Christopher Columbus offers us the example of those virtues that the old Romans called fortitude and constancy; and the example of those virtues that the early Christians called faith and hope…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Russell Kirk as he considers the character and legacy of the great Christopher Columbus. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Half a millennium ago, a Genoese navigator with three caravels and Spanish crews groped his way among the islands of the Caribbean. Thus commenced European settlement of the western hemisphere and the coming of Christianity and western civilization to the New World. Had not that occurred, ladies and gentlemen, and had there not occurred many more landings of European people during the following two centuries—why, you and I would not be here tonight. So to reproach Christopher Columbus for having established settlements in Hispaniola is, in effect, to repent of being alive—which ought to be a sobering thought.
Let me begin with a stanza from the poem “Columbus,” once familiar to every American schoolchild. That poem’s author was Joaquin Miller, comrade of Californian Indians (and married to an Indian woman), horse-thief, judge, editor, political visionary, and poet. The settlement of America that Columbus had commenced in 1492 was completed along the Pacific coast during the decades when Miller (who died in 1913) rode the last frontier. One hundred years have elapsed since Miller set down in verse his veneration of Columbus. Near the end of the twentieth century, America’s spirit of the age is other than it was in 1892.
Yet about the year 1927, when your servant and the other sixth-grade pupils at my elementary school memorized Miller’s poem “Columbus,” we took it that of course Christopher Columbus of Genoa, Spain, and Hispaniola was to be our exemplar—our model of high courage, wise vision, religious dedication, immense fortitude, and abounding hope. With faith and zeal we recited Joaquin Miller’s moving lines. Although we were no infant philosophers, the poem made us feel that life was worth living. I give you the first stanza:
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now must we pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l, speak; what shall I say?”
“Why, say: ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!”
At the age of nine, repeating those lines, I would rather have sailed with Columbus even than have ridden the pony express between Washington Territory and Idaho by the side of bold Joaquin Miller.
If you and I emulate no exemplars, we drift through life purposeless and confused. An exemplar is a model to be copied or imitated, an archetype. To emulate the Admiral of the Ocean Sea may make one visionary; but one’s visions then will be those true dreams that, as Vergil instructs us, pass between the gates of horn, not those illusory visions that come through the ivory gates.
To emerge from obscurity, a wool-carder’s son in the lanes of Genoa; to make one’s way by imagination and perseverance toward a great change in the affairs of men; to open the eyes of the captains and the kings; to risk all, but confidently, upon a single perilous venture; to survive mutinies, shipwrecks, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the displeasure of the great, the envy of the small-souled; to throw open the gates to a vast world of wonder—what an overwhelming example to a boy of nine!
To choose the Admiral of the Ocean Sea as an exemplar may be rather like emulating Don Quixote de la Mancha. It is no way to worldly success. But as the poet Roy Campbell remarked to me once upon a time, if you emulate Don Quixote, all your windmills may seem giants; but then, all your fancied giants will turn out to be no more formidable than windmills. By much study, by much inquiry, by much persuasion, Columbus prepared to contend with giants.
In our closing decade of the twentieth century, mockers and condemners deride past greatness and even the notion of the existence of exemplars. In George Santayana’s novel The Last Puritan one encounters the corrosive personality of a Yankee schoolmaster, Cyrus P. Whittle, a bitter reforming egalitarian zealot who rejoices in disclosing to his pupils such shocking disclosures as that George Washington had very large feet. Although Whittle vilifies all distinguished men, he has his secret devotion. He hates all Americans commonly called good and great, yet puts his faith in an abstract America that will master and level the world. “Not only was America the biggest thing on earth”—so Santayana opens Whittle’s mind to us—”but was soon going to wipe out everything else; and in the delirious dazzling joy of that consummation, he forgot to ask what would happen afterward. He gloried in the momentum of sheer process, in the mounting wave of events; but minds and their purposes were only the foam of the breaking crest; and he took an ironical pleasure in showing how all that happened, and was credited to the efforts of great and good men, really happened against their will and expectation.”
That type of malice is sufficiently familiar today. Often it seems as if Cyrus P. Whittle had been cloned abundantly. Also people at the end of the twentieth century too often fail to understand the differences between the mentality of the fifteenth century and the mind-set of the twentieth. In his poem “The Lesson for Today,” Robert Frost imagines himself (or is it himself?) conversing with a scholar of the age of Charlemagne. The twentieth-century man says to his silent counterpart of the tenth century:
I’m liberal. You, you aristocrat
Won’t know exactly what I mean by that.
I mean so altruistically moral
I never take my own side in a quarrel.
Columbus was an aristocrat—by nature, although not by birth. He would, and did, take his own side in a quarrel. He believed fervently in the teachings of Christianity; he aspired to bring the peoples on the western shore of the ocean, all those Indians and Japanese and Chinese presumably not a great many leagues beyond, the salvation of the soul and the Christian life. He intended, too, to save the Arawak peoples from being devoured by the Caribs. And with the wealth he hoped to obtain, he meant to raise armies and fleets that might deliver Jerusalem from the Turks. Between the aristocratic, mystical Columbus of the fifteenth century and the democratic liberal of the twentieth, a great gulf is fixed. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea was endowed with the high old Roman virtues; the liberal of our time is endowed with anxieties.
