spangled Banner was selected only in 1931.

At least 54 U.S. communities carry Columbus’ legacy in their names. They include Columbus, the largest city in Ohio, and the District of Columbia. Columbia University in New York City used to be King’s College before the Revolution.

The divorce from Christopher Columbus goes apace. However justified, it’ll be more difficult, I imagine than banishing the Confederacy. It has a far deeper, if peculiar, root in American rebellion.

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