Columbus Day celebrates the legacy, not the actions

It has become fashionable in the past few decades to denigrate the legacies of the men who built the West. Among the defamed is none other than Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who, through unmatched bravery and heroism, led the effort to establish the first permanent colony in the New World. 

The incredible ignorance surrounding Columbus’ actions in the New World and the gross understatement of his world changing achievements has led some in the U.S. to call for the end of our veneration of the great explorer, which takes place the second Monday of every October in this country. This call for the end of our celebration of the founder of the New World is rooted in a lack of historical nuance necessary for a fair assessment of his legacy. 

In order to properly understand the importance of Columbus’ actions in the New World, we must first understand the state of the world when he left Spain for the great unknown. Columbus left Spain in 1492, attempting to find a sea passage from Europe to Asia. Specifically, he was looking for the most direct route to India. Unbeknownst to anyone on continental Europe, in between Europe and continental Asia were two continents untouched by the outside world. Columbus’ voyage to the New World and subsequent return to Spain commenced the Age of Exploration and laid the foundation for the creation of modern civilization on the North and South American continents. Columbus’s unification of the New and Old Worlds is undoubtedly the single most important event in modern history. 

The lack of historical nuance in our modern understanding of the great explorer begins with an examination of Columbus’s interactions with the Native Americans of North and South America on his journeys to the New World (Columbus made four trips in total during his lifetime). As has been hammered home by those who wish to tarnish Columbus’ legacy, the explorer and his crew did brutally murder and enslave some Native Americans; that is undisputed. What is up for debate is whether or not the actions of Columbus are enough to remove a federal holiday in his name.

Though revolting to our 21st century sensibilities, the actions of Columbus and his crew are more indicative of the time period the men lived in than any sort of moral failure. Columbus, a devout Catholic, arrived in the New World believing that anyone he would encounter was a lesser human being (because they were not Christian), and therefore was not entitled to the same rights as Spaniards or Italians. Knowing that the concept of “human rights” did not exist when Columbus and his men traveled to the New World, can we honestly expect a man with only the knowledge of 1492’s morality to abide by the standards of human rights we have established for ourselves in 2019? Is it any surprise that a man who thought the Native Americans of the New World were savages mistreated them? Of course not. 

Columbus’ attitudes towards the Native Americans of the New World were not aberrations. Those sentiments were held by pretty much every other Christian in the world at the time – including the Pope. It wasn’t until 1539, a full 33 years after Columbus’s death, that Spanish philosopher Francisco de Vittoria was able to successfully petition Charles V, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, to extend the rights of Spaniards to the native populations of the New World. Vittoria’s compelling arguments and the Emperor’s reforms effectively ended the Encomienda system in the America’s. 

Pointing out the unfair standard modern day activists hold Columbus to is in no way meant to diminish the suffering Native Americans were put through during the era of European colonization, but is instead designed to highlight an issue in the way contemporary observers analyze historical figures. 

The graceless way in which political actors, frequently driven by anti-Western animus, refuse to acknowledge the nuanced nature of history in favor of meaningless moral preening is a disgraceful act of revisionism. When looking at the great figures of the past, we should assess their actions based on the circumstances they lived in, not arrogantly believe that our modern understanding of morality gives us a right to spit on their graves. 

The calls for the destruction of monuments to Jefferson, the covering up of murals of George Washington and the elimination of Christopher Columbus Day are symptomatic of our modern lack of historical nuance and understanding. Instead of erasing the world-changing achievements of Columbus, we should embrace the nuanced legacy of the man who found the West. We must remember the words of Isaac Newton, who once said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”