October 12 is Columbus Day, and this year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the islands of the Western Hemisphere.
The state of Colorado, in 1907, was the first to declare Columbus Day a legal holiday. Pueblo, in 1905, was the first to unveil a monument to Columbus. The rest of the nation followed suit when Columbus Day was established by presidential proclamation in 1937.
But why Columbus Day? Columbus, some say, was an explorer who didn’t know where he was going; didn’t know where he was when he got there; and didn’t know where he’d been when he returned.
And the indictment is largely true. Columbus, an outstanding Italian navigator of great perseverance who had won the support of the Spanish crown, had miscalculated the circumference of the earth by about 30% – at 19,000 miles at the equator rather than 24,900 miles. Like other educated men and women of his time, he knew the world was round, but he thought it was smaller and consisted mostly of land, not water – a view also shared by other 15th century geographers and cartographers.
He certainly did not know he had touched the edge of vast new continents where as many as 80 million people already lived.
Other Europeans – most certainly the Vikings – reached the North American continent hundreds of years earlier. But the Columbian encounter with the Americas had enduring historical significance because it initiated vast changes in both the Old World and the New. Many changes expanded human potential and increased human dignity – not the least the establishment of multicultural democracy in the U.S. and Canada and the invention of new political forms, including the separation of powers and federalism.
The process of change initiated by the voyage of Columbus also had dark sides: indigenous peoples were plundered and exploited, and established ways of life crumbled before the European onslaught.
But treachery and perfidy were not the exclusive domain of the Europeans. Indigenous civilizations promoted slaver, practiced human sacrifice and fought bloody wars of plunder and conquest that predate the arrival of Columbus.
Yet today, some in the U.S. equate the celebration of Columbus Day and the colonization of America with Germany’s Nazi Holocaust. Outrageous as this view is, politicians with little sense of history have caved in to the protests of special interests. Result: a generation of Americans who might have learned and been inspired by the lessons of Columbus – both good and bad – have been cheated.
The voyages of Columbus show how history creates new possibilities. Expanding knowledge of geography interacted with new economic imperatives: The Ottomans had cut off Europe’s land route to Asia when they took control of Constantinople in 1453. Result: Europeans were moved to find a sea route – either around Africa or westward across the Atlantic.
New technologies – such as the Portuguese invention of the caravel, a ship that could sail against the wind – combined with Europe’s culture of trading and Christianity to create an impulse to explore. Result: a self-confident people with faith in their culture encountered new cultures and both were changed forever.
These are lessons we should be examining, not protesting. Columbus’ dreams and actions changed forever the course of world history. It’s a shame for our culture that we have allowed subservience to political correctness to undermine the celebration of a truly epochal event.