Columbus – The New World Ambassador
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean seeking a westward trade route to Asia, a land of gold, silk and exotic spices. He failed. Instead, he discovered lands and peoples previously unknown to Europeans — a New World.
October marks 525 years since Columbus’ three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, made landfall in the present-day Bahamas Islands. His discovery has long been celebrated in the United States, where Columbus Day is a federal holiday.
Yet not everyone is a fan of Columbus. Some question whether the explorer is worthy of public honor, claiming he didn’t actually “discover” anything or that he abused, enslaved and exploited the native peoples he encountered. Some boldly blame him for injustices that occurred even centuries after his death.
In recent months, the anti-Columbus movement has made new headlines:
• In late August, the Los Angeles City Council changed the city calendar by replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. The city thus joined a few dozen municipalities that have suppressed the observance, including Seattle, Portland (OR), Minneapolis and Phoenix.
• That same month, New York City officials provoked controversy by suggesting that Columbus statues in Central Park and Columbus Circle could be among monuments to be evaluated for removal as “symbols of hate on city property.” Meanwhile, in several other cities, Columbus memorials were the object of vandalism or protests, some of which associated the explorer with “white supremacy” — likely in reaction to a violent clash earlier in August involving white nationalists in Charlottesville, VA, over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
A Courageous Journey
A native of Genoa (part of modern Italy), Columbus was a skilled navigator who held that the Indies were a few thousand miles west of Spain. By harnessing the right winds and currents, he believed he could get there and back safely and more quickly than by the long, perilous overland eastbound route. He persuaded the monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, to bankroll his excursion with promises he would acquire wealth and territories for them.
Columbus surely desired to find that trade route and share in the gold and glory that would result. However, he was motivated by something deeper: he wanted to evangelize the people of Asia.
When he made landfall, Columbus thought he was on the outskirts of the Indies.
He befriended the natives he encountered, who would come to be known as “Indians.” Impressed by their meekness, generosity and intelligence, he believed they would be receptive to the Christian faith.
What’s more, he hoped the Spanish monarchs would use the gold they would reap to finance a crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. It was part of an apocalyptic vision shared by many in Columbus’ day. That crusade “was the first step in the series of events that would make possible the return of Christ before the Last Judgment at the end of the world,” anthropologist Carol Delaney wrote in her 2011 book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem.
Over four voyages, Columbus explored the Caribbean, surveyed the South and Central American coasts, and established the first permanent European settlements in the New World. His voyages initiated the “Columbian Exchange,” a transfer of plants, animals, technology and ideas between the Old and New Worlds that brought immense benefits to both.
Why the hate?
Still, some people seem to detest Columbus.
“Today, Columbus is not a flesh-and-blood person, but a symbol,” said Delaney. “The dominant picture holds him responsible for everything that went wrong in the New World.”
Some things did go wrong. Wherever Europeans encountered Indians, native populations diminished. Some Indians died at the hands of settlers or Spanish conquistadors. However, the majority — 90 percent, according to researcher Jared Diamond — died from communicable diseases inadvertently transmitted by the Europeans for which the Indians had no immunity, such as smallpox.
Columbus was no conquistador. While some mistreatment took place in lands Columbus governed, much of it was perpetrated by his men against his orders or during his absences. “Columbus strictly told the crew not to do things like maraud, or rape, and instead to treat the native people with respect,” Delaney said in a 2014 interview. “There are many examples in his writings where he gave instructions to this effect…. A lot of the crewmembers didn’t like all of the restrictions and rebelled.” Under duress, Columbus — a weak, indecisive governor — acceded to the rebels’ demands and allowed them to force natives to work and, in some instances, to take slaves.
On his second voyage, after finding his first settlers were massacred, Columbus and his men enslaved several hundred hostile Caribs as prisoners-ofwar, then an accepted practice in both European and Indian cultures. Believing they were cannibals, he shipped them to Spain hoping they could become “civilized” and accept Christianity. The Spanish monarchs refused to accept the Caribs as slaves because they considered them subjects of the crown.
While governing the Indies, Columbus attempted harsh punitive measures to control unruly Spaniards and defend the Indians. For this he was arrested and returned to Spain in chains, later to be acquitted. His successors as governor allowed abuses against Indians to multiply.
