Columbus Reexamined

Next week, the nation—except for a few woke states—will honor  Christopher Columbus with an annual Monday holiday.  Those few, which have decided that Columbus was a bad man and cruel to the Indians, have chosen to declare it Indigenous Peoples Day, or somesuch. But let’s examine that reasoning.

The first thing to get out of the way is this: Columbus didn’t discover America. He wasn’t Columbus, his name was Colon, he couldn’t discover lands that had been settled for at least 1,700 years, and the name America didn’t until 1509, and then in honor of Americus Vespucci, whose writings about the new world were far more popular than anything Colon wrote.

Then let’s forget the business of him being a bad man who killed and enslaved Indians and led the Spanish hidalgos in their pursuit of gold and the overrunning of the island of Hispaniola, ideas that I must confess a good many took away from my 1990 biography of Columbus, The Conquest of Paradise. It’s not that he was a saintly man, and to be true to history I had to describe the way he failed badly in his task as governor of Hispaniola, under whom Indians were treated most harshly, and his willing despoliation of the island in his search for gold.

But he was not a governor, he was a sailor, and no one should have expected him to be able to run the island.  That was asking much too much—as the Spanish rulers found out. Eventually they clapped him in irons and shipped him back to Spain, where he was shunned by the court and forced to live a life alone.

But all that is not important about Christopher Columbus. What’s important is that he found for Europe what was a new world, new continents rich with treasure and resources, which effectively over time brought Europe out of a long period of poverty and violence and disease.  And which, in being discovered and settled and exploited, implanted Christian civilization on fertile continents and changed the entire history of the world.

That was what made Columbus special.  And he knew it, too.

In 1498, on his Third Voyage (the Sovereigns were sponsoring many voyages in those years), Columbus landed on the west coast of what is now Venezuela, near where the Orinoco emptied into the ocean.  His ship’s log, as rendered by a Spanish friar some decades after the journey, says “He observed that the Land stretched out wider and appeared flatter and more beautiful down toward the west….He therefore came to the conclusion that so  great a land as not an island but a continent; and as if addressing the Sovereigns, he speaks thus:

“I have come to believe this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown. I am greatly supported in this view by reason of this great river and by this sea which is fresh….And if this is a continent it is a wonderful thing and will be so regarded by all men of learning.”

And in a letter to the Sovereigns he would use the phrase “otro mundo,” bragging of his achievement: “No princes of Spain ever gained territory outside these borders until now, when Your Highnesses have an other world here, by which our holy faith can be so greatly advanced and from which such great wealth can be drawn.”

Most history books argue that Columbus died thinking he had gone to islands off India.  Obviously not true: he knew he had discovered—for the Sovereigns and Christianity—a new continent, a new world, and history would acclaim him for it. As indeed it did: Spanish historian Lopez de Gomara in 1552called it “the greatest event in the history of the world, excluding the incarnation and death of Him who created it.”  And Adam Smith two centuries later wrote, “The discovery of /America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”

That’s how we should be thinking of him today, not as an imperfect man and inept governor.  His achievement enabled Europe to expand beyond its borders, Westernizing the great bulk  of humanity; to accumulate wealth and power on a scale previously unknown and create the structures of modern civilization; and to alter the distribution of life forms and transform nature as nothing before in the earth’s history. That was unique and transformative and, if not the greatest, great.

And why his statues and monuments—said to be  more than for any secular figure in history—should not be defiled or removed.