Why Columbus Still Deserves His Day

A look at the famous explorer's true motivations for undertaking his journeys.

Left-wingers view Christopher Columbus’s forays to the “New World” as the original sin of imperialist, capitalist exploitation of indigenous peoples living in a heretofore untouched paradise. There are calls to replace “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Statues honoring the intrepid explorer have been vandalized, with the New York City-based Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement threatening more destruction. “For the occasion of Columbus Day, October 9th, one of the most vile ‘holidays’ of the year,” its website warns, “the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement is calling for collectives all over the country to take action against this day and in support of indigenous people in the US and abroad who have been victims of colonialism and genocide.” Ironically, the leftists demonizing Columbus and calling for removal of memorials celebrating his explorations are following in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan, who did the same in the 1920’s.

Former President Barack Obama seemed to be onboard the revisionist history train when he used his 2016 Columbus Day proclamation to complain of “the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers." He bemoaned a past “marked by too many broken promises, as well as violence, deprivation, and disease.” He called for Americans to remember the “communities who suffered,” and to “embrace the multiculturalism that defines the American experience.”

In contrast, President Donald Trump proclaimed this Monday as Columbus Day without any of the revisionist, multicultural gibberish that appeared in Barack Obama’s 2016 proclamation. President Trump’s proclamation noted that "the permanent arrival of Europeans ... was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation." He called Columbus a “man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions -- even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.” In short, President Trump recognized Columbus as an extraordinary man of his time who set in motion a chain of events that would lead ultimately to the creation of the world’s leading beacon of hope, opportunity and freedom. 

To recognize Columbus’s accomplishments is not to say that his motives and actions were all heroic. He sought riches and had no hesitation taking back to Spain what he and his men could transport. He believed he was representing a more civilized society, which he thought justified his exercising dominion over the people he encountered in the lands he explored. In such ways, Columbus was very much a man of his times. However, Columbus was believed by some historians to have been ahead of his times with respect to at least one of his reasons for wanting to undertake his risky voyages of exploration. 

The year that Columbus set out on his first voyage to what he mistakenly thought was Asia – 1492 – was also the year that his patrons, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, issued their infamous order of expulsion, ordering Jews and Muslims who would not convert to Catholicism to leave Spain. Some Jews risked execution or imprisonment by feigning conversion, while secretly continuing to practice their Jewish faith. These “Marranos” were believed by a number of scholars who have studied Christopher Columbus’s life to have included Columbus himself. They believe that his motivation for undertaking his journey of exploration was at least in part to discover a land to which Jews could safely emigrate. 

Yehuda Azoulay, founder of the Sephardic Legacy Series Institute, noted various pieces of circumstantial evidence demonstrating Columbus’s possible Jewish affiliation. For example, Azoulay wrote, “Columbus is said to have used a unique triangular signature resembling inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain and South France.” He “employed uniquely Jewish dates and phrases in his writings.” Furthermore, according to Azoulay, “in the upper left corner of his letters to his son Diego are the Hebrew letters ‘bet and heh,’ which stand for the Hebrew blessing ‘Be’ezrat Hashem – with Gd’s help.’”

In addition, Columbus had several Jews serving on his crew. He brought along a Hebrew-speaking interpreter. He received some financing for his exploration from one or more Jewish investors. Simon Wiesenthal, in his book entitled Sails of Hope, claimed that Columbus's first voyage was motivated by his desire to find a refuge for Jews expelled from Spain in a land that he thought was perhaps inhabited and ruled by descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes. 

There is no conclusive proof whether Columbus was in fact Jewish, although he at minimum appeared interested in Jewish history. However, even if Columbus were truly a Christian, not a secretly practicing Jew, a principal motive for seeking gold on his explorations was still likely a religious one, according to anthropologist Carol Delaney. Dr. Delaney, the author of Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, is an emerita professor at Stanford University and a previous assistant director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. She conducted extensive field work at key sites of Columbus’s life as well as archival research.

Columbus was looking for gold in his explorations, according to Dr. Delaney, “to fund a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world.” Dr. Delaney also said that Columbus believed in evangelizing the natives he encountered, a conclusion shared by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote more than a half-century ago, “This conviction that God destined him to be an instrument for spreading the faith was far more potent than the desire to win glory, wealth, and worldly honors.”

Whether Christopher Columbus was a Marrano secretly holding on to his Jewish faith or he was a devout Christian, Columbus was, as President Trump described him, a “man of faith.” Scholars who have actually studied Columbus’s life, including Dr. Delaney, have debunked accusations claiming Columbus was responsible for inflicting horrible crimes against the natives he encountered. Leftists’ stereotyping of Columbus as an evil imperialist motivated solely by greed and lust for power over hapless indigenous people is the false mirror image of their outrageous attempt to delegitimize the United States as the embodiment of white supremacy.  

Along with the leftists’ demonization of Columbus, they feel it necessary to romanticize the so-called “indigenous people” whom Columbus allegedly was responsible for brutalizing. Some of these people so admired by the left were reported to have practiced slavery themselves and to have engaged in cannibalism, human sacrifice and torture. Moreover, one such group of “natives” encountered by Columbus, the Caribs, were not “indigenous” to the Caribbean islands in the first place. They had migrated to some of the Caribbean islands from South America and pushed out the Arawaks, who had arrived several centuries previously, approximately 100 years before Columbus arrived. 

Christopher Columbus is not a saint. Neither was he an evil man as the leftist America-haters would like to portray him, just as the bigoted anti-Italian KKK had tried to do early in the last century. Columbus was a complicated human being with mixed motivations for his explorations, operating in vastly different circumstances than exist today. He deserves respect for his place in history as a courageous explorer who contributed in his own way, at least in part out of religious convictions, to the progress of human civilization.