Yes, it’s in vogue to forsake our Western heritage, to see dead, white men as evil barbarians. But let’s be honest, the reason they’ve been celebrated is because what they did, despite their sins, was incredible. Columbus is certainly one of those men.
In an age when many teenage Americans are too terrified to even state their opinion in a high school class for fear of getting a bad grade and not getting into college, Columbus was already sailing the ocean blue, with reports that he went as far as the coast of Guinea in West Africa – that’s several thousand nautical miles from his home port!
Dirt poor and already denied twice, Columbus finally won over Queen Isabella of Spain who then influenced her husband, King Ferdinand, to support the expedition across the Atlantic. And so it was on August 3, 1492, that Admiral Columbus set sail into the great unknown with a squadron of tiny ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Now, put yourself into the expedition. In looking back, modern man seems tempted to harshly judge every sin of a man whom the current culture has chosen to be against, while failing to judge the whole man and what he accomplished. How many today would have the courage of not just Columbus, but of the other 120 men aboard those little ships (at most, 60 feet long) to sail into the unknown, likely to fail and even to die?
Here’s the famous poem (forgotten by today’s educators) by Joaquin Miller that captures what it must have been like on that long voyage across the Atlantic:
by Joaquin Miller
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now must we pray,
For lo! The very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l, speak, what shall I say?”
“Why, say: ‘Sail on! Sail on! And on!’”
“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
“What shall I say, brave Adm’r’l, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say, at break of day:
‘Sail on! Sail on! Sail on! And on!’”
They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Adm’r’l; speak and say” -
He said: “Sail on! Sail on! And on!”
They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
“This mad sea shows his teeth to-night;
He curls his lips, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite:
Brave Adm’r’l, say but one good word;
What shall we do when hope is gone?”
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on! Sail on! Sail on! And on!”
Then pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck-
A light! A Light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! Sail on!”
And so it was on October 12 that Columbus and his men landed in what is now called the West Indies. Such a story should be remembered and celebrated.
As for Columbus and the native populations, the story is mixed. It would appear from the historical record that Columbus was quite kind and protective of the Arawak tribe at the location of his first landing. On his second voyage, he came in contact with the Carib tribe, which had been attacking and plundering the Arawak tribe, driving it into isolation and stealing its women and children, as well as initiating acts of cannibalism. Columbus saw the Caribs as natural enemies. But it was the Arawaks and other tribes that massacred his men that he left behind. After that, the violence kicked off and there were certainly terrible abuses by both the native populations and the Europeans.
Without a doubt, Columbus did some horrible things, including sending natives back to Spain as slaves who ironically were not treated as such initially. Should he be celebrated for some of his later deeds? Probably not. And so the complexities of history and the imperfections of men reveal themselves to us. But that is also the case of the native populations.
Today, any number of classrooms and cities celebrate “Indigenous People’s Day” or some such thing as a way to repent of Columbus’ and the West’s sins of conquest. And yet, when we look at the historical record of indigenous peoples, they were no less blood thirsty (often more so) than the Europeans. Indeed, they conquered and enslaved each other with great frequency.
If it is the case that the Europeans and Columbus are to be reviled for conquering and enslaving, then should we not hold the indigenous peoples to the same standard? If it was fair for them to conquer each other, then what was wrong with the Europeans conquering and spreading their civilization?
Since the Europeans and the indigenous peoples shared in their sins against their fellow men, on this day feel no guilt in celebrating Columbus and his intrepid voyage across the Atlantic. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a giant among men.
Devin is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Charlemagne Institute, which operates Intellectual Takeout, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and the Alcuin Internship. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College where he studied history and political science. Prior to co-founding Charlemagne Institute, he served as the Director of Development at the Center of the American Experiment, a state-based think tank in Minnesota.
Devin is a contributor to local and national newspapers, a frequent guest on a variety of talk shows, such as Minneapolis' KTLK and NPR's Talk of the Nation, and regularly shares culture and education insights presenting to civic groups, schools, and other organizations. In 2011, he was named a Young Leader by the American Swiss Foundation.
Devin and his wife have been married for eighteen years and have six children. When he's not working, Devin enjoys time with family while also relaxing through reading, horticulture, home projects, and skiing and snowboarding.