On Monday, October 14, 2013, on the Monmouth and Ocean Section of Asbury Park Press there was a picture of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain, the monarch behind the 1492 exploratory journey. The pictures were of two people from the preceding day’s parade in Seaside Heights that has celebrated this tradition for the past 22 years. On the same day, one of my kids was telling me a that she saw something on the internet asking a Native Indian if he plans to celebrate Columbus Day, to which he replied if he was Jewish would he celebrate the birthday of Hitler. We can say that in America the opinions about Columbus are divided.
We fail to understand the success of the modern world unless we see the explosive exploratory world that sent Columbus here. Spain was victorious over its enemies, Portugal was a maritime power, the city of Venetia was still at its peak of riches, and the city of Florence was basking in its glorious art forms that were the envy of the world. In this mix, there is a combination of military, economic, and religious realities. This combination can work wonders at times and this combination can be disastrous.
In order for Columbus to sail he needed lots of money – he needed sponsors. From Ferdinand and Isabella to nobility across the Mediterranean ports, investment in the 1492 trip was of utmost importance. If it would not have been a time of economical boom in Europe in which people were seeking new ways to invest their money, Columbus would not have sailed.
At the same time, the conquistador spirit made its expansion. From maritime captains to military generals, to bourgeoisie family that sent their sons to explore the unknown worlds, the conquering word was in the air. The military in those days was to exercise power and many times the exercise of the power was seen in how much land or how many nations they conquered.
The church operating under the Great Commission which tells her to go into all the world and preach the gospel saw this as an opportunity to do exactly that. In the Medieval Ages the church proclaimed the gospel and the invading tribes of Goths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Lombards, and Vikings were Christianized by this point. There were other worlds to find and bring the Gospel to.
Columbus somehow epitomizes all these characteristics in one. He is aware that his explorations will enrich and bring glory to the rulers of Spain that sponsored his trip. He is well versed in the Scriptures and wants to bring the Gospel to the Indians. Yet, he is not unwilling to use force when things do not go his way.
There are a number of complete falsehoods that sometimes people propagate around Columbus. The first one is that he intentionally sought to destroy the Native Indian nations and that he intentionally brought certain diseases that later on decimated the Indians. One only has to remember how much later in medicine they started talking about diseases and sterilizing the surgical equipment to disprove this falsehood!
The other falsehood is that before the Europeans arrived here, the Indian tribes lived in complete harmony. History shows us that they fought against one another before the Europeans arrived and they continued to do so for a long time afterwards. They did not learn war from Europeans.
The context that educated Columbus was twofold. From the Greeks, he inherited the concept of the academy, and from the barbarians and the Romans he inherited the concept of civilitas or civilization. The desire was to civilize, to educate, to improve the conditions of the other people, while at the same time himself and the patrons that sponsored the trips becoming rich in the process.
In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, the author Jared Diamond raises a profound historical question: Why if all things were equal and if the civilization and the armies of Mexico in the 15th century were as good, if not better, than the civilization and the armies of Spain, why did Spain start to conquer the world and Mexico did not? What has happened that the resistance was so thin when they arrived here?
No historian should excuse the sins of Columbus and other people that have followed him in the New World. At the same time, we should not impugn to his memory things that we come to regard as sinful or negative in the process of 500 years of history. At the same time, we should not dismiss lightly how the world has changed because of what he has done and the benefits that occurred then and up to our own time. In the scale of a global, international history with all the sins and shortcomings, Columbus is still a respectable explorer and for that he should be admired and celebrated.