The bold figure of Christopher Columbus standing atop a 70-foot granite column in the center of New York City’s Columbus Circle dominates one of the great crossroads of the world. Erected in 1905, it marks a time when Italian Americans sought to declare their stake in the American dream. Columbus anchored them symbolically as residents of the New World.
Columbus was part of the American mythos well before then. Washington Irving’s biography A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) was a romantic confection that—among other things—promoted the silly idea that Europeans before Columbus believed the world to be flat, a misconception persistent in the popular imagination.
Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942), by Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, stressed Columbus’s heroic nautical and scientific feats, downplaying the unsavory record that the historian must have acknowledged on some level. Then came Alfred W. Crosby Jr.’s The Columbian Exchange (1972), which told the sweeping story of a “great encounter.” It has become a literary classic, documenting worldwide exchanges of plants, animals, and diseases.
In subsequent years the image of Columbus as conqueror of new worlds shifted to invader, and with this came the European world danse macabre of conquest, savagery, and imperialism. Columbus thus found himself at the vanguard of a new intellectual movement bent on denigrating and vilifying Western civilization.
Anti-Columbus historians often portrayed themselves as “champions of political correctness,” building a new narrative of Europe’s encounter with the rest of the world, according to the eminent historian and leading Columbus expert William D. Phillips Jr. of the University of Minnesota (emeritus). They stressed Western predation and degradation of other cultures and civilizations. Thus were the Caribbean Islands recast as an earthly paradise, and the Indians as noble savages. The best-selling history writer Howard Zinn and others selectively—and cynically—used sixteenth-century Spanish polemics on behalf of the Indians to present Columbus in the worst possible light.
The 500th anniversary in 1992 spurred wide interest in Columbus’s arrival and impact. The National Council of Churches used the occasion to call the Columbian moment a “historical tragedy.” His “invasion,” said the council, marked the beginning of slavery and eventual genocide, events requiring “healing” and “repentance.” The reversal of Columbus’s reputation in the quarter century that followed mirrors the rise of identity politics and anti-Western multiculturalism, two increasingly powerful bodies of thought throughout the West.
What are the facts? Thanks to historian Phillips’ careful study of the vast Columbian literature, we can separate fact from fiction with great confidence.
A Genoese navigator sailing under the Castilian flag, Columbus was not looking for new worlds to conquer but for a seaborne route to the rich markets of Asia. Increasing Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean lent urgency to the search for new trade routes. And devout Iberians, flush with the Reconquista of Spain from the last vestiges of Moorish dominance, sought to move the borders of Christendom to encompass the world.
Among learned and detached historians, it is widely agreed that, by modern standards, Columbus and his soldiers behaved brutally toward the indigenous peoples they encountered. But not all the conquest’s disastrous consequences for the Indians were intended. While colonial cruelty accounted for many deaths, disease—smallpox in particular—claimed many more lives.
Columbus’s first voyage stirred great interest throughout Europe, above all in trade-minded Iberia and the Italian states. Commentary on Columbian events spread through widely circulated manuscripts. His voyages, and those of explorers who followed, opened a period of European exploration and empire building that breached the boundaries of isolated continents and forever changed the course of human history.
Less well known is that religious speculation played an important role in Columbus’s life and actions. He wanted to finance and personally lead a new crusade to return Jerusalem to Christian control, preparing for the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world.
For the first hundred years after the fateful landfall, the Spanish dominated the Americas. They established hundreds of cities, missions, and churches and created an imperial structure that would remain more or less intact for three centuries. Columbus has been roundly blamed for all the things that went wrong with all the Indians of North America until the days of Junipero Serra in nineteenth-century California. The subjugation, decimation, and misfortunes of the natives in the era of the conquistadores are now universally recorded and lamented.
But for some contemporary historians, remorse is not enough. And grandstanding politicians delight in using the commemorative federal holiday to stir ethnic divisions. For some, Columbus and his monuments stand as loathsome symbols of white supremacy. Those who want to pull Columbus’s statues down are often motivated by unreasoning, destructive anti-white animus.
The war on historical monuments and the heritage of American heroes has less to do with aesthetics or history than it does with the question of who will dominate the present. Ultimately it’s about power—and who will leverage the past to overpower opponents and adversaries. That’s why Americans have found themselves in the midst of increasingly tense culture wars centered on the very definition of Western civilization. At the center of those culture wars stands Christopher Columbus, atop that tall granite column in Manhattan, on hundreds of other pedestals throughout the land, and in the minds of millions of Americans, admirers and detractors alike.
Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.