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The case for Columbus

The oft-criticized explorer and discoverer was a flawed man of his age who should be honored in our times for his heroic deeds.

Detail from "Columbus and His Son at La Rábida" (1838) by Eugène Delacroix [WikiArt.org]

“Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one returned.” — Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) in Apollo 13

They’re coming for the statues now. And history. And memory. The purveyors of political propriety who dictate the latest of whose in and whose out may swing around in any direction, at a moment’s notice, and point bony fingers at past heroes and declare them anathema. So who will be next? Who will be the latest victim of our past who cannot muster the madness of the new norms of societal acceptance? And, what test must they pass in the eyes of the pretended proletariat who falsely claim to be champions of justice?

Columbus, I think. It’s already happening. He probably doesn’t stand a chance.

He’s been under attack in academia for years. Are there reasons for this? Yes. Of course there are, as is the case with anyone we put under a microscope and see for the first time through the eyes of modernity or post-modernity. But, that’s no reason to discount what Columbus achieved. He prevailed where the Vikings failed; he transcended ordinary thinking and centuries of legitimate doubt that said no one could sail west to reach the prize of the Indies because there were no ports to replenish and re-provision ships on such a long voyage. What Columbus did took guts, and it was based on a unique vision of how the waves and winds acted in concert. It required a brave and extraordinary man to not only sell this idea to the courts of Europe, but to actually do it.

But that not what modern man remembers. Actually, he doesn’t remember because he doesn’t really know the full story. He knows only that Columbus brought destruction on an innocent populace. Search any Common Core web site and find that—surprise!—Columbus was actually a very bad actor in a very bad play that brought nothing but misery and disease and slavery to the innocents of the New World. Thus, he must not be emulated, esteemed, or (God forbid!) remembered in granite as a hero for Americans of Italian heritage to honor and respect. Trust me. This is coming to a town near you. But, why?

For the very same reasons they uproot statues of Robert E. Lee. Like Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, and you name it in American history, these people had their faults and were a product of their times. Yet there are those today who cannot countenance any sins whatsoever that do not yield to their righteous indignation. Much like a preacher who only sees someone else’s sins and not their own, they clamor for popular acceptance thereby alleviating personal culpability. Case in point is Quinn O’Callaghan, who wrote a commentary piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. In his diatribe against the anticipated Philadelphia Columbus Day Parade he says this:

The truth is that the defenders of Columbus Day and Confederate statues are the ones committed to rewriting history.

No. The ones committed to rewriting history are those who ignore or dismiss it, or who deliberately skew historical evidence in order to achieve a political agenda and maintain power in the battle over Western culture. While Columbus is now often portrayed as greedy and even genocidal, the facts about his Catholic faith and piety are routinely ignored. As O’Callaghan asserts: “Monuments and holidays celebrating Columbus extol the Schoolhouse Rock edition of a conqueror and killer. … Columbus was a murderer and a zealot, responsible for the depletion and destruction of entire societies.” O’Callaghan has clearly drawn deeply from the influential trough of the radical Howard Zinn (1922-2010), whose best-selling A People’s History of the United States (1980) relentlessly portrayed European explorers as vicious and exploitive. (As The New Republic observed, Zinn “reduced historical analysis to political opinion.”)

But far from seeking wealth and personal gain, Columbus was driven by a desire to evangelize, as historian William H. Carroll summarized:

He was sure—and he was right—that there was land to the west within reach of the sailing ships fifteenth-century Europe had. He was convinced that God had chosen him to reach that land, hidden from the Western world for ages, which the Roman philosopher Seneca had once prophesied would be revealed. His discovery would bring the Catholic Faith, to which he was devoted, to the people who lived in that land.

For decades we’ve been looking at history through skewed lenses, seeing only what we’re told to see. It’s been a history lesson in optical illusion where facts are replaced or dismissed or ignored to make room for a triumphant exposition of progressive clarity. No, Columbus was not perfect, as Carroll notes, but he was not a monster; on the contrary he “was a flawed hero—as all men are flawed, including heroes—and his flaws are of a kind particularly offensive to today’s culture.” It brings to mind Hilaire Belloc’s observation (in writing about the Reformation) that “the most difficult thing in the world in connection with history, and the rarest of achievement, is the seeing of events as contemporaries saw them, instead of seeing them through the distorting medium of our later knowledge.”

