Nothing so typifies the American Left’s present wave of statue-toppling, anti-historical hysteria as its war against Christopher Columbus. If you haven’t kept track, here are a handful of the latest attacks on, to borrow the title of Samuel Eliot Morison's excellent Columbus biography, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea:
Twenty-five year old Darlene Gonzales was arrested on September 22 for vandalizing a statue of Columbus in San Jose, California. The word “murderer” was spray-painted on a statue in Binghamton, New York in September. In Minneapolis, a petition is circulating to replace a Columbus statue at the state capitol with one of the artist formerly known as Prince. In Yonkers, a Columbus statue was beheaded. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio responded to vandalism of the famous Central Park Columbus statue by creating a commission to determine which historical monuments ought to be removed. In Los Angeles, Seattle, Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Ann Arbor, among other cities, Columbus Day has been renamed “Indigenous Peoples Day.” The Wikipedia page for the great explorer has been locked because left-wing revisionists have tried to make the man appear so controversial.
The Left so loathes Columbus because he personifies Western Civilization. A transnational, devout Christian illiterate of low birth, he single-handedly revitalized a dying Europe whose lands Muslim invaders had been steadily conquering for centuries. An autodidact and the greatest navigator of his age, he spent nearly a decade fruitlessly attempting to convince the Portuguese and later Spanish crowns to fund his impossibly ambitious vision, finding success only after he had formerly been ushered out of the palace gates. Columbus fulfilled Seneca’s prophesy that a New World would be discovered across the sea, he created the Modern Era, and he played the single most important role in the founding of America.
The typical mainstream media anti-Columbus hit piece goes as follows: cite a well known passage from the Admiral’s diary out of context, juxtapose it next to the testimony of his chief political rivals, and pretend that all of this information has only recently been uncovered.
Vox’s Dylan Matthews follows this strategy with his outlet’s typical sobriety in his 2015 article, “9 reasons Christopher Columbus was a murderer, tyrant, and scoundrel.” Perhaps the worst charge Matthews alleges is that “Settlers under Columbus sold 9- and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery.” Matthews asserts, “This one he admitted himself in a letter to Doña Juana de la Torre, a friend of the Spanish queen: ‘There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.’”
One might conclude from Vox’s article that Columbus devised the plan or at least approved of it. But the opposite is true. Columbus doesn’t brag about selling those girls into slavery or even defend the action. On the contrary, in the very next sentence, Columbus writes, “I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world.”
Anti-Columbus crusaders have in recent years focused most of their attention on a document discovered in 2006 that allegedly exposes the discoverer of the Americas as a monster. Headlines at the time of the document’s discovery include, “Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean,” “Columbus exposed as iron-fisted tyrant who tortured his slaves,” and “Christopher Columbus Was Actually Punished for Being a Horrible Person."
The news articles quote the most lurid and damning verses from this uncovered document, but virtually all remain silent on the nature of the document itself. The report’s author is none other than Francisco Bobadilla, Christopher Columbus’s chief political rival and the man who successfully usurped power from him in the West Indies. A modern analog would be to say that a document written by Walter Mondale proves Ronald Reagan was a terrible president.
Columbus spent years of his life refuting the document as a vicious libel and turned down as a matter of principle lucrative agreements with the Spanish crown that did not correct for history what he regarded as calumny. This is not to say that Columbus is guiltless in the Spanish treatment of natives. But the Left’s claims of Columbus’s special monstrosity are without foundation. Even Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first resident Bishop of the Americas and most vociferous defender of the indigenous islanders against Spanish slavery and brutality admired Christopher Columbus to the end and expressed as much in his History of the Indies.
Stanford professor emerita Carol Delaney marvels at the ignorance. “They are blaming Columbus for the things he didn’t do,” she explains. “It was mostly the people who came after, the settlers. I just think he’s been terribly maligned.” Delaney points out that in the man’s own writings and the writings of those who knew him, Columbus seems to be “very much on the side of the Indians” and even adopted the son of an American Indian leader he had befriended.
It’s no surprise that the era of fake news has uneducated ingrates tweeting unhistorical, anti-Western nonsense. So let’s dispel the confusion. Who was Christopher Columbus?
Cristoforo Colombo was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, to a lower middle class wool weaver. He was born to no rank and received no education other than the extensive self-instruction into which he would channel his sizeable genius. Bartolomé de Las Casas describes him as “more than middling tall; face long and giving an air of authority; aquiline nose, blue eyes, complexion light and tending to bright red, beard and hair red when young but very soon turned gray from his labors; he was affable and cheerful in speaking […] A forgiver of injuries, [he] wished nothing more than that those who offended against him should recognize their errors, and that the delinquents be reconciled with him.”
By 1480, Columbus had moved to Portugal, married the daughter of a nobleman, travelled to Iceland, Ireland, and Africa, and had his first son. He educated himself and made his first pitch to sail westward across the ocean to the Orient. The Portuguese crown rejected his proposal, so he traveled to Spain with his five-year-old son. By then a widower and in debt, particularly from the costs of burying his wife Dona Felipa in a manner befitting her noble rank, Columbus left quickly for Spain to pitch Queen Isabella on his vision to discover a new passage to the Indies. He spent five years combing the geographical texts of Marco Polo, Pliny, Pierre D’Ailly, and others to make his case before a royal committee.
