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Christopher Columbus: At the Center of the Culture War

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.

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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. [1] 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.

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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.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Christopher Columbus: At the Center of the Culture War"

#1 Comment By ControlE On October 9, 2017 @ 6:39 am

There is absolutely no reason to celebrate the man in the United States. He did not discover North America.

Even ignoring the fact that he was a sociopath who treated the indigenous peoples worse than others of his time; he did absolutely nothing of historical significance as far as the United States is concerned. Having a US holiday dedicated to him is the same as having a US holiday dedicated to Hernan Cortez- in other words it makes no sense.

#2 Comment By mrscracker On October 9, 2017 @ 9:40 am

“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…”
*************
I guess the forms of slavery already practiced in the Americas didn’t count?

#3 Comment By Tidewater Virginian On October 9, 2017 @ 10:00 am

The goal is certainly control of the present, but also of the future. These people, like the ones who tore down the Confederate Soldier monument in North Carolina, are barbarians. Truly barbarians. Read this New York antifa group’s “manifesto.” They are truly an evil danger.

#4 Comment By Anne (the other one) On October 9, 2017 @ 10:24 am

@ControlE

We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a huge Fifth Avenue parade for the descendants of Ireland. Why not let Italian Americans celebrate Columbus Day?

While Columbus Day, unlike St. Patrick’s Day, is Federal Holiday, why be so serious? It is a day off. Sleep late and have a cannoli.

#5 Comment By Stephen On October 9, 2017 @ 10:26 am

I see some commenters are still basking in PC ignorance. Enjoy your fact-free bubbles.

If Columbus has been a religious skeptic, he would now be lauded as an enlightened hero. Alas, he was a devout Catholic, so we can’t say enough bad things about him.

Screw PC. Happy Columbus Day!

#6 Comment By Colonel Bogey On October 9, 2017 @ 10:30 am

“Having a U. S. holiday dedicated to [Columbus] is the same as having a U. S. holiday dedicated to Hernan Cortez–in other words it makes no sense.”

A Cortez holiday would make very good sense, in the U. S. or anywhere else. He was a great Crusader (and that’s still a good title to have) who destroyed Satan’s greatest stronghold on earth. The Aztec empire was based on massive human sacrifice and cannibalism, and Cortez ended it. Much of the territory of the colony of New Spain, founded by him, is part of the U. S. He couldn’t have done it without the active support of non-Aztec Indians who were tired of being used as a source of protein by the Satanists.

#7 Comment By connecticut farmer On October 9, 2017 @ 10:39 am

@ControlE

You call Columbus a “sociopath?” What do
you mean by “sociopath?” And cite specific examples of his sociopathic behavior.

#8 Comment By Dave skerry On October 9, 2017 @ 11:12 am

No one “discovered” America. However Colombo was the first Western European to set foot in NorthAmerica. Bahamas and West Indies are part of North America last time I checked.Right down to Trinadad and Tobago.While I’m at it Israel is in Africa.

#9 Comment By Charles Coughlin On October 9, 2017 @ 11:37 am

The myth of the “bad Columbus” is persistent though false.The Spanish and French treated the Indians well for the historical norms of that time, especially compared to the exterminating British. Columbus was only one in a series of discoverers of America including all the “indians” who had come in waves. each wave bringing new diseases and conquering and usually cannabalizing previous immigrants. Every nation is a nation of immigrants. Columbus was among the kindest of the explorers to the aborigines. he often praised them in affectionate terms. The Spanish arrival brought Christendom’s huge benefits including the ends of ritual human sacrifice, the banning of slavery of the natives based on the recognition of the natives as equal humans with soul, advanced technology, science, increased life span, and humane justice systems. The Jesuit mission culture in Uruguay in the 1600s had 100% literacy for women and men, the first American printing press, the export of watches to Europe, and advanced agriculture, etc. Read Columbus’s writings. His primary purpose was to fulfill Christ’s Grand Commission to us go forth and bearing the gift of Christianity and saving souls. Don’t think of Columbus “discovering” America, rather think that when he came Americans discovered Christ. That produced a far better culture than what preceded it.

