“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

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“In fourteen hundred ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

“He had three ships and left from Spain/ He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.”
— Source Unknown

I’m old enough to remember a time when Christopher Columbus Day was a national holiday that was widely celebrated rather than shamefully downplayed and derided. Columbus has become the symbolic white devil harbinger of all that is evil about America’s founding: genocide and manifest destiny imperialism; slavery and racism; annihilation and exploitation of peaceful, “noble savages” living in harmony with the environment.

President Obama seems to echo the sentiments of multiculturalist leftists and Howard Zinn liberals in perceiving this holiday as an occasion more in tune for mourning rather than celebrating:

President Obama marked Columbus Day by issuing a proclamation that reflects “on the tragic burdens tribal communities bore” in the years that followed the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.

“When the explorers laid anchor in the Bahamas, they met indigenous peoples who had inhabited the Western hemisphere for millennia,” Obama wrote. “As we reflect on the tragic burdens tribal communities bore in the years that followed, let us commemorate the many contributions they have made to the American experience, and let us continue to strengthen the ties that bind us today.”

On this anniversary, Charles C. W. Cooke criticizes the imposition of “modern morality on the past” as “a form of historical illiteracy”.


The explosion of certain parts of the Columbus myth, along with some more recent discoveries about his less noble proclivities, has led many to disown the man and a few more to protest against the national holiday in his honor. Berkeley, Brown, and — ironically — Columbia universities have abolished recognition of Columbus Day entirely, while others have substituted nebulous celebrations of “diversity” on that day. Journey into any trendy progressive enclave and you will find that Christopher Columbus is persona non grata.

This, like most political correctness, is a grievous mistake. As the historian William J. Connell argues, Columbus may not have been the first of the voyagers to discover America, but he was undoubtedly the most important. “His arrival,” Connell argues, “marks where we as a country and a hemisphere began our identity.” Unlike previous landings, Columbus’s mattered. It was the first to lead to a permanent settlement and the first enduring landing from a civilization that boasted modern ideas such as a belief in science, reason, individual achievement, and Christianity. Ultimately, Columbus’s story serves as the introduction to a story of immeasurable historical importance. To dismiss celebration of the man because he didn’t make it to America first would be akin to declaring that we must scorn Isaac Newton’s contribution to science because he wasn’t actually hit by an apple.

Of the charge that he brought smallpox to the New World and is thus guilty of wiping out untold numbers of the native people, Columbus must be exonerated. The vast majority of the devastation inflicted upon the Indian tribes was inadvertent: As he did not propose that the world was round, he also did not propose germ theory — that would not be proffered until after the invention of the telephone — and it is simply preposterous to postulate that he should have known what would happen when two hitherto unfamiliar worlds collided. If one is to lay the blame at Columbus’s feet for the collapse of the Indian population, one also must blame the Indians for unwittingly giving the visitors syphilis, which they took back with them and which subsequently wiped out upwards of 5 million Europeans. It was an unfortunate quid pro quo, to be sure, but not one for which either side should feel much guilt.

Okay, counter the naysayers, but Columbus was a bit of a bastard. Among the further charges leveled against him are that he considered that the natives he met “would make fine servants” and attempted to convert them to Christianity; that on his second voyage he transported slaves, many of whom died; and that, at least by one semi-reliable account, while he was serving as governor of Hispaniola, his men took to “killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples” in order to “prevent” them “from thinking for themselves as human beings.”

Heinous as this behavior was, to impose modern morality on the past is to exhibit historical illiteracy. Contrary to the picture painted by modern progressives, the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria did not sail nonchalantly through a barrier of enlightened protesters — (Don’t) Occupy America! — on their way to the shore, only to ignore their modernity. Columbus was a man of his time, and we should judge him by the standards of that age, regardless of how we assess them today. He subscribed to an internationally popular Aristotelian precept that those captured in battle were rendered slaves, which distinguished him from nobody; he was desperately ambitious and something of a social climber, qualities without which he would never have made such astonishing expeditions; he was motivated by glory and greed and evangelical fervor, as was most of the world (as is, perhaps, the world today). The fact that he reflected his society is not the interesting or exceptional thing about him. Columbus’s first voyage, like the trip to the moon, is worth celebrating in and of itself, without worrying about whether he’d be invited to the ThinkProgress annual gala.

