Columbus Day

Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores;
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now we must pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l speak: what shall I say?”
“Why, say: ‘Sail on, sail on, and on!'”

“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly, wan and weak.”
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
“What shall I say, brave Adm’r’l, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say at break of day:
‘Sail on, sail on, sail on, and on!”

They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from those dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Adm’r’l, speak and say—
He said: “Sail on, sail on, and on!”

They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
“This mad sea shows his teeth tonight.
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
He lifts his teeth, as if to bite!
Brave Adm’r’l, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?”
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on, sail on, sail on, and on!”

Then pale and worn, he paced the deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
A light! A light! At last a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: On! sail on!”

-Columbus, Joaquin Miller

 

I’m a little late on this, but oh, well.

There are actually very few people in history who can be said to have ‘changed the world.’ Most of the time great achievements are not as singular as we think looking back. If the Wright Brothers, for instance, had never lived, mankind still would have discovered flight; there were other inventors working on the problem at the time. They were just the first ones to crack it.

On the other hand, Columbus is a man who genuinely changed the world, in that, as far as I know, there was no one else at the time who was even considering doing what he did. It required a special combination of brilliance, selective ignorance, zeal, and unbounded courage to pull off. Brilliance because he had to have the navigational knowledge and understanding to chart the fastest possible course across the unknown ocean (he made the voyage in five weeks). Ignorance because he had to think he could actually reach Asia, an idea he only had based on miscalculating the size of the globe, as many of his contemporary critics tried to point out to him. Zeal because he had to spend most of his life trying to find backing for his voyage. He was over forty when he finally made it. And courage because he had to venture into the unknown, with no guarantee that he would find anything. His ships could only carry so much supplies, and if there was nothing to find it was entirely in the cards that by the time they turned back they wouldn’t have enough to make it home.

As for his accused crimes, I personally don’t know enough about him to say one way or another, except that accusations of genocide are obviously grotesquely exaggerated (‘genocide,’ like ‘homicide’ implies intent, and it’d take a lot to convince me Columbus or really any of the old explorers intended to exterminate the native races. Christianizing them would have been more fitting to their views). Nor can Columbus be blamed for introducing slavery to the New World; not only was he not personally responsible for the slave trade, but slavery already existed as a flourishing trade among the native peoples.

In any case, an important thing to remember about history is that most people are horrible in one way or another; you can’t expect real people living in distant ages to act in ways entirely pleasing to the modern mind. Besides which, even if the worst said about him is true, that doesn’t take away his accomplishment. He discovered the New World and opened it up to European civilization, leading to the settling, civilizing, and Christianizing of two continents. That’s a unique achievement and those of us who benefit from it (i.e. everyone on those said continents) owe him a debt.

By the way, some people try to pull the ‘he didn’t discover it; there were people there.’ For the purposes of human history, it was undiscovered. The pre-columbian American continents are black holes with flashes of light, mostly in the form of artifacts (i.e. unreadable to any but a civilized mind). As far as human civilization was concerned, they went nowhere and did nothing. I’m sure someone will call this ‘Euro-centrism,’ but it isn’t; the existence of the American continents was equally unknown and irrelevant to China, Japan, India, and the Islamic world before 1492. Historically speaking, Columbus shone a spotlight on about a third of the planet that had spent the whole of the preceding story of mankind in darkness.

In short, Columbus is a towering figure in history and, despite his failings and cruelties, deserves to be honored for the great contribution he made to human knowledge and civilization, and for the example of perseverance, courage, and magnanimity he displayed.

It is true [The Church] reserves her special and greatest honours for virtues that most signally proclaim a high morality, for these are directly associated with the salvation of souls; but she does not, therefore, despise or lightly estimate virtues of other kinds. On the contrary, she has ever highly favoured and held in honour those who have deserved well of men in civil society, and have thus attained a lasting name among posterity. 

-Pope Leo XIII

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