The Story of Columbus: Epilogue
It’s very hard to summarize the life of Christopher Columbus. Columbus was first and foremost a deep believer in a particular religious worldview and he combined that worldview with his passion for the sea into an epic narrative in which he was going to save the world. For him these voyages were not only the product of nearly a decade of pleading and pitching his vision to uninterested aristocracy, nor were they only something he had staked his life, personal reputation and fortune on. Instead, for Columbus, these voyages were endowed with cosmic significance connected not only to the salvation of his own soul but the salvation of humanity itself. It’s one of the great ironies of history that Columbus ultimately was and is one of the most important historical figures in world history but not for almost any of the reasons that he thought he would be. His vision was simply mistaken.
However, the fact that he was a man of such ambition and vision was the reason he was able to sail over horizon after horizon despite so many obstacles and hardships. But wasn’t he a genocidal gold driven maniac who led to the genocide and enslavement of millions of people? The short answer is no. The long answer can be found in his actual story which is FAR more interesting than a simple tale of a conquering greedy jerk, invading a virgin land filled with innocent noble natives, living at peace with nature and one another. I hope my previous essays can give readers a chance to introduce themselves to his real story.
So what is a modern American to make of Christopher Columbus who was not an American nor even set foot in the United States. Why do we have a holiday to this man? There are many important historical figures with incredible stories that don’t have holidays in the United States. So why him? I would like to argue that Columbus can and should serve in many ways as an icon of western civilization and of values that Americans can and should respect. So what are these values?
An Icon of Exploration
Columbus most certainly can and should be appreciated as one of the great if not the greatest icons and exploration. People who are willing to go over the horizon and into the unknown are to be admired because they are the ones who push the boundaries of human achievement and knowledge. Inherent in the American spirit is the spirit of exploration. It is America that went to the moon first. It is America that is going to Mars. It is Americans that pressed west into wilderness in search of progress and a better life. The American tradition of going past horizons surely should be considered part of our American character and Americans can look to Columbus as a type of icon of that westward voyaging spirit.
An Icon of Big Dreams
Columbus did not live in an age where anyone could be whatever they wanted to be. In the feudal world there were serfs, lords, Clergy and classes. Columbus existed in a time when the darkness of the dark ages were just beginning to show a glimmer of light and he took advantage of it. In an echo of so many American stories, Columbus was a middle class person with big dreams. Dreams of not only transforming the world, but ultimately of saving it. But he was not just a dreamer. In that entrepreneurial spirit he spent almost a decade of his life trying to sell his idea to investors who all laughed at him until finally with 3 mediocre boats financed by an eccentric queen and with his crew on the verge of mutiny they sighted land and a whole new age began in that moment. Iconic to the American identity is the idea of the underdog beating the odds and the possibility of a single person to change the world. This idea of nearly limitless individual potential which is so central to American identity sprouted and grew in the age of the new world as never before and Columbus story is iconic of that change.
Icon of Religious faith
Columbus was a devoutly religious man. In fact sometime during his third voyage and for the rest of his life he wore the robes of a franscian friar and is believed to have become a lay brother in that order. Any study of his writings demonstrates his motivations and vision were all based in his religious worldview. Columbus viewed his life and history as the unfolding of a great cosmic drama. America since is founding has seen itself in a religious light as part of a bigger cosmic picture. Fundamental to the American identity is “in God we Trust” and it is clear that Columbus places all his trust in his God. We may quibble about his particular theological ideas and ,in fact, I think his story can be instructive in helping us avoid religious excesses. However, placing ones faith in God and oneself in a narrative of cosmic significance runs right to the very beginning of American identity and it seems appropriate that the first person to cross that great ocean from the west did so for religious reasons just like so many more would do subsequent centuries.
Icon of Western Civilization
Americans are not cultural relativists and nor should they be. Cultures who engage in the sacrifice of children, cannibalism and sex slavery are in need of reform. Feudal Europe certainly was in need of reform in many respects in Columbus time. Also, Columbus almost always spoke very highly of the natives. However, western civilization was far more advanced in terms of technology, human rights, law, architecture, music, religion etc etc. Columbus vision was to convert natives and bring them into civilized Spanish society and fellow servants of the crown and Christians dedicated to God. He envisioned bringing civilization to feral people much in the same way Americans envisions bringing democracy to places like Iraq. Sadly Americans and Columbus learned that is easier said than done. However, the desires to spread western civilization and superior values is not in and of itself wrong. Ultimately, western civilization did advance immensely in the centuries after Columbus and it did so precisely in and because of the lands he discovered. It was certainly a bumpy road but these things can’t be blamed on Columbus. Columbus himself (as can be said of many Americans) wanted to bring less advanced peoples into a higher more advanced way of living. This motivation is not inherently immoral and certainly Americans want to spread their values to the world. However, his story is instructive about the complexities involved with doing that.