Judging by the language used against him, one suspects that it is not really Columbus that concerns the anti-Columbus types; rather, they object to Columbus Day because they object to the colonization of America, and they disdain less Columbus qua Columbus than what subsequently flowed from the man’s exploits. There we must part company.

A peculiar but popular view holds that, until the brutish Europeans came and violated its innocence in the name of profit, American Indian culture was the last vestige of Man before the Fall. This notion replaces history with fantasy. As the European crime was not to invent but to buy into a slave trade that had afflicted Africa for almost a millennium, Columbus’s was to mirror the practices of tribal warfare and slavery that were already rife among the natives. He did not impose barbarism on the American continent, but he did fail in many instances to show the better example that many in Europe were in the process of setting. This is enough to disqualify him from being regarded as a great reformer, but it does not disqualify him from being a great explorer. Quite obviously, it is only the latter to which his champions lay claim.

Columbus’s voyage was the overture to a European colonization of the North American continent that has been a net good for the world. He may have practiced much that made the Old World execrable, but he opened the door to a New World that has set itself apart in human history as an incubator and beacon of liberty. Columbus set off a veritable scramble for America that culminated in British triumph, American insurrection, and the eventual glorification of Enlightenment values that have, by virtue of their codification, been protected at home and abroad by American predominance.

Thomas Sowell also cautioned against imposing 21st century morality when standing in armchair judgment of the past, without taking into account the context and constraints of the times our ancestors lived in, and the world through which they navigated.

For what it’s worth,

Happy Columbus Day, America!

statue of Christopher Columbus in Lavagna, Genova, Italy.

20 Responses to ““In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…””

  1. 1

    Nan G

    There’s got to be a term for applying modern ethics to historical eras.

    Perhaps prochronism is the correct term…..
    A prochronism occurs when an item appears in a temporal context in which it could not yet be present (the object had not yet been developed, the verbal expression had not been coined, the philosophy had not been formulated, the breed of animal had not been developed, the technology had not been created).

    Howard Zinn’s so-called ”histories,” rely on this mental gyration.
    All revisionist “history” does.

    Revisionists, like the late Zinn, would love nothing better than to convince American school children that no white people, no business people, no rich people deserve a place in history.

  2. 2

    Doc Holliday

    Happy Colombus Day to all! I love this holiday even more since the libs hate it. I used to write a diary on Columbus Day every year on another not to be named site. And there is a term for people who judge men of the past through the prism of our modern “superior” societal mores, the term is bad history, and the person that practices such malarkey is not considered to be an historian at all by professionals of the craft.

  3. 3


    I don’t really know that you can blame the explorer for the acts that followed. There are those that say he played a part in some of the things that happened to indigenous peoples, but I don’t think it all falls on him. There are a lot of people that blame Columbus for the extermination of the Arawak and Taino, but the Caribs were doing a pretty good job at taking them out before Columbus. The belief that all indigenous people would have lived in peace and formed a Utopia if Columbus had not made his voyage is pure BS.

  4. 4

    Richard Wheeler

    Lets face it Word, indigenous peoples i.e. Indians haven’t fared too well anywhere they’ve been “discovered” including in South America.
    More recently I note the horrific fate that befell the Seminoles of FSU at the hands of the dreaded Tarheels.
    The undefeated Irish of South Bend will have the Stanford Indians er Cardinal attacking them this Sat.

  5. 5


    I, too, remember when Columbus Day was a very celebrated national holiday. And, today, Columbus Day is downplayed; banks are not closed and government offices are open.