True, it is difficult for the typical liberal of our time, well cosseted, to rouse in his imagination a vision of the man who sailed westward, seemingly into infinity, with no charts but his own creations and a crew made up of conscripts, the sweepings of the docks, or of reckless and ruthless adventurers. (Incidentally, Columbus was a remarkably humane leader of men, the ways of the fifteenth century considered.) Joaquin Miller shows him to us in mid-Atlantic, in the summer of 1492:
They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Adm’r’l; speak and say”—
He said: “Sail on! and on! and on!”
Columbus was at his noblest in times of great adversity. I admire him most at the time when, for a whole year, he was shipwrecked in a Jamaican cove, at the seeming end of his tether. He was then a very sick man, kept off his feet by the gout. Washington Irving describes for us the predicament of Columbus and his men, suffering from hunger and thirst, when in sinking ships they took shelter in what is now caned Don Christopher’s Cove.
“Here, at last, Columbus had to give up his long arduous struggle against the unremitting persecution of the elements. His ships, reduced to mere wrecks, could no longer keep the sea, and were ready to sink even in port. He ordered them, therefore, to be run aground, within a bow-shot of the shore, and fastened together, side by side. They soon filled with water to the decks. Thatched cabins were then erected at the prow and stern for the accommodation of the crews, and the wreck was placed in the best possible state of defense. Thus castled in the sea, Columbus trusted to be able to repel any sudden attack of the natives, and at the same time to keep his men from roving about the neighborhood and indulging in their usual excesses. No one was allowed to go ashore without special license, and the utmost precaution was taken to prevent any offense being given to the Indians. Any exasperation of them might be fatal to the Spaniards in their present forlorn situation. A firebrand thrown into their wooden fortress might wrap it in flames, and leave them defenseless amidst hostile thousands.”
At that hour, Columbus was unable to go ashore; native food injured his men’s health; the majority of the two crews mutinied and marched away into the island; there was real peril that they might murder the Admiral. Ovando, governor at Santo Domingo, failed to send the Admiral a vessel of rescue; Columbus and his handful of faithful men, together with the sick they tended, might starve.
In this exigency, the old Admiral comforted the fainthearted and sick, overawed the Indians, and showed himself a master of conciliation; he did not despair throughout a whole year of desolation aboard a wreck. His brother in the end broke the mutiny; and finally a ship rescued Columbus and his party. By the middle of November, 1504, he was back in Seville, petitioning the sovereigns. But the death of Isabella of Castile swept away his prospects for the restoration of his dignities and emoluments. Worn out, he died on May 20, 1506. His had been a life of much suffering and astounding achievement, a notable instance of the dignity of man.
He never had redeemed Jerusalem from the Turk, but he opened Christendom’s way to a New World. He never had reached the Emperor of China, but he gave Spain an empire that endured nearly four centuries. He never had owned a roof—let alone a palace—in his adopted land of Spain, but he left a name that rings down the centuries.
In the last stanza of his poem, Joaquin Miller draws Columbus’ picture in the moment of the vindication of his vision:
Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
A light! a light! a light! a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “Oh! sail on!”
The living Columbus had his unscrupulous enemies in Spain; the dead Columbus has enemies reviling him five centuries later. Zealots for an anti-cultural program called Multiculturalism insist that Columbus never discovered America, for a splendid American culture had existed there well before 1492; it was the Native Americans who discovered Columbus, rather. Moreover, Columbus is indicted nowadays for having imposed tyrannical and repellent Christianity upon the blissful pagans of the New World—which wasn’t new, anyway, because geologically it was quite as old as the alleged Old World. Rousseau’s contrived myth of the Noble Savage dwelling in a State of Nature, quite free from church, state, and property, is revived in our time by persons endeavoring to sweep away any celebration of the Quincentenary of the events of 1492. The American liberal—like the chameleon on the aspen leaf, always trembling, always changing—begins to wonder whether he should boycott the Quincentenary altogether. Let us examine some charges in this indictment of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
* * *
The first charge against Columbus is that he enslaved and eventually extirpated the Tainos and other Arawak peoples of the Caribbean. But what occurred in Hispaniola and Cuba was beyond the control of the Admiral or of Queen Isabella, both of whom were humane and sought to protect the native peoples of the islands. Columbus wrote that “the real treasures of the islands are its people.”
It is a hard truth that two very different cultures cannot long subsist side by side—especially when one of the cultures is formidably armed and the other is virtually defenseless. Long before Columbus landed, the Arawaks had overwhelmed and supplanted in the Bahamas and most of Cuba the primitive people called the Siboney, possibly the aborigines of the islands. What the Taino had done to the Siboney, the Spaniards in turn did to the Taino. Man’s inhumanity to man is hideous in every age and every land, right down through the twentieth century.