At long last, after eight years of lobbying the Spanish Crown, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella rejected his request. But just as he left, the keeper of the Privy Purse convinced Queen Isabella to call him back. Las Casas believes it was ultimately Columbus’s personality and determination rather than the plausibility of his plan that convinced the Queen.
Another reason the Left hates Christopher Columbus is his devout Catholicism. He made a confession and took the Eucharist the morning he set sail. He said his book of hours privately in his own cabin, instructed the youngest sailors to lead prayers every half hour for the entire duration of the voyage, and ended each day of sailing with a ship-wide recitation of the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles’ Creed, and Hail Holy Queen.
With virtually no navigation tools at his disposal, Columbus relied on dead reckoning to navigate the uncharted Atlantic. He laid down compass courses and estimated distances on a chart. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus does not appear to have even taken an astrolabe on his first voyage.
The Admiral faced several mutinies, but sheer force of will and confidence in the divine providence of his journey prevented him from agreeing to his sailors’ demands and turning back for Spain. After several false landfalls, on the night of October 11, Columbus spotted a flickering light as that of a candle on the horizon. Several others on board attested to seeing the flash, but given the distance to shore, the flame could not have been a fire or a torch. No explanation has ever been given as to what the men saw, but within hours they spotted land.
But what of the rough treatment of natives? As has happened elsewhere in European contact with primitive societies—the Mayflower and Thanksgiving come to mind—relations started out well. Columbus and his men encountered the naked Taino people on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, so named for the Savior whom Columbus believed had delivered him to land. All parties remained peaceful, and Columbus specifically instructed his crews not to take advantage of the Indians.
The Tainos told the explorers about less peaceful tribes, which explained the marks and wounds on the natives’ bodies. Those tribes inhabited the Isla de Carib, and they were known for two things: elegant cotton rugs and eating people. Settlers who entered their huts found cotton rugs, some of which they brought back to Spain, and large cuts of human flesh. Other native tribes informed the explorers that the Caribs considered babies a particular delicacy.
The Caribs introduced the word “cannibal” into the English language. The Caribs of Dominica reportedly killed and ate anyone who came ashore, though one popular story explains that they once became sick after eating a friar and so left alone anyone in ecclesiastical garb. The Spaniards, the story goes, quickly learned to dress as friars when they needed to stop at Dominica for water or supplies.
Natives destroyed the first settlement established by Columbus, killing all the Spanish present and burning their buildings to the ground. Even then, Columbus showed restraint when his council wanted to kill various natives in their midst. Another group of natives mugged Spaniards and stole their clothes. Although Alonso de Hojada cut off the ears of one and captured three to be executed, Columbus intervened and let them live.
One must remember too that these were the first colonial questions in modern history. Civilized Europe had discovered territories inhabited by primitive tribes without precedent for governing those relationships. Columbus had to pioneer not merely a geographic expedition but also a first-ever matter of international diplomacy and domestic politics.
When Columbus returned from his second voyage, he wore the coarse brown habit of a friar because he believed his difficulties in colonial governance were divine punishment for his pride. He arrived in Santo Domingo on his third voyage in 1498 to disarray and a revolt led by local mayor Francisco Roldan. In order to quell the revolt, Columbus agreed to humiliating terms, including a creation of a system called repartimientos and later encomienda which extorted labor from the natives. Roldan had politically outmaneuvered the Admiral.
While he may have been a weak governor, accusations of tyranny came from political rivals and were indulged by the crown primarily because they had not yet recouped their investment in the voyages. The allegations also gave the crown pretext to avoid paying Columbus what it owed him, which he spent years trying to recoup. And to seal his political fate, Francisco de Bobadilla, Columbus’s chief political rival and author of the modern Left’s favorite defamation of the man, was able to gain power before the Spanish Crown knew Columbus and Roldan had come to terms. The man who risked everything to discover the New World and institute modernity was sent back to Europe in chains.
Columbus explained his outrage and gave an important lesson pride and historical judgment, which the Left in its undeserved self-adulation has utterly ignored. He wrote,
“They judge me there as a governor who had gone to Sicily or to a city or town under a regular government, where the laws can be observed in toto without fear of losing all, and I am suffering grave injury. I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people numerous and warlike, whose manners and religion are very different from ours, who live in sierras and mountains, without fixed settlements, and where by divine will I have placed under the sovereignty of the King and Queen our lords, an Other World, whereby Spain, which was reckoned poor, is become the richest of countries.”
The modern left-wing revisionist sits comfortably in the freest, most prosperous, most charitable country in the history of the world and from a position of wholly unmerited luxury slanders the man who made it all possible. He lacks even the decency, integrity, and intellectual curiosity to read the Vox Dot Com headline. It is as ungrateful as it is ignorant.
Columbus died on the Feast of the Ascension in 1506. His last words echoed his Savior’s, who said, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritu meum”: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” But earlier, in his Lettera Rarissima to the Spanish crown, he wrote what might serve as the final word on his historical legacy:
“Let those who are fond of blaming and finding fault, while they sit safely at home, ask, ‘Why did you not do thus and so?’ I wish they were on this voyage; I well believe that another voyage of a different kind awaits them, or our faith is naught.”
For any who missed that final rhetorical flourish, he suggests his defamers can go to Hell.