October 12 marked Christopher Columbus’s birthday. On Monday, October 10, the country commemorated the occasion.
However, formal observance should not be confused with celebration.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is impossible to escape: Everyone from across religious and political lines makes sure to let everyone else know that they’re doing something or other to honor the memory of King. In stark contrast, excepting some annual big city parades, those who are interested in ingratiating themselves to polite (politically correct) society, if they mention Columbus at all, will do so only in order to lament the fact that he’s been celebrated.
For a long time, Columbus Day was a big deal in this country. All of this began to change, however, once the left began seizing control of those of our institutions that function as centers of opinion-shaping. Courtesy of this fundamental transformation of the cultural landscape, the image of Columbus himself has been transformed from a hero of Western civilization to its archetypal villain.
Columbus symbolizes all that the left despises, a white, heterosexual, Catholic Christian man, an “imperialist” and “capitalist.” Russell Means, an American Indian activist, epitomizes this attitude when he says of Columbus that he makes Hitler look like “a juvenile delinquent.”
While it would be dishonest to characterize Columbus as a saint or deny that his discovery of those lands that would one day be referred to by the world as “the Americas” came at the cost of injustices, it is at least as dishonest to depict him as the villain that the left would have us believe he is.
Not long after his first encounter with the indigenous peoples, Columbus wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that “they are meek and know no evil.” The Arawak-speaking tribes are without religion, he said, but neither is it accurate to describe them as “idolaters.” “They are very trusting,” Columbus continued, and “believe there is a God in Heaven [.]”
In fact, the indigenous peoples believed that the Europeans were from Heaven.
Columbus concluded by imploring the King and Queen to approve of the explorers’ attempts to “make them Christians.”
Columbus, then, esteemed the first Indians with whom he had contact. And the feeling was mutual.
As it turns out, they were happy to have met up with the Spaniards because, contrary to what PC revisionists would have us think, the Taino Indians sought protection from the fierce Caribs, another indigenous tribe. The Caribs regularly practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism. They would also routinely invade their enemies’ homes, abduct women and make concubines of them.
Nor were young boys safe: The Caribs would castrate them before eating them.
When returning on his second voyage, Columbus rescued both female and male captives alike.
Yet neither were the Tainos as pure as Columbus thought, for they too engaged in human sacrifice. According to a little booklet, Columbus on Trial, published by Young America’s Foundation in 1992 to commemorate the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, the Arawak speakers had ritual contests that would culminate with humans being sacrificed. Though he could very well have been mistaken, one of the Conquistadors estimated that as many as 20,000 Indians died by means of this ritual in one year on the island of Hispaniola alone.
Still, Columbus retained cordial relations with some indigenous tribes. There is one person in particular, a Chief Guacanagari, to whom Columbus felt especially indebted. On Christmas Eve of 1492, the Santa Marie ran aground off the shore of what is now Haiti. The locals helped the Europeans salvage their goods and afterwards they held a feast to celebrate the rescue. Gifts, lavish gifts, were exchanged and Guacanagari and his brother asked to visit Spain with Columbus when he returned.
Columbus didn’t bring his new friends back with him, but he did leave 40 sailors behind under Guacanagari’s protection. When he returned the following year, every sailor had been killed. The Chief said that an enemy tribe had attacked and the Chief himself had suffered a leg wound trying to protect the Spaniards. Even though the doctor with Columbus determined that no leg wound was visible, Columbus accepted the Chief’s story.
Their friendship endured, with Guarcanagari’s tribe frequently battling alongside the Spaniards against other Indian nations. At one point, upon seeing his ship, these Indians swam to Columbus to rescue them from the Caribs.
Columbus lamented that the indigenous peoples “give everything for a trifle.” He resolved to insure that they were treated fairly by the colonists in their exchanges, and as governor he didn’t hesitate to arrest and execute those Spaniards who committed criminal offenses.
The Dominican Friar Bartolome De Las Casas, a stalwart advocate for Indians, remarked on the “sweetness and benignity” of Columbus’s character. Upon reflecting back on the latter in the light of the atrocities that would later ensue, he remarked: “Truly I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions, for I knew him well and I know his intentions were good.”
Cecilia Kirk puts it well. Columbus’s “behavior was not all bad,” she says, “and in some cases” it “was quite admirable…given the problems he faced.” What we can’t deny is that “some undeniably great element in the human spirit manifested itself in the risks he took for the causes he embraced.” Kirk notes that “the very reality of our world, a complex network of all the peoples of the globe, owes a great deal to Columbus’ courage and vision.”
She concludes by saying that “all of us, red, white, black, and yellow can feel some sense of gratitude toward the man who showed that we live in one world, not only in theory or in the abstract, but in actual living fact.”
This is probably the fairest, most accurate characterization of Columbus and his legacy—even if it is insufficiently politically correct.
Happy belated Columbus Day!