SAY, IS IT OK to admire Christopher Columbus again?
You'll recall that in 1992, the quincentennial of Columbus's discovery of America, it most assuredly was not OK. Why, just saying "Columbus's discovery of America" was enough to get you in trouble with the commissars of political correctness.
Back then, the National Council of Churches was accusing Columbus of an "invasion" that led to "genocide, slavery, 'ecocide,' and exploitation." The American Library Association proclaimed that Columbus's arrival heralded "a legacy of European piracy, brutality, slave trading, murder, disease, conquest, and ethnocide." The historian Glenn Morris indicted Columbus as "a murderer, a rapist, the architect of a policy of genocide that continues today."
The nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, vowed that "never again will Christopher Columbus sit on a pedestal in United States history." In New York, the Amsterdam News published a "Wanted" poster showing "Columbus the Thug." Russell Means, the American Indian activist, announced: "Columbus makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent."
Nice language. Makes you wonder why a national holiday was ever created to honor the man. Or what the eminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison could have been thinking when he wrote of Columbus in 1954 that "his fame and reputation may be considered secure for all time." Or why generations of US schoolchildren were taught to regard this 15th-century Genoan, who believed to his death that he had sailed not to America but to eastern Asia, as the first great American hero.
It is true that Columbus was not a sensitive '90s male. He was a zealot, greedy and ambitious. He was capable of cruelty and deception. He was a mariner made harsh by many years at sea. But he was also the man who sowed the seeds of Western civilization in the New World -- a world that until then had known little more than superstition, slavery, and savagery. "The Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of South America performed elaborate rites of human sacrifice, in which thousands of captive Indians were ritually murdered, until their altars were drenched in blood . . . and priests collapsed with exhaustion from stabbing their victims," wrote Dinesh D'Souza in a 1995 article in the journal First Things. "When men of noble birth died, wives and concubines were often strangled and buried with them."
Granted, Europe in 1492 was awash in its own superstition, slavery, and savagery. Some of it came to the Americas with Columbus. But what also came over were the distinctive Western qualities that make it possible for human beings to rise above brutality and enlighten themselves: a thirst for knowledge, a passion for progress, notions of natural law and human rights, and a Judeo-Christian ethic of justice and morality.
Less than 20 years after Columbus reached San Salvador, Spanish priests were decrying their countrymen's abuse of the American natives. Bartolomé de Las Casas, who sailed with Columbus on his fourth voyage in 1502 and joined in the bloody conquest of Cuba, became the 16th century's foremost champion of Indians' rights. He took holy orders in 1512, freed his slaves in 1514, and spent the next 50 years vehemently denouncing "the robbery, evil, and injustice" done by European colonists.
But no Indian holy men thundered against Indian cannibalism and child sacrifice -- just as no Indian mariner sailed east and discovered Europe. Only the culture that made possible an Age of Exploration could make possible "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." Columbus's glory is not that he discovered America, but that he set in motion the American epic, the highest flowering of the Western idea.
He was a great man. Unschooled, he taught himself to read and write, then studied geography, cartography, theology, and cosmography. He was a seaman of extraordinary skill, whose pre-1492 career had taken him north of the Arctic Circle and south nearly to the equator. He was monomaniacal on the subject of reaching the fabled East by sailing west. For nearly eight years he struggled to find a patron to finance his "Enterprise of the Indies." Time and again he was rebuffed.
And when Isabella of Spain finally agreed to stake his venture, there were the journeys themselves to accomplish: thousands of miles across uncharted ocean with no method but dead reckoning to find his bearings. Columbus sailed without celestial navigation, without longitude, without any reliable way to measure speed. It was remarkable enough that he found his way to the Caribbean; even more remarkable that he found his way back. And then to repeat the trip three times! Even if he had discovered nothing, his nautical achievements were phenomenal.
Admire Columbus? How can we not? For all his flaws, he was magnificent. The dogs bark, but the Niña, the Pinta, and Santa Maria sail on.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on Twitter.
"Like" Jeff Jacoby's columns on Facebook.
Want to read more Jeff Jacoby? Sign up for "Arguable," his free weekly email newsletter.