My Turn, Bruce LaRue: In defense of Columbus Day

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 6, 2022

Friends, Rowanians and countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to praise Columbus (sort of), not to bury him under a mound of resentment, Europhobia, and cynicism. The evil that men do lives after them, even if it has to be exaggerated, altered, or presented without historical context; the good is oft interred in their bones. So let it be with Columbus.

Almost as daunting a task as crossing the Atlantic is trying to find accurate, unbiased sources of information about Christopher Columbus. Much like watching the news, one needs a Venn diagram to sift truth from the dross of “facts” presented by sources committed to spinning and carrying water for their respective ideologies while ignoring relevant faults, flaws, and foibles. In the case of news channels, they feed viewers either right- or left-wing junk food because if they offer us the spinach and carrots of hard truth, they lose viewership and, as a result, advertising revenue. How, then, would we find out about the latest product from My Pillow or why it’s more important than ever to buy gold?

Admittedly, some of the history we were taught about Columbus 60 years ago needed to be revised because it simply wasn’t accurate. Traditional accounts were sanitized, probably to fit more comfortably within mostly Eurocentric curricula. Columbus did not discover America, at least not North America, nor did he sail the ocean blue in 1492 to prove that the world was round. That science was settled some sixteen hundred years earlier by the Greek scholar Eratosthnenes, calculating the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy. Someone else’s estimate, incorrect by about seven thousand miles, was published by Ptolemy, and his writings found their way to Columbus, who was able to convince Ferdinand and Isabella that sailing West from Spain would create a new trade route to Asia, particularly India, without having to deal with those pesky, supply chain-disrupting Moors, barbaric highwaymen and pirates with a beheading fetish. Travelling overland between Europe and Asia was tough sledding, with lots of geographical obstacles, even if one knew about the Khyber Pass. The Silk Road, a longtime network of trade routes, was shut down in the mid-1400s when the Ottoman Empire closed off trade with the West. The route around Africa to India was over twelve thousand miles with about as many pirates. European merchants could have plopped down in the dirt and given up, but that’s not what capitalists and entrepreneurs do. Successful people and cultures tend to be solution-oriented.

Christopher Columbus is an example of someone in the right place and time in history, bold, daring, ignorant, and, perhaps most important, lucky. Had everyone known the true circumference of the Earth, no one would have attempted the crossing. Moreover, The Crown would not have provided resources for such a fool’s errand. Add to that the timing of the first voyage, 30-some days on the open sea during the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, and it is a head-shaker that he even survived, much less arrived.

During his early days of island-hopping in the Caribbean, Columbus and his crew encountered native tribes, most notably Arawaks, by most accounts a peace-loving folk that couldn’t catch a break. Before the arrival of the brutal, barbaric Europeans, the Arawaks were routinely set upon by the brutal, barbaric Caribs, a tribe known for killing the men, enslaving the women, and eating the children. A lot is made about the mistreatment of the Arawaks by the crewmen. Here’s where a little context might be useful. The crew consisted of 15th century sailors, not a mission team from Cadiz Baptist Church, and Columbus probably did not have tight reins on them. Standards of behavior have changed since then, at least in some parts of the world. Tutsis and Uyghers might ask for clarification.

So, why recognize Christopher Columbus, a second-rate navigator who was more fortunate than skillful, more of a Gilligan than a Magellan, who was closer to his destination when he left Spain than when arrived in the Bahamas, and who died believing he had reached the islands off the coast of Asia? Why all the acclaim? Glad you asked.

The news of Columbus’s discovery quickly triggered expeditions by more competent captains from all over Europe, especially Spain. Was it about the betterment of mankind? Nah, it was mostly about gold, at least initially. Then came the “Columbian Exchange”, the widespread transfer of people, plants, animals, diseases, and cultures that profoundly affected nearly every society on the planet. Foods from the Americas, including, but not limited to, potatoes, tomatoes, and corn became European staples and helped increase the population. Wheat from Europe would become an important food crop for Americans, while coffee from Africa and sugar cane from Asia would become major cash crops for Latin American countries.

Christopher Columbus, however unwittingly, drastically altered the course of human history on a global scale, the effects of which reverberate to this day. That’ll get you a day of observance with your name on it.


Bruce LaRue lives in Mount Ulla.