It’s almost Columbus Day again and to listen to some people, I don’t even know why we bother to celebrate. We should be mourning and gnashing our teeth and begging the forgiveness of our non-existent “white-man’s-god” for all that we have done to spoil the Eden that once was the New World. As a young boy, I loved learning about Columbus. First of all we shared the same first name which, in my young mind, gave me some real gravitas, but also what is not the like in the story? One man who stood against the establishment who said “it can’t be done”; one man who kept a cool head when his crew wanted to throw him overboard and sail home before their ships sailed off the edge of the earth! It’s a wonderful story and even if it really didn’t happen that way, it inspires the young to seek a new frontier and conquer it for the good of civilization and that is not a bad thing unless you just hate progress in general.
That said, I want to set aside the historic details today (delicious as they are), and focus on putting Christopher Columbus the explorer of the New World in to some sort of healthy perspective with the hope that he might be neither appreciated or scorned for someone he was not. One of the great mistakes many of us make when we look at historic figures is to impose our modern mentality upon someone whose mind was shaped by the hopes, fears, and ideals of a different era. This is not a scold (as we all tend to do this) but a reminder to do unto others as we would have them to unto us. Surely none of us would desire future generations to mock and vilify us, but rather to gently understand we did the best we could under the circumstances and we made our own share of mistakes and bad choices along the way.
One of the perspectives about Columbus that I find a bit excessive is what I will call The Cynical View. In this conception Columbus came only for the gold and the glory and was a monster seeking to destroy all native people in a genocide with purposes similar to the Third Reich. This view looks at 1491 as the last great year before the paradise of the western hemisphere was destroyed by the white man and the white man’s god. There are elements in the true Columbus story that could nudge us in this direction if we want them to but only if we have a pre-commitment to denying God’s providence and disliking the patrimony of Western Civilization.
The antithesis of this, but equally excessive is The Celebratory View. A couple of years ago I saw an old movie about Columbus produced by the Knights of Columbus that perfectly makes my point. It portrays Christopher Columbus as a Roman Catholic missionary and that he came solely as God’s instrument of blessing seeking the spiritual welfare of the benighted natives he found here. Once again there are elements in the true Columbus story that could lead us to that idea but only at the expense of suppressing other known facts and motivations. The Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria were not missionary ships but a fleet for exploration.
My personal view (which I’ll hope you will adopt) is neither cynical or celebratory but rather The Consonant View. In this conception Columbus was a man of his times who acted consistently with the worldview of his day and like all men had a mixture of motives some of which were unknown even to him, but probably not intentionally evil. Columbus really gave birth to what became known as the era of discovery but it was the renaissance which gave birth to men like Columbus. Among other things the Renaissance was a rebirth in the idea that this life had purpose and importance, not just the heavenly life. God was very much alive and a part of the world, but man had a special destiny in it. With that came the pursuit of knowledge of all kinds and how we are to understand the nature of the world. To know what lies beyond and have a knowledge of the layout of the world was very much on the minds of men in Columbus’ day. To underscore this, the idea to explore the New World was largely planted by Columbus’ older brother Bartholomew who was a talented cartographer. He wanted the exclusive rights to design and print maps of any new lands his younger brother discovered and would split the profits with him.
During the Renaissance there was also a great admiration for the Greek and Roman Civilization from which Europe had come. It was now in the distant past and seemed a flawless golden age. This civilization gained its power and prestige through the conquest of other lands and the melding of culture. It was natural for the monarchs of Europe to desire their own empires. Ferdinand and Isabella had this in mind as did Columbus who wanted to parlay his skills in such a way that his family would move from the middle class to the aristocracy of Europe. That Columbus was a man with burning ambition, to see himself as a person of God’s choosing and to pursue things far out of scale for his class and temperament was neither extraordinary or unusual. He was simply a man whose gifts and talents were combined with the hopes and desires of his times and these together with opportunity and fortune made him the person of greatness we continue to celebrate today.