Driven in large part by political correctness and partisan academics and activists, it has become fashionable in recent years to criticize Christopher Columbus and the holiday named in his honor. Many of Columbus’ modern critics rely on a warped and politicized reading of history, and it is not the first time the explorer has endured such attacks. Despite animus among some groups today, the majority of Americans view the explorer positively and with pride. A closer look, however, reveals the famed explorer to be a man of faith and courage, not a monster.
Beginning in the 1840s, waves of European immigrants swelled the ranks of Catholics in America, and along with that came an increasingly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant backlash from the Protestant majority. Catholics were subject to discrimination, slander, ridicule, anti-Catholic propaganda and sometimes mob violence. When a resurgence of anti-Catholic bigotry erupted in early 20th-century America, Columbus was a favorite target then as well. Unfair attacks on Columbus, past and present, should not be allowed to obscure the truth about the man, his voyage and his motives.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Columbus was a deeply Catholic explorer, willing to go against the grain. He believed he could reach the shores of Asia by sailing a mere 3,000 miles west across the Atlantic. Such a passage would establish faster and easier trade routes than were possible through overland travel or by sailing south and east around Africa. Those who were skeptical of the admiral’s proposal did not hold that the earth was flat, as popular myth has suggested, but rather that it was much larger than Columbus believed. Scholars of his day calculated the distance to the Orient across the Atlantic at over 7,000 miles, out of practical range for ships of the day. Despite his miscalculations, after 10 weeks Columbus did, indeed, find land — not the outskirts of the Orient, as he went to his grave believing, but an entirely new continent.
Later, as our nation began to coalesce out of the colonies, its leaders recognized the admiral’s legacy. “Columbia” served as an informal name for what would become the United States of America. The eventual designation of the nation’s capital reflects the esteem the founders had for the Genoese explorer. President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a national Columbus holiday. He called for “expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith (of Columbus), and for Divine care and guidance which has directed our history and so abundantly blessed our people.” Colorado was the first state to establish Columbus Day in 1907, and others soon followed. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress made Columbus Day a federal holiday, mandating its first annual observance on Oct. 12, 1937.
Nonetheless, there have been political efforts to strip Columbus of honor, and the question of whether to continue to recognize Columbus Day is under review in many places. Some states and municipalities have removed the explorer’s name from the holiday or eliminated the observance entirely.
When the Ku Klux Klan was revived in 1915, and targeted Catholics, Jews and minority groups whom they considered a threat to the nation’s “Native, White, Protestant” identity, one of their targets was Columbus. The Klan opposed the observance of Columbus Day, trying to suppress celebrations of the holiday at the state level. Klan members published articles calling Columbus Day a “papal fraud” and even burned a cross at a Knights of Columbus observance in Pennsylvania.
The 20th century ended with criticism of Columbus and Columbus Day in certain quarters, just as the early 20th century had seen similar opposition. As the 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World approached, vocal opposition to Columbus was heard from partisan and revisionist historians and activists who were often critical of Western civilization as a whole. That year, the city of Berkeley, Calif., changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and several other municipalities have made similar moves, often explicitly as a means of dishonoring Columbus.
Today, one can still hear echoes of anti-Catholic prejudice in the modern attacks. For some, Columbus’ sponsorship by Spain and introduction of Christianity and Western culture to the lands he discovered make him immediately suspect. The new wave of anti-Columbus attacks goes so far as to say that Columbus intended nothing good. “These criticisms primarily charge Columbus with perpetrating acts of genocide, slavery, ‘ecocide,’ and oppression,” explained Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute and author of “1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History “(1992).
“The dominant picture holds him responsible for everything that went wrong in the New World,” wrote Carol Delaney, a former professor at Stanford and Brown universities, in her book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011). In her opinion, “we must consider his world and how the cultural and religious beliefs of his time colored the way he thought and acted.” Nonetheless, a closer examination of the record reveals a different picture.
In a 2012 Columbia interview, Delaney explained that Columbus found the native peoples to be “very intelligent” and his relations with them “tended to be benign.” He gave strict instructions to the settlers to “treat the native people with respect,” though some of his men rebelled and disobeyed his orders, particularly during his long absences. According to Delaney, Columbus “fervently believed it was the duty of every Christian to try to save the souls of non-Christians,” and it was this passion that “led him on a great adventure, an encounter such as the world has never seen.”
Columbus’ voyage made the Old and New Worlds aware of each other for the first time, eventually leading to the founding of new countries in the Western Hemisphere. The writings of Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest, historian and missionary, exposing the abuse of the native peoples are often cited in an effort to impugn Columbus. But while de las Casas lamented the suffering of indigenous people, he also admired and respected Columbus for his “sweetness and benignity” of character, his deep faith and his accomplishments.
“He was the first to open the doors to the ocean sea, where he entered the remote lands and kingdoms which, until then, had not known our Savior, Jesus Christ, and his blessed name,” de las Casas wrote in his History of the Indies. While cognizant that Columbus was human and made mistakes, de las Casas never doubted the explorer’s good intentions, writing: “Truly, I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions, for I know him well and I know his intentions are good.”
Arguments against Columbus by modern critics often constitute a “new, contemporary form of the ‘Black Legend’” — anti-Spanish propaganda dating back to the 16th-century that stereotypes Spanish explorers as uniquely cruel and abusive. Diseases carried inadvertently to the New World by the Europeans caused the greatest number of casualties by far, killing some 90 percent of native populations according to some estimates. “There were terrible diseases that got communicated to the natives,” Delaney said, “but he can’t be blamed for that.”
Not surprisingly, popes since the late 19th century have praised Columbus’ mission of evangelization. Pope St. John Paul II, while celebrating Mass at a Columbus monument in the Dominican Republic, said the cross-shaped memorial “means to symbolize the cross of Christ planted in this land in 1492.” In a speech to the young people of Genoa, Pope Francis talked about how a disciple of Christ needs the “virtue of a navigator;” and he pointed to the example of Columbus, who faced “a great challenge” and showed “courage,” a trait he indicated as essential to becoming a “good missionary.”
Columbus represents the kind of heroic courage and religious faith that inspired the establishment of the United States. Although he holds special meaning for Catholics and for Italian Americans, he is a figure all citizens of the New World can celebrate.
[Thanks to GERALD KORSON and the KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS for allowing me to edit this article for space to reprint in our bulletin.]