Faced with extraordinary, difficult situations, Columbus made some poor judgments. Some of his ideas seem unenlightened through 21st-century eyes. Critics, however, blame Columbus “for consequences he did not intend, expect, or endorse,” Delaney wrote. “Judging Columbus from a contemporary perspective rather than from the values and practices of his own time misjudges his motivations and his accomplishment.”
Columbus and Bigotry
Columbus became an icon for America early in U.S. history, and his discovery was first celebrated in New York in 1792. As waves of immigrants entered America from predominantly Catholic countries, Italian Catholic immigrants began celebrating Columbus in the latter 19th century. Unsurprisingly, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry among the Protestant majority likewise increased. Many viewed Catholics suspiciously, believing obedience to the Pope compromised allegiance to the flag. It was amid such bigotry that Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882, designating Columbus — a model of both American patriotism and Catholicism — as patron.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison called for a holiday to mark the 400thanniversary of Columbus’ arrival. In 1907, Colorado established an annual state holiday. Other states followed.
Although some protesters equate Columbus with white supremacy, the whitesupremacist Ku Klux Klan actually led the anti-Columbus movement in the 1920s and 1930s, disrupting celebrations and opposing all state or local efforts to honor Columbus.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally proclaimed a Columbus federal holiday, designating Oct. 12, 1937 for its first observance. “Each recurrence of Columbus Day brings to all of us a greater appreciation of the heritage we have received as a result of the faith and courage and fortitude of the Genoese navigator and his brave companions,” Roosevelt said in 1938.
Protests and criticisms increased around the 1992 quincentenary. NativeAmerican activists staged demonstrations and vandalized statues; in 1990, South Dakota changed Columbus Day to Native Americans Day. Such dissent continues.
But Columbus Day is not about Columbus so much as his positive achievements.
“The holiday marks the event, not the person,” wrote William J. Connell, history professor at Seton Hall University, in a 2012 essay. His landing in the Bahamas “was a momentous, world-changing occasion such as has rarely happened in human history.”
Columbus “was the first in a continuous tradition of transatlantic navigation which has continued to our time,” wrote historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in his 1991 biography. “He is therefore our discoverer of America.”
Despite his flaws, Columbus exemplifies the kind of courage, faith, and spirit of adventure that led to American independence and our nation’s founding. That’s something worth remembering — and celebrating.
Honoring Columbus in America: A Brief History
1697: Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of the Massachusetts Bay Colony writes a poem suggesting American colonies be called “Columbina,” a feminine form of Columbus’ name.
1775: Former slave Phillis Wheatley sends George Washington a poem heralding “Miss Columbia.” The figure soon becomes a symbol for America.
1790: The nation’s capital is founded as the District of Columbia.
1792: In New York, the Tammany Society political organization marks the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival. The city of Baltimore dedicates a 44-foot brick obelisk in his honor.
1798: “Hail, Columbia” is composed and becomes the unofficial national anthem for more than a century.
1828: Washington Irving writes a fictionalized biography of Columbus that hails his accomplishments but perpetuates the “flat earth” myth.
1866: Italian-Americans in New York begin an annual public Columbus Day observance. Other cities soon follow.
1882: Father Michael McGinley founds The Knights of Columbus, adopting Columbus as patron symbolizing both Catholicism and American patriotism.
1882: President Benjamin Harrison issues a proclamation marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery. The World’s Columbian Exhibition is held in Chicago. Pope Leo XIII issues an encyclical extolling Columbus’ achievements.
1892: Colorado becomes the first state to establish a Columbus Day holiday. New York does likewise two years later; other states follow.
1934: With congressional approval, President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishes Columbus Day as a federal holiday, setting the first annual observance for Oct. 12, 1937.
1968: Congress moves Columbus Day to the second Monday in October, effective 1970. By then, 45 states have already designated it a state holiday.
1990: South Dakota changes Columbus Day to Native Americans Day.
1992: Americans across the nation celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.
2014: Minneapolis and Seattle switch the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Some two dozen U.S. cities do likewise over the next three years.
2017: Activists in several cities stage anti-Columbus protests, demanding the removal of Columbus monuments and committing acts of vandalism. Los Angeles eliminates Columbus Day from its city calendar
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.