Early on the morning of October 12, 1492, Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, a lookout aboard the caravel “Pinta,” saw a dark shape on the western horizon and shouted, “Tierra!” At that moment, the New World was born and the old world was remade. So we celebrate Columbus Day every October to commemorate the heritage which, absent Christopher Columbus, we wouldn’t have.
Consequences aside, the voyage itself was nothing short of incredible. Ninety men, in three small ships (the largest only about 60 feet long), using crude navigational instruments, spent 36 days sailing unknown winds and currents in an uncharted ocean toward an uncertain destination for equally uncertain rewards and successfully completed the longest known voyage out of sight of land made to that time. The first moon landing was no more amazing a feat than Columbus’ first voyage.
Columbus was looking to flank the Ottoman Empire which blocked the way to the “Indies.” He wanted to open trade routes and find allies who might help recover the Holy Land. So, with his “Enterprise of the Indies,” he sailed west to get to the east and, in doing so, began the idea of America.
The “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” is our bridge between the medieval and the modern. His was the Renaissance Europe of da Vinci and Michelangelo, the printing press, innovative ship design, growing markets, and infant nations. From that vibrant society came the ideas and ideals of religious and political liberty, democratic capitalism, and the rule of law, all of which could mature because of what Columbus bequeathed to us.
Though the Vikings preceded him and claims have been made for Celts, Basques, Egyptians, Muslims, and even the Chinese, Christopher Columbus must rank as the discoverer. As biographer Paolo Taviani has noted, it hardly matters who “first set foot on some beach on the American mainland.” None of the other claimants stayed or left a legacy. Columbus started something which continues to this day and he represented a unique society which was both outward-looking and prepared to act.
But how could Columbus have “discovered” a land already inhabited by numerous small bands of semi-nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherers and a few more advanced tribes? The answer is simply that even the most sophisticated of those tribes were isolated and primitive people who became part of the larger, literate world completely through the initiative and efforts of Europeans. “Discovered” is the correct term.
Our modern “progressive” conceit is that Columbus was a racist, genocidal murderer whose voyages brought only disease and degradation. Progressives blame him for everything from smallpox to soil erosion and want to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples Day.” But, while no one denies that European colonization was often brutal, that means only that it was, as Charles Krauthammer has written, “much like the rise of Islam, the Norman Conquest of Britain, and the widespread American Indian tradition of raiding, depopulating, and appropriating neighboring lands.”
Europeans brought diseases to America just as Asians had brought the plague to Europe 150 years earlier. This normal consequence of mass population shifts was tragic but hardly genocidal. Moreover, “Indians” were not pacifists. They made near constant war on each other and practiced slavery, torture, and sometimes cannibalism. Nor were they environmentalists “living in harmony with the land.” Hunting buffalo meant stampeding whole herds over cliffs (until the Spanish introduced horses which allowed the great Plains culture of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Comanche to exist). The Aztecs were mass murderers who killed thousands in their monthly human sacrifice rituals. Columbus did not disrupt an idyllic existence of peaceful, bucolic, unoffending people.
Despite his normal human failings and the carping of his politically correct critics, Columbus opened the door to human liberty. Without Columbus, there would have been no Jefferson. And in the end, as one historian has written, “The dogs have barked and will continue to do so, but the caravels have sailed into history.”