When my kids were younger (and even to this very day), I told them to look at the big picture when witnessing and evaluating current events. Because anything current has happened before, whether we like it or not, in some form or another. Our culture dictates us to view ourselves, each other, and those who came before us with a new morality that is anything but transparent. In doing so, we fool ourselves. Nothing much has really changed in the past millennium or two when it comes to mankind and human behavior. We’d like to think that it has and that’s a comfort to us. But, human nature—whether it was Christopher Columbus’ or ours—hasn’t changed that much at all. I think Rodney Stark said it best in his book How the West Won (ISI, 2014):

Perhaps the primary conclusion to be drawn from these historical episodes involves the fundamental similarity of human nature. Just as there is nothing surprising about the fact the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas imposed great empires on those unable to resist them, so too it was to be expected that Europeans would impose empires on the people of the New World, especially since those indigenous peoples lacked metal weapons but were not short of precious metals. It surely is an instance of moral progress that colonialism has become unacceptable – at least in most Western societies. But it is pointlessly anachronistic to suppose that sixteen-century Europeans, Aztecs, or Incas should have known better.

Christopher Columbus was and is an icon of Western civilization. He ushered in the Age of Discovery; he found a way west to a New World. He was a flawed man of his age who should be honored in our times for his great deeds. Let parades march in Philadelphia for as long as we can honestly appreciate history and those who made it.

About George J. Galloway 10 Articles
George J. Galloway is a retired history teacher, now freelance writer and novelist. He is a father of three and married to Cathy, his bride of 33 years. He writes from his little Cape Cod in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at georgegalloway.wordpress.com/.

9 Comments

  1. Anti-Columbus, Anti-Washington sentiments and protests of the national anthem are all fruits of the same poison tree. They all have the same globalist, Marxist goals of uprooting civilization and replacing it with something else.

    Why is it happening? I would guess that the institutions that are supposed to protect civilization (including the church) have been corrupted by the deceivers and so they have been filling the heads with garbage for some time and now the mindless are ready for conquest.

    Will academia come to the defense of Columbus, Will the media? no. but neither will pope “border are sinful, who am I to judge”. Neither will your local bishop. It is easier to make moral equivalence between the Aztecs who were sacrificing people on their altars and the Catholic missionaries, than it is to say “happy Columbus day”

  2. Decent article. But since we are all “flawed” I see no point in even calling Columbus a “flawed man.” It is quite redundant.

    And by the way, colonialism, slavery and genocide are still with us today. They have just changed forms and are largely ignored by mainstream media and politicians because they do not fit a particular narrative of “progress.”

  3. It always intrigues me when the only group to try to paint a wholesome picture of Columbus are Catholic. Columbus etched his name with the indigenous people of Hispaniola, the Taino tribes, (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He had a mission ordered by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to plunder all the gold he could find for the Spanish throne. In that effort Columbus and his Conquistadores murdered and raped and pillaged the Tainos and when he left the population had dropped by 80 percent.

    Given all that I feel that it would be unfair to remove Columbus’ monuments.

  4. George, obviously Columbus participated in and even, to some extent, ushered in the Age of Discovery regarding the America’s. But what was his motivation? I’m afraid that Most the original historical documents and commentary of the time lean more to a motivation of Glory & Riches than Evangelization. In fact, some of the earliest records seem to suggest that his emphasis on Evangelization of the aborigines he expected to find, even to the addition of priests for the first voyage only came about in his ‘final’ request to the Queen, after several previous rejectionns, in order to ‘seal’ the deal. That Columbus was brave, I don’t believe that there is any doubt. That he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of most of the crews of his 3 ships in his quest, does not seem to be in doubt, as well. (Though I guess it’s hard to make an omelet without breaking a few eggs) But every other flaw, AND positive motives pale when compared to the savage genocide that he inflicted on the native peoples he met. Even some, and I say some, of his own priests had trouble with his tactics. So much so, that they eventually reported those activities back to the Queen incurring the royal couple’s censure and demotion to the point where Columbus ends up almost penniless and dies in relative obscurity in his own time. Of course, Spain did not hesitate to claim possession of most of the America’s based on the voyages
    of Columbus. Hypocrites, they may well be, but they certainly recognized a good thing when they saw it, and made some half-hearted attempts to reign in others, to the extent possible. The Catholic Church, really being the only Christian authority at the time, unfortunately became a little complicit in all of this but I suppose that we are to accept this as well as just a flawed institution, a victim of circumstance, just caught up in events at the time.
    I guess where i’m going with all this is that, every generation ofPeoplrIS expected to grow and mature in the understanding of its past with an eye to improving future understanding and the outcome of events, based on that improved understanding. Much of this idolization of Columbus and Confederate Generals within North America is a product of the effort of special groups with specific agenda’s, not all good, in the early 20th Century,
    As an aside, I note with some interest that Robert e. Lee himself, was very against such displays, feeling at the time, that their presence was not counterproductive in helping our nation reconcile. That adoration of Columbus in the U.S. comes about through the energies of certain Italian groups(whose names Escape me at the moment,) in direct response to agrevious acts of discriimination they encountered in that massive wave of immigration in the l800’s. I tend to feel that they were fairly successful in that mission, I guess I am in the camp where, first, we don’t put up any more statutes that are not sensibly vetted to assure that they reflect real heroism and/or the embodiment of what is the best in our society that we and our children should want to emulate on ANY given day. Now, or in the future.As to the removal of current statues, I don’t seek to have them destroyed, but I do believe that their placement in what are, generally very prominent public places sends the wrong message. Removal of these to historical parks such as battlefields allows us to acknowledge their place in history, in their historical context. So WHERE do we put Columbus? I really don’t know, except to say if a historical park exists that commentary of Columbus makes a lot of sense, that would be perfect. I would still want appropriate placards that recognize ALL the significant facts of his life, again in context, in order to be clear that, while flawed persons maybe remembered for their UNIQUE contributions to History it is very clear that this in no way excuses their behaviors beyond the pale AND we, as a people, will never forget the existence of both, even if only as a warning to future generations.