Icon of Ethical Advancement
Columbus should be admired from a humanitarian standpoint and as a symbol of the emerging new ethic in the west. It may seem strange to some who don’t understand history and instead compare Columbus against their own standards, instead of against the standards of his day. The conquest of new lands by feudal kingdoms like Spain is nothing new and was nothing new in the new world. Native chieftains have been enslaving, colonizing and subjugating one another since long before the Europeans like Columbus showed up. But what Isabella and Columbus represented was something new and unique emerging in western culture. Instead of holding to the time honored ethic of simple conquest and subjugation by force. Columbus and Queen Isabella were highly concerned with the religious conversion of the native peoples and the idea that they were to be integrated into her benevolent kingdom as Christian vassals rather than as conquered slaves. The story ultimately is one of tragedy IN SPITE OF rather than BECAUSE OF Columbus. Sadly the conquest ethic was too deeply ingrained in Spaniard society. Spain was a warlike society who was at the tail end of nearly 800 years of continuous warfare with the Moors. Ultimately the new emerging (though still imperfect) human rights ethic of Christians like Isabella, La Casas and Columbus was overtaken by the greed of the conquistadors and rank brutality could not be held back. As we do with people like Washington who was involved in slavery himself, the balance of Columbus’ deeds and vision when fully understood show him as a glimmer of light. A glimmer of a new ethic around universal human rights that was imperfect but budding in Europe. Americans can celebrate that these initial glimmers of ethical light found in people like Columbus, during an age when that was so rare, eventually flowered into the idea that “all men are created equal”.
A Fitting Epitaph
In completing my nearly 2 years of research into the Columbus story I found these words by the great author Washington Irving summing up my feelings well.
“His conduct as a discoverer was characterized by the grandeur of his views, and the magnanimity of his spirit. Instead of scouring the newly found countries, like a grasping adventurer eager only for immediate gain, as was too generally the case with contemporary discoverers, he sought to ascertain their soil and productions, their rivers and harbours. He was desirous of colonizing and cultivating them, of conciliating and civilizing the natives, of building cities, introducing the useful arts, subjecting everything to the control of law, order and religion, and thus of founding regular and prosperous empires. In this glorious plan, he was constantly defeated by the dissolute rabble which he was doomed to command; with whom all law was tyranny, and order restraint. They interrupted all useful works by their seditions, provoked the peaceful Indians to hostility, and after they had thus pulled misery and warfare upon their own heads, and overwhelmed Columbus with the ruins of the edifice he was building, they charged him with being the cause of the confusion. Well would it have been for Spain, had her discoverers who followed in the track of Columbus possessed his sound policy and liberal views. What dark pages would have been spared in her colonial history! The new world, in such case, would have been settled by peaceful colonists, and civilized by enlightened legislators, instead of being overrun by desperate adventurers, and desolated by avaricious conquerors…” “In his letters and journals, instead of detailing circumstances with the technical precision of a mere voyager, he notices the beauties of nature with the enthusiasm of a poet or a painter…” “When surrounded and overwhelmed by the ingratitude and violence of worthless men, he often, in the retirement of his cabin, gave way to gushes of sorrow, and relieved his overladen heart by sighs and groans. When he returned in chains to Spain, and came in the presence of Isabella, instead of continuing the lofty pride with which he had hitherto sustained his injuries, he was touched with grief and tenderness at her sympathy, and burst forth into sobs and tears.” “He was devoutly pious: religion mingled with the whole course of his thoughts and actions, and shines forth in all his most private and unstudied writings. Whenever he made any great discovery, he celebrated it by solemn thanks to God. The voice of prayer, and the melody of praise, rose from his ships when they first beheld the new world, and his first action on landing, was to prostrate himself upon the earth and render up thanksgivings…” “To his intellectual vision it was given to read in the signs of the times, and in the conjectures and reveries of past ages, the indications of an unknown world; as soothsayers were said to read predictions in the stars, and to foretel events from the visions of the night. 'His soul,' observes a Spanish writer, 'was superior to the age in which he lived. For him was reserved the great enterprize to plough a sea which had given rise to so many fables, and to decipher the mystery of his time.' ” A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, Volume 3, Book VIII, Chapter V, pp. 196-199, and 201.