#10 Comment By Petrus On October 9, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

Considering the Inca and Aztec customs of disposing with their prisoners, and the shear scale of human sacrifices with hearts ripped out or people flayed alive in honoring their gods, even Cortez’s and Pizarro’s New World conquest that stopped the practice should count as humanitarian relief effort.

#11 Comment By simon94022 On October 9, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

The animus toward Columbus is driven by a sense that we — modern peoples of the Americas and above all the descendants of Europeans who built and shaped the United States of America — should not exist.

It is a stupid and emotional hatred, based on a deliberately stupid and emotional falsification of history. But ours is a stupid and emotional age.

#12 Comment By Kronos On October 9, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

Dave skerry said:
While I’m at it Israel is in Africa.

Nope – try western Asia.

#13 Comment By ThisGuy On October 9, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

Not this again please.

America, the nation that declared independence from Britain in 1776, was essentially a Protestant experiment set into motion. Yes, there were other groups in North America before, during, and after 1776, and thankfully we have freedom of religion in the USA to keep it that way. But if you’re going to have Columbus Day, why not Basque mariner day? Native American day (especially given America’s love of popcorn and maple syrup)? etc etc.

#14 Comment By mrscracker On October 9, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

Dave skerry says:

No one “discovered” America. However Colombo was the first Western European to set foot in NorthAmerica”
************
I thought the Norse people had preceded him?

#15 Comment By Stephen On October 9, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

I meant to say just one comment was mired in PC ignorance (so far). I’m gratified to see the positive comments that have followed that first one. It gives me hope.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On October 9, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

It’s not just us:
“A University of Oxford college banned Christian Union representatives from attending its freshers’ (freshmen) fair over concerns at the “potential for harm to freshers…In an email exchange, JCR vice-president Freddy Potts, on behalf of the JCR committee, reportedly told a CU representative: “We recognise the wonderful advantages in having CU representatives at the freshers’ fair, but are concerned that there is potential for harm to freshers who are already struggling to feel welcome in Oxford.”

According to the paper, he added: “Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism”

[2]

#17 Comment By Billy Bob On October 9, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

Two observations.
First, the author rather glaringly skirted the issue of what he thinks of Columbus and his legacy.
And second, get over it. What happened hundreds of years ago is not today. We are supposed to learn from our past, not use it as a cudgel against anyone who disagrees with how we think the world should be in the 21st century.

#18 Comment By joeG On October 9, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

It was the age of exploration, a time when the superior minds of Western Man explored the world. This nonsense of an earthly paradise is just that–nonsense. Columbus found a land where native tribes were at constant war with the captives being tortured and used as human sacrifice. To look at Columbus in terms of today’s political correctness is a sham. What do you suppose would have been the destinies of the native inhabitants without the European influence? Do you really think they would have landed on the moon and preparing now for journeys to Mars? But, not to worry the populations of the West are diminishing and soon Western Man may pass into history, after which there will be a devolution, with societies returning to a primitive state just before becoming extinct. Kinda like South Africa that has now gone from a first world to a third world nation.

#19 Comment By The Dean On October 9, 2017 @ 8:45 pm

So an advanced civilization with ships, a sophisticated society that has built cathedrals, exchanges goods thousands of miles away, has a currency with banking institutions, theatre, philosophy, stone sculptures so real they look like they can talk, lands in a new world. This new world is inhabited by a people that are in the Stone Age. That have not yet invented the wheel. No written language and they practice cannibalism. No offense meant here but with the perfect retrospective of over 500 years it is easy to criticize an early renaissance man and the beliefs on which he and his crew acted.

#20 Comment By Mia On October 9, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

“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.”

I call BS here, because certainly we’ve got an intersectionality problem here that needs to be addressed. So Columbus was Italian, was he? Italian immigrants were perhaps as hated as the Muslims back in the day, and what about this little known history of the US?

