On this Columbus Day, let us give a nod to the dreamers and schemers of history such as Chris who managed to convince others to back their counterintuitive ideas which have led to great discoveries and advancements in mankind’s standard of living.
We’ve all heard the mnemonic jingle “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” prompting us to recall the year of his famous voyage during our formative educational forays into history. What often gets lost in the study of history with its focus on rote memorization of dates, places, and participants is the concept that a great many of the historical figures we study and admire were nothing more than ordinary men with grand ideas who risked everything, some of whom because they really had nothing left to lose, and some of whom who were not content with their lot in life. These men often were simply trying to get some sort of enterprise off the ground because they had nothing else going for them economically or they had grander dreams.
Columbus was one of those who was moderately successful as a commercial agent trading for the Centurione, Di Negro, and Spinola families of Genoa, but who also educated himself studying astronomy, geography, and history. Columbus longed to improve his position in life and believed his chance to do so lay in discovery of a passage to Asia by sailing west. It is a common misconception that resistance to this idea was based on a belief that the Earth was flat, but educated Europeans had long known that the Earth was round and had even calculated its circumference successfully. Columbus was received by several monarchs interested in his idea and seeking the trade advantage such a venture promised, but careful study of his plans revealed miscalculations Columbus had made on the length of the route. Bartolomeu Dias’ discovery of a route around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 1488 further complicated Columbus’ plan to discover a westward route to the rich trade lands of Asia. This sea route around Africa greatly shortened the overland route to Asia since made impassable with its closure to westerners by Mongol leaders.
Columbus persisted in presenting his plans for discovering a westward route across the ocean to Asia which he erroneously believed to be a much shorter distance from Europe than it was in reality. In a bit of intrigue, Queen Isabella agreed to hear Columbus’ plea again, but rejected it on advice from her council who pointed out Columbus’ navigational errors in distance. However, King Ferdinand intervened on his behalf believing it would be wise to pay Columbus a stipend to keep him from presenting his idea to other monarchs. A voyage was eventually underwritten by Spain to explore the feasibility of this potential trade route, and Columbus was successful in reaching the New World. However, Columbus persisted in believing he had reached Asia which is the primary reason the New World is named after Amerigo Vespucci who sailed there after Columbus but recognized that it was a separate and distinct landmass from Asia.
Columbus was a dreamer who successfully schemed a way to finance a voyage to test his hypothesis that a shorter trade route to Asia lay westward across the ocean. He was wrong about discovering this westward route to Asia, but he did stumble upon the New World and claimed it for Spain. The Vikings might have been the first to reach the New World, but Columbus was the first to bring it to the attention of Europe, and he was the first to establish colonies in the New World. While there were major errors in his calculations, Columbus succeeded in spite of these and is rightly celebrated for this success.
However, like any other man celebrated as an important historical figure, Columbus was not without his faults. Upon being appointed Viceroy and Governor of the Indies after his first voyage, Columbus ruled as a tyrant often employing torture and mutilation to enforce his authority. Columbus has been accused of genocide against the indigenous tribes he encountered in the New World, and while some of this is certainly supported by factual evidence, it is also likely that diseases carried by his men contributed to the greater portion of genocide by claiming some 80-90% of the indigenous populations. It is unlikely that the small number of his contingent could have been responsible for killing millions of indigenous people despite accounts of them raping, murdering, and pillaging at will wherever they landed.
Without the steadfast devotion Columbus maintained in his dream of reaching Asia via a westward ocean voyage combined with his ability to successfully finance such a scheme by appealing to European monarchs interested in obtaining a trade advantage over their rivals, none of us would be here in the New World today. Perhaps it can be argued that someone else would have eventually discovered the New World if Columbus had not, but that is merely speculation and it does not guarantee that this other discoverer would have acted any better towards the indigenous peoples than Columbus. Europeans viewed these indigenous people as lesser than themselves, worthy only of being exploited and disposed of at will.