  5. If there is an opportunity to correct some spelling and sentence construction errors, I would appreciate the opportunity. I wrote this on the fly, and Typing quickly on an iPad has never been my forte. Thank you.

  6. You all need to read Father John A. Hardon’s book on Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Discovery of America. It is available at the Marian Catechist bookstore, as well as online in transcripts of his talks at RealPresence.org. Fr. Hardon made it his job to become a Columbus expert, and his findings are mind boggling. Nothing in mere secular history can compare to this. It is Providence that led him to bring Christianity to a New World mere years before the 1531 Guadalupe apparition in Mexico and subsequent conversion to the Church of untold millions (the largest conversion event in history), right at the time Europe and England would lose similar amount of Christians to the “Reformation.” All the other blatherings about politics are useless. And it was only 40 years after that in 1571 the Battle of Lepanto gained victory for Christendom and Western civilization against the Muslims, who would have overtaken the New World as well. So thank a Catholic that we can sit here today and argue amongst ourselves from a cosy armchair.

  7. COLUMBUS & THE PROBLEM OF FACTS

    I propose one modest rule in any discussion about controversies concerning Columbus: Just state the facts–the indisputed, known facts–that are leading some people to object to Columbus being celebrated and honored.

    Just put those facts out there on the page, and then proceed on with your defense of celebrations of Columbus, if you wish.

    Here, I believe, is a fair and accurate statement of the relevant facts:

    (1) Columbus and his soldiers conquered by force the peaceful, friendly, gentle, helpful, unarmed Taino people on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

    (2) Columbus obtained from the King of Spain the right to rule as governor over the Taino people on the island of Hispaniola. Columbus neither sought nor obtained any consent of the governed (the Tainos). Columbus had no mandate from God to rule these people (unless you view the King of Spain as having the “divine right of kings,” and therefore being a chain in authority leading up to God).

    (3) As Governor of Hispaniola, Columbus instituted a system requiring all the adult Tainos to bring to him a certain amount of gold each year. Any Taino who failed to bring in the required amount was punished by having their hand cut off by Columbus’ soldiers.

    (4) After Columbus’ soldiers began cutting the hands off of Taino men and women, many of the Taino men began to retaliate by killing few of Columbus soldiers. As consequence, Columbus declared that the Taino were carrying out a political rebellion against Columbus’ rightful (King-appointed) authority as governor of the Island. In order to put down this supposed political rebellion, Columbus then rounded up hundreds of Taino men and hung them on poles and had them publicly tortured to death. Some of them would hang on the poles in agony for days before finally dying.

    (5) A Dominican priest named Father Bartolomé de las Casas witnessed these events and wrote a report on all this and sent the report to the King of Spain.

    (6) Upon learning of these reports of Columbus’ conduct as governor of Hispaniola (as described above), the King of Spain sent new soldiers to Hispaniola, and these soldiers arrested Columbus due to the allegations of his crimes against the Taino people. Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains.