[3]

So how do you weigh Indian, black and Italian grievances against one another? Aren’t they just punching down instead of punching up by going after an Italian like this, especially given later history? Maybe the Italian-American society needs to make them give tearful apologies on TV and burn their histories denigrating Columbus. Why hasn’t anyone asked these questions?

See, in earlier waves of immigration, Southern and Eastern European immigrants were considered the riff-raff of Europe and Italians were sometimes categorized as non-white since they often lived in black neighborhoods in the US and intermarried with them, too. (I wonder if the Eastern Europeans were looked down upon because of possible intermarriage with Asians given their proximity to that continent and the coming of the Tartars, etc, see [4].) I don’t see given those historical realities they can get away with a take down of Columbus. Not unless they want to blow their whole argument anyway.

#21 Comment By Jen On October 9, 2017 @ 10:52 pm

If you care at all about facts, note that Seattle actually voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in 2014, well before Trump ran for President.

#22 Comment By Liam On October 10, 2017 @ 7:59 am

Wheels existed in some New World civilisations before the Columbia exchange. There were no draft animals to pull them, however, so they were not used as in the Eastern Hemisphere.

There’s lots of things like that when comparing the Hemispheres.

#23 Comment By mea minima culpa On October 10, 2017 @ 10:18 am

“I guess the forms of slavery already practiced in the Americas didn’t count?”

The “noble savage” don’t you know, those blameless chaps who merrily scalped, skewered, disemboweled, tortured, enslaved, massacred, and of course in some cases ate each other, or, when feasible, wiped each other out, root and branch!

But all that doesn’t “count” because they weren’t white Europeans. Pure children of nature … er, scratch that: the current line is that they actually had sophisticated, advanced cultures that had prototyped or anticipated almost everything that Europeans later claimed to have invented … so all we can say about their seeming savagery and murderous barbarism is that as Europeans we can only guess at the complex and subtle dynamics by which they were completely justified.

#24 Comment By Tom On October 10, 2017 @ 10:55 am

Pres. Trump issues an executive order proclaiming that Oct 9th (Columbus Day) shall now be call “Lief Erikson Day”! Is this to appease his White Supremacist Neo-Nazi members of the “Alt-Right” who support him? See Executive Order from the White House below:

[5]

#25 Comment By mrscracker On October 10, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

mea minima culpa ,
I agree that there was some serious savagery going on in the New World before Europeans came on the scene, but there’s growing evidence that parts of Central America & the Amazon basin were densely populated with some pretty sophisticated engineering & agriculture.
Disease seems to be really what decimated the populations & it spread inland quickly making some areas uninhabited. Per what I’ve read, the Amazon wasn’t always the primal rain forest that we’re familiar with.

#26 Comment By Tom S. On October 10, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

The Vikings “encountered” North America hundreds of years before Columbus (and the Basques possibly before then). They lacked Columbus’ firepower, so their settlements didn’t last.

According to my mother, who raised the above point with her teacher in the 1930s about Columbus Day, she was told that the holiday was to make Italian-Americans happy (early identity politics?).

Actually, October 9 has been Lief Erikson Day since the 1950s.

#27 Comment By Vinlander On October 10, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

@Tom – “Pres. Trump issues an executive order proclaiming that Oct 9th (Columbus Day) shall now be call “Lief Erikson Day”! Is this to appease his White Supremacist Neo-Nazi members of the “Alt-Right” who support him?”

Every president since LBJ has issued Leif Erikson Day proclamations on October 9th recognizing the Nordic-American contribution.

We don’t get the kind of frequent and fawning coverage lavished on whinier hyphenated Americans, but America does actually owe its Nordic brethren and sistren a considerable debt. No reason to tar us with the Nazi brush.

#28 Comment By Liam On October 11, 2017 @ 8:47 am

And for those still playing here, here’s a nice factoid for your Trivial Pursuit: it was the Norse who first brought Christianity to the New World – the first diocese in the New World was established at Garðar on the west coast of Greenland a few hundred years BEFORE Columbus – in 1124. The diocese had died out just before Columbus headed west for the Indies.

So, while there are dioceses in the Antilles that claim to be the oldest in the New World, they were not the first.