The 528th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Americas has arrived. So many statues and monuments of Columbus have already been defaced or taken down in 2020 that the barbarians at our gates may be despairing about what worlds they have left to conquer—the targets for October mischief have rapidly disappeared at the hands of public officials too cowardly or woke to defend them. The Columbus statue at the intersection of Memorial Parkway and Mohawk Street in downtown Utica, N.Y.—near where I live—had remained relatively free of harassment until late September, when a vandal sprayed “Killer” in red paint on the statue’s plinth. Work crews removed the paint, but little more than a week later, the statue was hit again with the same message, in the same color. No arrests have been made.
Columbus Day in the United States has become just another symbolic marker of Western civilization to take a beating from the woke clerisy and its acolytes. On college campuses, defensive administrators may give thanks if Monday’s holiday passes quickly and silently into Tuesday’s classes. If not, noisy undergraduate activists stoked by faculty mentors may stage alternative ceremonies, which typically portray a lovely and pristine New World before palefaces arrived to ensanguine and despoil it. Columbus-bashers appear to see history post-1492 as a long, neat row of fallen dominoes, with Columbus at the beginning and Donald Trump at the end.
To dismiss Columbus’s heroism and daring accomplishments, however, is to revel in ignorance. A closer look at Columbus’s own writings indicates that he straddled the line between medieval and modern. Columbus understood himself as less an agent of Spanish imperialism than as a purveyor of Christian evangelicalism. He embarked on his first voyage excited by biblical prophecy, determined to fulfill an eschatological vision that he believed would usher in the millennium. Hungry for status, believing himself chosen by God, he failed to realize his prophetic dreams—and his discoveries led to unforeseeable consequences. The burden of their causation cannot fairly be blamed on him, however, as if he were some bow-backed Atlas bearing responsibility for all the crimes of the world.
After 1492, powerful forces were unleashed over which human agency had little or no control. The demographic disaster experienced by the New World’s indigenous peoples stemmed largely from the unintended consequences of pathogenic agents that had accompanied Europeans and Africans to the Americas. Columbus critics often use him as a stand-in for all of European or Western civilization. But we shouldn’t forget that he sailed from a world of war, colonization, servitude, and immiseration to another world of war, servitude, colonization, and immiseration. Neither the Aztecs nor any other polity of indigenous peoples qualifies for sainthood. Hernando Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors could not have taken central Mexico so quickly without the assistance of tens of thousands of indigenous allies eager to free themselves from brutal overlords who, according to one scholar, ran a “theocratic anti-state whose rigidity might have made Albert Speer faint.”
Several decades before Columbus’s arrival, for example, the Huaxtecs of the northern Gulf Coast revolted against their Aztec oppressors and were crushed. The victors marched tens of thousands of captured men, women, and children to the Aztec’s capital city. The adult males were connected by cords that passed through perforations in their nostrils. For days, thousands of Huaxtecs, perhaps more than 20,000, were sacrificed at ceremonial centers before capacity crowds. Their hearts were cut out, Apocalypto style, with dull stone knives. The Maya and the Inca also showed a predilection for bloodletting.
Whatever the net balance of Columbus’s demonstrable sins when weighed against his remarkable achievements, his “Enterprise of the Indies” set in motion the formation of an Atlantic world with sustained and intensifying contacts between peoples on four continents. Over the ensuing centuries of exploration, successful and not, the design emerged of an orderly system of trans-Atlantic commerce—one that, along with considerable human suffering, also brought enormous and undeniable benefits to the world’s peoples. Determining who won and who lost defies any simple calculus.
The point on Columbus Day should not be to ignore or absolve Columbus, the Spanish, or anyone else of their prejudices or their complicity in horrible acts, but to appreciate the complexity of history in all its unsentimental and tragic unloveliness. On Columbus Day, we might reflect on how it is the extraordinary self-criticism brought about by the concept of personal freedom that germinated in Western culture—and Western culture alone—that has permitted modern critics to excoriate Columbus. “I, like the more honest of my race,” wrote Derek Walcott, a writer of African descent who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, “give a strange thanks . . . for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.” Amen.