    (7) In Spain, Columbus was imprisoned.

    (8) But after a few weeks, Columbus was released. No trial was ever held, so he was neither found innocent or guilty of the crimes against the Taino of which he was accused. No explanation for his release was ever given.

    (9) Shortly after this, the King of Spain provided Columbus with funds for yet another voyage to the Indies.

    Those are the facts.

    If someone who knows of those facts, and who is willing to put those facts forward in any discussion or writing, wants to view and promote Columbus as a Catholic saint or a great man deserving of celebration and honor, okay, then, be my guest. Make your case. But at least know the facts and state the facts. Be clear. Be specific.

    Don’t just speak in vague generalities, saying things like Columbus was “a flawed hero—as all men are flawed.”

    Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were each “a flawed hero—as all men are flawed.” That can be truly said.

    But neither of Lincoln or Davis did anything like turn an island of friendly, helpful people into de facto slaves and then amputate their hands when they failed to deliver a certain demanded measure of gold that was intended to make Lincoln or Davis wildly rich.

    And please don’t draw a moral equivalence between Catholics and the pagan peoples of the Americas. This article quotes with approval this statement:

    “But it is pointlessly anachronistic to suppose that sixteen-century Europeans, Aztecs, or Incas should have known better.”

    Those Europeans referred to in that quote above were Roman Catholics. There’s no moral equivalence between Roman Catholics and unsophisticated pagans worshiping a bird god! And, in particular, we are talking about the European named Christopher Columbus, someone who in his writings depicted himself as a pious, devout Catholic. How on earth can anyone draw a moral equivalence between Roman Catholics sailing under the flag of Catholic Spain and the pagan peoples of the Americas!

    A few years ago, the Knights of Columbus magazine attempted a defense of the crimes of Columbus. I felt sorry for the historian who had written that article. It was, I thought, just such a shipwreck of the principles that are so vital to any historian.

    But what are the Knights of Columbus supposed to do? Their whole organization is named after Columbus! Well, what would be wrong with switching to the Knights of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Mary never demanded gold of anyone, and never amputated anyone’s hand. The Catholic Church is so rich with saints! We don’t need Columbus.

    To be Catholic means to be honest.
    To be Catholic means to be fair.
    To be Catholic means to be reasonable.

    Let’s stop Political-Correctness-in-Reverse.

    Let’s stop defending the indefensible.

    Misrepresentations of the past by Catholics, whether intentional or not, whether well-intentioned or not, only drive people more and more away from Christ and His Church. Isn’t that true? I seem to recall St. John Paul II speaking one time about the need for Catholics to own up about disreputable, immoral events in the Catholic past.

    There’s a similar debate in today’s Spain about whether or how the former Spanish dictator Franco (1936-1975) should be honored. Well, he ordered the murder-without-trial of thousands of people, including many Catholics. We don’t need him either!

  8. POPE BENEDICT XVI ENDORSED THE PRIEST WHO CONDEMNED COLUMBUS

    Father Bartolomé de las Casas was a priest who was in the Indies at the same time as Columbus, and he was the leading voice in condemning the immoral actions of Columbus in his treatment of the peaceful, friendly Taino Indians.

    Read what Pope Benedict said about Father Bartolomé de las Casas in the year 2007:

    “Certainly the memory of a glorious past can not ignore the shadows that accompanied the work of evangelization of the Latin American continent: it is not possible to forget the sufferings and injustices inflicted by the colonizers on the indigenous populations, often trampled on their fundamental human rights. But the obligatory mention of those unjustifiable crimes – for the rest condemned already by missionaries like Bartolomé de las Casas and by theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria, of the University of Salamanca – should not prevent to acknowledge with gratitude the admirable work that has been carried out the divine grace among those populations throughout these centuries.”

    SOURCE: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/es/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20070523.html

    Anyone who wishes to make a “case for Columbus” should at least give due weight to statements like that.

    I found 65 documents on the Vatican website that mention Father Bartolomé de las Casas.

    Maybe we should be celebrating Father Bartolomé de las Casas Day.

    Then the unbelieving world would see that the superiority of the Catholic Way of Life lies not in superior sailing skills or in ship building technology, and not in the conquest and subjugation of other people so as to take their gold and other resources, but is found in the realm of respect for human rights, human dignity, human solidarity, basic morality, love of Christ, love of neighbor, peace, justice, speaking the truth and being honest in all business and political dealings, and in kindness to strangers (whenever possible).

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