Like so many once bland and unobjectionable topics in America, Columbus Day has tragically morphed into a battleground for ideological warfare. Adoration or scorn for Columbus is loaded with underlying symbolism. Some see him as a symbol of America’s spirit of exploration, a hero who journeyed to the far corners of the known world, challenged contemporaneous misconceptions, and radically altered the course of history. To others, he embodies the archtypical oppressor, a man who set in place a chain of events that culminated with end of Native American history and the emergence of Euro-American history. They see Columbus as an early forefather to America, imposing his will on the weak and rewriting history in the name of the victor.
It's hard to sit on the sidelines without comment. The two opposing points on the spectrum both seem rather ridiculous. But while I understand the reason for simplifying a person for the purpose of creating a parable, I find it rather sanctimonious and unfair when people attribute modern values onto historical figures. Those who see Columbus as anything more than a man of his time fundamentally misunderstand Columbus' role in helping conceive the philosophical worldview that now damns him.
To explain this point, we must first understand the historical context in 1492. When Columbus sailed the Atlantic in search of spices and riches from the Indian subcontinent, he did so under the auspices of the Spanish flag and in tribute to the Catholic Church. His obligation to the Church was simple: find heathens and civilize them. His obligation to the Spanish monarchs (who were busy running a minor domestic operation lopping off Muslim and Jewish heads) was to bring back wealth and glory. And so Columbus set course due west with the dual obligation of converting uncivilized men and helping fund Spain’s bloody Inquisition.
It is intuitively obvious that Columbus did not 'discover' the Americas, but it should also be obvious that Columbus assumed in good faith that he was carrying out "God's work" in trying to 'civilize' those whom he thought he discovered. Enlightenment ideas of liberalism, fraternity, and equality of man would not exist in the popular consciousness for another several centuries. More notably, the moral compass of the time – the Catholic Church – espoused a violent and dehumanizing view of non-Catholics. A long-running theological debate centered on the question of whether killing a non-Catholic was even killing a man.
But let’s briefly return to this all-important concept of modern liberal values. The political philosophy that articulates man’s duty to man evolved as a consequence of centuries of colonization and of Europeans traversing continents. It was the consequence of accumulated knowledge about foreign lands and foreign cultures (correlated with rapid economic and scientific expansion) and of Europeans thinking deeply about the moral consciousness of humanity. But in order for this moral consciousness to develop, Europeans first had to [philisophically] evolve beyond the growing pains of history. It is thus fairly presumptuous and insincere to impose post-Enlightenment liberal values on a man who operated under a completely different value system.
To articulate this point, we go back to the Americas of the 1500s. It is often forgotten that the principle allies of the Spanish Conquistadors – men like Cortés and Velásquez – were Native Americans once colonized by the Inca. These natives allied with the Conquistadors so as to exact revenge on their previous exploiters. I raise this fact not to suggest that Europeans were somehow more enlightened, or compare brutal acts against brutal acts. Rather, the point helps illustrate that enlightenment ideals didn't exist. People everywhere tended to be barbarous to each other. That was the name of the game.
In returning to Columbus, we must ask ourselves, why do we celebrate this man? Assuming for the moment that Columbus could not live up to our modern moral standard, we still celebrate him as an explorer who pushed the outer bounds of the known world. The myth of Christopher Columbus glorifies an essential American credo, and his spirit of exploration has inspired Americans to explore the unknown. A linear case can be made that the Mars rover of today takes its inspiration from stories of Columbus.
Most of history's heroes were flawed men (as far as I can tell, the only exception is Jesus). Winston Churchill was an avowed colonialist. Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese. George Washington executed deserters. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who fathered bastard children with his slave. Abraham Lincoln did untold things to save the union. But in the balance of history, these men are seen as Great men. Yes, some of that is mythmaking, but what is so wrong with a few superheroes?
Poor Columbus died destitute and impoverished in prison on the island of Hispaniola. After making a name for himself, Europe didn't even honor him as the explorer who 'discovered' the Americas. That honor somehow went to Americo Vespucci, who usurped Columbus and got his [first] name tagged onto not one, but two continents. It wasn't until the early 1800s that post-colonial South Americans honored Columbus' spirit by giving him an eponym of his own, a beautiful country that we would all do well to explore.
In the United States we honor him too. We utter his name every time we mention the nation's capital. To honor his spirit, and maybe to help indoctrinate our youth about the glory of exploration, we gave him a holiday. He deserves it.