    The answer as to why is easy. Political Correctness. A minority of the population in the U.S. is upset that in the day and time of Columbus it was correct to march in to conquer and make conquest. Not today. But in 1492, that’s what it was like. The Portuguese, Germans, English and others did the exact same thing.

    Can you image the Spanish, French, Italians and other “Latin” countries feeling shafted because they were subjected to Rome and Roman conquest? Not likely. It was the way it was back then.

    Who opposes Columbus Day? The Indians and mestizos; Mexicans and others of mixed race. Mulattoes, like President Obama. Half-breeds, Indians and others. Why? They feel shafted because the Spanish conquerors came into the New World and essentially took over. They killed and enslaved many in the Americas. The indigenous people say that the Spanish did not discover the Americas, Indians were here already. But the view of the newly arrived Europeans, although myopic, was unique to them; they had never before seen the Americas.

    As for the killing and enslaving the “innocent” Indians, get this — they were already themselves killing and enslaving themselves. The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas were not very polite in their own conquests of other village peoples within their purview. The temples and pyramids that the Aztecs built were to carry out sacrificial worship. Aztec warriors would rather capture their enemies than kill them — this because they would use them as sacrificial bait to their gods. They would strip the captured naked, march them up to the pyramids or temples, cut their hearts out and throw their naked, lifeless bodies down the sides of the pyramids.

    Read your history. You’ll find that this “worshiping” only stopped because Christian missionaries with Cortes who watched these scarifies were extremely appalled and convinced the Spaniards to order it to stop. In a sense, it was Columbus who ushered in, at the dictate of the Spanish Queen, Isabella, Christianity — thereby changing and ending the tragic customs of the Indians in the Americas.

    Columbus’ contributions were major. Millions of people in the Americas continue to celebrate Christopher Columbus by naming cities and countries for him — (Columbia country) and film companies (Columbia Pictures), the District of Columbia, etc. The era before and after Columbus is referred to pre-Columbian and post-Columbian eras, respectively. The term colony is originally “colon” in Spanish; as in “colonias” or colonies. In Spanish, Christopher Columbus is Cristobal Colon.

    I dare say, Indians should be glad the post-Columbian era evolved to ultimately offer the citizens of the Americas both liberty and democracy. Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s finest presidents, was of full Indian heritage. He is famous for his quote: “Among individuals, as among nations, the respect for each others rights is peace”.

    Happy Columbus Day.

  6. 7



    Christopher Columbus

    Christopher Columbus (Italian: Cristoforo Colombo; Spanish: Cristóbal Colón; before 31 October 1451 – 20 May 1506) was an explorer, navigator, and colonizer, born in the Republic of Genoa, in what is today northwestern Italy. Under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, he completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean that led to general European awareness of the American continents.

    Died: 20 May 1506 (aged c. 54)
    Valladolid, Crown of Castile, in present-day Spain

    Nationality: Genoese
    Other names Italian: Cristoforo Colombo
    Catalan: Cristòfor Colom
    Spanish: Cristóbal Colón
    Portuguese: Cristóvão Colombo
    Latin: Christophorus Columbus
    Genoese: Christoffa Corombo

    Spouse: Filipa Moniz Perestrelo (c. 1455–85)


  7. 9


    @Richard Wheeler:

    More recently I note the horrific fate that befell the Seminoles of FSU at the hands of the dreaded Tarheels.
    The undefeated Irish of South Bend will have the Stanford Indians er Cardinal attacking them this Sat.

    Just had to slip that in somewhere, didn’t ya Rich. 🙂

  8. 10

    Liberal1 (Objectivity)

    @Nan G: Zinn’s primary purpose in writing “A People’s History of the United States” was to document facts that are not included in conventional texts. It’s like the length of time it took to preclude the myth that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree and couldn’t lie about it.