We live in a world vastly different than that of Fifteenth Century Europe where human life was valued much less and conquered peoples were to be enslaved and exploited. This was a world in which only European citizens enjoyed rights and legal protections, and there was no consideration given to the rights of indigenous peoples viewed as savages. It is easy for us to apply contemporary standards to that era while ignoring historical context when judging historical figures such as Christopher Columbus. While he was certainly a flawed man who inflicted genocide upon the indigenous peoples whom he encountered for the sake of greedily exploiting the riches of the New World, Columbus was also a man among contemporaries who shared his belief in the existence of a westerly ocean route to Asia but who lacked the drive to pursue this hypothesis past the stage of mere speculation. Columbus drew up detailed plans and appealed to European monarchs whose committees of advisors rejected these plans due to their errors, but Columbus persisted until he found a receptive audience and the financing he needed to undertake his voyage. It is this persistence in the face of rejection that we celebrate in Columbus. He succeeded where others neglected to tread in spite of the difficulties he encountered.
There is currently a movement launched by the left to erase our history so that the left can rewrite our history to facilitate a false narrative which serves its interests. This movement began by targeting historical figures which the left has painstakingly redefined over the decades to be as unsympathetic as possible. The struggle over the right of states which voluntarily joined the Union to voluntarily leave that Union culminating in the Civil War has been recast by the left as an overly simplistic struggle to preserve the abomination of slavery ignoring the complexities of the issue, the historical context of the times, and the complicity of northern interests profiting from the slave system. In doing so, the left has characterized anyone resisting their redefinition of the Civil War as an unsympathetic white supremacist undeserving of the right to freely speak and defend their position or share their opinion in direct contradiction to the Founders who recognized that the right to free speech was the cornerstone of a stable democracy guaranteeing its citizens the right to freely criticize their political leaders.
Their tyranny against free speech began with an unsympathetic group whose ideas have been characterized by the left as unacceptable and undeserving of expression, and whose membership has been inflated to include anyone disagreeing with the left in its drive to erase historical monuments dedicated to those Americans who fought for the South in its struggle to reclaim its right to voluntarily leave the Union. Now that they have managed to turn public opinion against Confederate monuments, they have turned their attention to the destruction of monuments dedicated to our Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that these men owned slaves and are thus undeserving of public recognition for their roles in founding the country because they were flawed individuals. Additionally, the left has turned its attention to the destruction of monuments celebrating the life of Christopher Columbus because he too was a flawed individual whose accomplishments in discovering the New World are felt by the left to be outweighed by his treatment of the indigenous peoples he encountered. By their standards, no historical figure is deserving of celebration or the erection of monuments dedicated to the remembrance of their accomplishments.
The same voices from the left decrying Washington, Jefferson, prominent Confederate leaders, and Christopher Columbus have no qualms about celebrating the lives of prominent communists such as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, and others who were responsible for the deaths of millions of people and who enslaved the remainder in pursuit of their quest to greedily exploit them. The left conveniently ignores the Gulag Archipelago poignantly described by survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or the millions of Soviets eliminated by Stalin’s death squads and famines, but seek to portray themselves as righting the historical record by denouncing the celebration of anyone responsible for establishing democracy and the free enterprise system in America. This contrast in the left’s actions is not made nearly enough to expose their motives of erasing western history so it can be replaced with their false narrative.
In discovering the New World, it was inevitable that two such disparate civilizations would clash, and it is disingenuous for anyone to pretend otherwise. Europeans possessing arms far advanced over those of the indigenous populations and little regard for peoples they viewed as savages undeserving of sympathy would certainly be predisposed to abusing their position over these peoples regardless of the leadership of their expeditions. And, indigenous populations unfamiliar with Europeans would certainly either curiously welcome their encounter or fearfully resist their advances as their predisposition and ability to do so existed. Given their cultural disparities, there was always going to be friction and the potential for mistreatment in any encounter. The left would have us believe that this was not the case because they encourage the application of contemporary norms in place of the historical context necessary to properly understand the events and the motivations of historical figures.
The truth is that Christopher Columbus was a dreamer and schemer who persisted in realizing the veracity of his dreams despite his flaws as a man. In this, he is in the good company of many other prominent historical figures whose contributions to the advancement of civilization far outweigh their flaws as men and are deserving of recognition, celebration, remembrance, and study. Sadly, this company of historical figures is also littered with the remains of those whose reigns of oppression and tyranny did nothing to advance civilization but merely satisfied their lusts for power at the expense of their peoples and the advance of civilization. As a free people grounded in the values of western civilization with its recognition of the natural rights of mankind, promotion of the free enterprise system as the most natural way to satisfy needs and advance the standard of living, and establishment of republican democracy as the most natural way to protect the rights of citizens from tyranny and oppression, we are certainly in a position to correctly judge those historical figures worthy of our celebration and remembrance and those worthy of our disdain and rejection.