Upon returning to Spain, Christopher Columbus wrote of his discovery that “Christendom ought to feel delight and make feasts and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity.” Until fairly recently, all of Christendom agreed. Just as much of Christendom now recoils at the term “Christendom,” the “delight” and “thanks” for Columbus’ historic voyage hardly remains universal.
The feast day has been transformed into a day of mourning.
Since Berkeley, Calif., jettisoned Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day almost two decades ago, Brown University, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Venezuela have similarly ditched the holiday.
“Columbus makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent,” professional Indian Russell Means once remarked. Faux Indian Ward Churchill, who has been arrested with Means for blocking a Columbus Day parade in Denver, likens the discoverer to Heinrich Himmler and calls the day honoring him “a celebration of genocide”
Granting Columbus’s bravery, James Loewen writes in Lies My Teacher Told Me that the Genoese sailor “left a legacy of genocide and slavery that endures in some degree to this day.” Howard Zinn dismisses Columbus the seaman as “lucky” and condemns Columbus the man as a practitioner of “genocide” upon a people whose “relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world.”
Indeed, the explorer initially praised the Indians as “gentle,” “full of love,” “without greed,” and “free from wickedness.” He exclaimed, “I believe there is no better race.” Columbus also reported tribal warfare, cannibalism, castration, the exploitation of women, and slavery. The locals slaughtered the dozens of men he left behind in the New World. Put another way, in 1493 the natives conducted genocide on every European in the Americas.
This is not to whitewash Columbus’s crimes, which have not aged well. The explorer kidnapped natives for show in Spain (none of them made it alive) on his first voyage, enslaved several hundred bellicose Indians on his second visit, and after his third trip faced charges back home of governing as a tyrant. At sea, the admiral and his crew also ate a dolphin—another act that offends 21st-Century tastes.
But fixation upon his sins obscures his accomplishment: Columbus discovered the New World.
Any assessment of the admiral that doesn’t lead with this fact misses the forest for the trees. Enslavement and cultural conquest are common. Discovering two continents is unprecedented. Other than Christ, it is difficult to name a person who has changed the world as dramatically as Columbus has.
Unlike the adventurers of today, who climb tall mountains and balloon over oceans, Columbus did not trek across the Atlantic for the hell of it. If his dangerous journey had been a mission to resolve a mid-life crisis, perhaps his modern detractors would understand it better. As it was, Columbus sailed to enrich his adopted country (he naturally got a cut) and spread Catholicism.
Columbus described the Indians as “a people to be delivered and converted to our holy faith rather by love than by force.” He planted a cross on each island he visited and taught the natives Christian prayer. Elsewhere, his journal obsesses over gold, spices, cotton, and other valuables that might uplift Spain. Given the boogeyman status on the Left of both capitalism and Christianity, it is no surprise that Columbus has himself become a boogeyman.
Had Columbus never discovered America, the Indians never would have discovered Europe. Columbus encountered naked natives with neither the iron nor the courage with which to effectively fight. The civilizations peopling the New World possessed no written language and didn’t use the wheel. All of history points to some kind of eventual conquest. Isn’t it worth celebrating that the pope’s mariner, rather than, say, the henchmen of sultans or khans, discovered the Americas?
No, say the critics of America and the West, who, not coincidentally, are also Columbus’s critics. Multiculturalists see Columbus as the symbol for all subsequent atrocities that befell Native Americans.
Couldn’t he be more plausibly viewed as the catalyst for ensuing greatness?
America first sending men into flight, over the Atlantic, and to the moon; thwarting tuberculosis, yellow fever, and polio; fighting Nazism, Communism, and al Qaeda; serving as a welcome mat to humanity’s “wretched refuse;” inventing the light blub, the telephone, the computer, and the Internet; and standing as a beacon of freedom in an unfree world all happened in the wake of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Columbus endured the skepticism of potential patrons, a near mutiny, and more than a month at sea to reach the Americas. His good name can probably withstand the assaults of Ward Churchill, Howard Zinn, and the Berkeley city council.