I find myself in an ambivalent position in regard to Christopher Columbus.
As a Viking nut, I have to be a Leif Eriksson supporter. Leif was here nearly 500 years before the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and we’ve got artifacts to prove it (unless you believe that the Viking stuff at L’Anse aux Meadows was planted by the world-wide Norwegian conspiracy, headed by the Sons of Norway. Wait! I said too much!).
By the way, here’s a picture from L’Anse aux Meadows, taken during my visit there in 2004. This is not the site itself, but a reconstruction of some of the original Norse buildings, erected just a few paces away. I was standing in the archaeological site when I took it:
But I feel I have to defend Columbus too, considering the number and nature of his current enemies. One book I recommend on the subject is Columbus and Cortez, Conquerors for Christ, by my friend John Eidsmoe. No doubt Eidsmoe takes positions that are open to dispute, but if you’re going to argue with a defense, you might as well argue with a strong one.
One thing Eidsmoe argues is that Columbus (contrary to current canards) did not make wholesale war on the native inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands in order to enslave them. What he did was take sides. He found two tribes in his original area of discovery—the peaceful Arawaks and the warlike, cannibalistic Caribs. He chose to defend the Arawaks from the Caribs, and felt himself morally justified in enslaving the Caribs, who were themselves enthusiastic slave-hunters. After he was replaced as governor, his successors failed to make the same distinction between the tribes, and that’s a great tragedy. But it’s not Columbus’ fault.
It’s true, however, that Columbus had more luck than wisdom in his original discovery. Washington Irving wrote an influential book which sealed forever in Americans’ memories the falsehood that Columbus set out to prove the world was round. He did no such thing.
Columbus did think the world was round. But his critics thought the world was round too. Everybody with any education already knew the world was round (I have a book in my library called The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian book of advice for a young man written in the 13th Century, which contains a passage employing sophisticated means to demonstrate that the earth is “round like a ball”). The difference between Columbus and his critics was that Columbus thought the earth was small, and his critics thought it was large.
And his critics were right. The calculations Columbus trusted were way, way off.
Fortunately he bumped into America and found alternate career opportunities.
Let’s face it—Leif Eriksson and his relatives came and went, and nothing changed much. Columbus, like him or not, was the cause of big, big changes.
So enjoy what’s left of your Columbus Day.