  9. 11

    Nan G

    @Liberal1 (Objectivity):
    George Mason University’s History News Network asked readers to vote for the least credible history book in print.

    The top pick was David Barton’s right-wing reimagining of our third president, Jefferson’s Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.
    But just nine votes behind was the late Howard Zinn’s left-wing epic, A People’s History of the United States. Bad history, it turns out, transcends political divides.
    Yet, A People’s History (which first appeared more than three decades ago) is aggressively marketed by an education project that bears Zinn’s name and has been taught in countless middle school and high school classes.
    Zinn didn’t merely write ”revisionist history,” he sneaked up behind history and bludgeoned it to death, replacing it with a narrative so false that he cannot use footnotes or bibliography pointing to another soul who wrote the same thing in any previous generation.

    See: Forty-eight Liberal Lies About American History

  10. 12

    Liberal1 (Objectivity)

    @Aqua: Were the number of deaths by Native American tribes even close to the greater than 20 million caused by the guns, swords, and disease of the conquering European?

  11. 15


    @Liberal1 (Objectivity):

    Were the number of deaths by Native American tribes even close to the greater than 20 million caused by the guns, swords, and disease of the conquering European?

    Well, the Caribs were pretty much well on their way to exterminating the Arawak and Taino peoples. They took their women and killed the men-folk. That one was probably just a matter of time.
    For the indigenous tribes in North America, not so much. But the settling of North America was bound to happen eventually. Should it have happened the way it did? Whose to say; European culture at the time was one of imperialism.
    There are two historic US presidents that I abhor; one is that great democrat icon Andrew Jackson. He expelled all American Indians east of the Mississippi on the trail of tears, (against the ruling of the Supreme Court I might add). His face is prominently featured on the $20 bill. Don’t hear a lot of screaming about disavowing that sack of garbage.

  12. 17

    Nan G

    Lib1, If you look up to Howard Zinn as if he’s an historian, you probably also look(ed) up to Jared Diamond, too.
    But both men’s works have been repudiated.

    J. A. Rogers originally wrote in the 1940’s that Cleopatra was black.
    That’s been repudiated as well.

    And, of Columbus, there are Islamic countries which teach that he had a Muslim crew therefore the Americas belong to Islam and when Muslims fight Westerners it is partly to REGAIN these Americas they consider theirs by right.

    All revisionists’ works eventually get repudiated.
    You know why?
    Because history is a study of the past.
    There is only one past.
    In archeology it is literally ”set in stone.”
    Want to fly in the face of facts of history and write a ”history” book?
    You might pull it off for a while.
    But not for long.

  13. 18


    But that was when Chris was politically correct.
    He has now joined the European Oppressors of the disadvantaged natives.
    So we can’t celebrate him anymore.
    He was, after all, the Captain of a ship, giving him authority over his crew. And we can’t have that.
    In this Brave New World, all are equal (though as we learned in the debate some are more equal than others and do not have to pay attention).
    So forget Chris. Instead remember the real liberators: the Rev Wright and his ilk, who set us free from our Capitalist Masters (snark snark snark).

  14. 20

    Matt M

    I know this was a post from last year, but I think the counter-argument to your closing point

    Thomas Sowell also cautioned against imposing 21st century morality when standing in armchair judgment of the past, without taking into account the context and constraints of the times our ancestors lived in, and the world through which they navigated.

    is Batolomé de las Casas. De las Casas arrived on Hispaniola 10 years after Columbus. He was a wealthy slaveholder and then had a complete change of heart and spent over 50 years of his life fighting for the rights and fair treatment of the indigenous people of the Americas. And he certainly wasn’t alone in his beliefs.

    So yes, I will gladly judge Columbus against the morals of his time and the morals of today, either way the man engaged in monstrous behavior. Even if he was a great explorer, and was an incredibly important person in world history, he is not a hero, and he certainly does not deserve to have a federal holiday on par with Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln.

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