“In fourteen hundred ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
“He had three ships and left from Spain/ He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.”
— Source Unknown
I’m old enough to remember a time when Christopher Columbus Day was a national holiday that was widely celebrated rather than shamefully downplayed and derided. Columbus has become the symbolic white devil harbinger of all that is evil about America’s founding: genocide and manifest destiny imperialism; slavery and racism; annihilation and exploitation of peaceful, “noble savages” living in harmony with the environment.
President Obama seems to echo the sentiments of multiculturalist leftists and Howard Zinn liberals in perceiving this holiday as an occasion more in tune for mourning rather than celebrating:
President Obama marked Columbus Day by issuing a proclamation that reflects “on the tragic burdens tribal communities bore” in the years that followed the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.
“When the explorers laid anchor in the Bahamas, they met indigenous peoples who had inhabited the Western hemisphere for millennia,” Obama wrote. “As we reflect on the tragic burdens tribal communities bore in the years that followed, let us commemorate the many contributions they have made to the American experience, and let us continue to strengthen the ties that bind us today.”
On this anniversary, Charles C. W. Cooke criticizes the imposition of “modern morality on the past” as “a form of historical illiteracy”.
The explosion of certain parts of the Columbus myth, along with some more recent discoveries about his less noble proclivities, has led many to disown the man and a few more to protest against the national holiday in his honor. Berkeley, Brown, and — ironically — Columbia universities have abolished recognition of Columbus Day entirely, while others have substituted nebulous celebrations of “diversity” on that day. Journey into any trendy progressive enclave and you will find that Christopher Columbus is persona non grata.
This, like most political correctness, is a grievous mistake. As the historian William J. Connell argues, Columbus may not have been the first of the voyagers to discover America, but he was undoubtedly the most important. “His arrival,” Connell argues, “marks where we as a country and a hemisphere began our identity.” Unlike previous landings, Columbus’s mattered. It was the first to lead to a permanent settlement and the first enduring landing from a civilization that boasted modern ideas such as a belief in science, reason, individual achievement, and Christianity. Ultimately, Columbus’s story serves as the introduction to a story of immeasurable historical importance. To dismiss celebration of the man because he didn’t make it to America first would be akin to declaring that we must scorn Isaac Newton’s contribution to science because he wasn’t actually hit by an apple.
Of the charge that he brought smallpox to the New World and is thus guilty of wiping out untold numbers of the native people, Columbus must be exonerated. The vast majority of the devastation inflicted upon the Indian tribes was inadvertent: As he did not propose that the world was round, he also did not propose germ theory — that would not be proffered until after the invention of the telephone — and it is simply preposterous to postulate that he should have known what would happen when two hitherto unfamiliar worlds collided. If one is to lay the blame at Columbus’s feet for the collapse of the Indian population, one also must blame the Indians for unwittingly giving the visitors syphilis, which they took back with them and which subsequently wiped out upwards of 5 million Europeans. It was an unfortunate quid pro quo, to be sure, but not one for which either side should feel much guilt.
Okay, counter the naysayers, but Columbus was a bit of a bastard. Among the further charges leveled against him are that he considered that the natives he met “would make fine servants” and attempted to convert them to Christianity; that on his second voyage he transported slaves, many of whom died; and that, at least by one semi-reliable account, while he was serving as governor of Hispaniola, his men took to “killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples” in order to “prevent” them “from thinking for themselves as human beings.”
Heinous as this behavior was, to impose modern morality on the past is to exhibit historical illiteracy. Contrary to the picture painted by modern progressives, the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria did not sail nonchalantly through a barrier of enlightened protesters — (Don’t) Occupy America! — on their way to the shore, only to ignore their modernity. Columbus was a man of his time, and we should judge him by the standards of that age, regardless of how we assess them today. He subscribed to an internationally popular Aristotelian precept that those captured in battle were rendered slaves, which distinguished him from nobody; he was desperately ambitious and something of a social climber, qualities without which he would never have made such astonishing expeditions; he was motivated by glory and greed and evangelical fervor, as was most of the world (as is, perhaps, the world today). The fact that he reflected his society is not the interesting or exceptional thing about him. Columbus’s first voyage, like the trip to the moon, is worth celebrating in and of itself, without worrying about whether he’d be invited to the ThinkProgress annual gala.
Judging by the language used against him, one suspects that it is not really Columbus that concerns the anti-Columbus types; rather, they object to Columbus Day because they object to the colonization of America, and they disdain less Columbus qua Columbus than what subsequently flowed from the man’s exploits. There we must part company.
A peculiar but popular view holds that, until the brutish Europeans came and violated its innocence in the name of profit, American Indian culture was the last vestige of Man before the Fall. This notion replaces history with fantasy. As the European crime was not to invent but to buy into a slave trade that had afflicted Africa for almost a millennium, Columbus’s was to mirror the practices of tribal warfare and slavery that were already rife among the natives. He did not impose barbarism on the American continent, but he did fail in many instances to show the better example that many in Europe were in the process of setting. This is enough to disqualify him from being regarded as a great reformer, but it does not disqualify him from being a great explorer. Quite obviously, it is only the latter to which his champions lay claim.
Columbus’s voyage was the overture to a European colonization of the North American continent that has been a net good for the world. He may have practiced much that made the Old World execrable, but he opened the door to a New World that has set itself apart in human history as an incubator and beacon of liberty. Columbus set off a veritable scramble for America that culminated in British triumph, American insurrection, and the eventual glorification of Enlightenment values that have, by virtue of their codification, been protected at home and abroad by American predominance.
Thomas Sowell also cautioned against imposing 21st century morality when standing in armchair judgment of the past, without taking into account the context and constraints of the times our ancestors lived in, and the world through which they navigated.
For what it’s worth,
Happy Columbus Day, America!