However that may be, Columbus desired the protection of the Taino—including their preservation from the cannibal Caribs—and not their destruction. It was his hope to baptize the islanders, to teach them Christian morals, to instruct them in agriculture and crafts, to reconcile the charm of their island culture with the knowledge and skills of European culture. This did not come to pass; given the Spanish quest for gold, and the appetites of the rough adventurers who sailed with Columbus on his four voyages of exploration or who soon followed as settlers, the simpler and weaker culture ceased to cohere.
Yet it will not do to overwhelm Columbus with accusations drawn from “the black legend of Spain” that runs back to the latter half of the sixteenth century. The Spanish conquest of Mexico, Central America, Peru, Colombia, and other American lands was ironhanded enough. Yet on the mainland the Indians were not extirpated, nor was their culture wholly overwhelmed. After all, to this day the population of the Andean countries remains basically Indian, as does that of Paraguay and other Spanish-speaking regions; while no Pequots or Narragansetts are to be encountered today in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. And despite Las Casas’ horrifying descriptions of Spanish atrocities in Hispaniola, after the middle of the sixteenth century an influential Protestant writer, styling himself “Montanus,” wrote in defense of Spanish Catholic occupation of what we now can Latin America. He said that the Indians’ bondage to Spain “is such as is much rather to be desired than their former liberty which was to the cruel cannibals rather a horrible licentiousness than a liberty, and to the innocent so terrible a bondage, that in the midst of their fearful idleness, they were ever in danger to be a prey to those manhunting wolves. But the Spaniards as ministers of grace and liberty, brought unto these new gentiles the victory of Christ’s death whereby they being subdued by the worldly sword, are now made free from the bondage of Satan’s tyranny.”
Similarly, the political and social institutions that Spain translated to her American empire are imperfect. But are they not preferable to the ferocious despotisms of the Aztec and Inca royal houses? Into a grim stagnant social structure, Columbus and his sixteenth-century successors introduced, so far as they were able, the reign of law.
The few priests who accompanied Columbus on his four voyages, and those who made their way to the new Spanish towns of Hispaniola, brought Christianity to the peoples of the New World—and appealed to Crown and Church to protect the islanders. The Spanish governors and alcaldes, after the early fury of the conquistadores, established in what they came to hold of the Caribbean islands, and of Central and South America, and in Mexico and those territories now part of the United States, a tolerable civil social order. Is the establishment of a widespread peace to be lamented? Incidentally, it was not the Spaniards of Columbus’s original little outpost in Hispaniola who struck the first blow in the struggle that led in the end to the destruction of the Taino; rather, it was the fierce cacique Caonabo, who first put to death Spanish rebels who had straggled from the little fort of La Navidad into his territory, and not long later massacred the remaining garrison of that fort.
But I digress. My point is that Christopher Columbus, a remarkably humane leader of men (the fifteenth century’s ways considered), does not require to be apologized for, with respect to his treatment of the Tainos. His motives were good; and his treatment of the savages of the West Indies was so good as he could contrive under most difficult circumstances. His successors in power, Bobadilla and Ovando, worked to death the peoples of Hispaniola and slaughtered many of them. But Bobadilla and Ovando were Columbus’s enemies, not his agents. This quincentenary does not celebrate the colonial regimes of Bobadilla and Ovando; it celebrates chiefly the character and the deeds of the Admiral who suffered under those two adversaries of his.
As for the charge that Columbus was a slaver, the Taino men whom he once shipped to Spain to be sold as slaves were prisoners taken in war. There being no place to confine such prisoners, the only practical alternative to enslaving them across the Atlantic would have been to kill them, or perhaps to mutilate their hands—practices that had been common in ancient Greece and Rome, and often had occurred in medieval times. Queen Isabella forbade any more enslavement and liberated such Indians as had been transported to Spain—which caused Bobadilla and Ovando, once Columbus had been deprived of his governorship, to massacre their Taino prisoners. While still governor, Columbus drove off the coast his former lieutenant, Alonzo de Ojeda, who in his own vessels had been kidnapping natives to sell at Cadiz.
Some recent denouncers of Columbus have gone so far as to assert, ridiculously, that somehow he was responsible not only for enslaving natives of the islands, but also for commencing the enslavement of Africans. Of course Columbus had nothing at all to do with the African slave-trade—which, by the way, had commenced in ancient times, with the Nubian slaves of the Egyptians and later of the Romans. Black slaves from Africa already were present in Portugal, and some few in Spain, before Columbus sailed on his first voyage.
But why prolong this defense of the real Columbus? The true Columbus matters little enough to the present opponents of the Quincentenary. What they attack is an effigy of their own creation: a wooden figure, or perhaps a plastic one, to whom they attribute all manner of evil. To them, this effigy-Columbus represents much that they detest: religion, true aristocracy (that is, the leadership of the best), dignity, European civilization, disciplined skills, manly courage, high imagination, the distant past of humankind, the power to dream the high dream.
With such people, the assault on the name Columbus, and on the Quincentenary that celebrates five centuries of civilization in the Americas, is merely a pretext for denouncing the imperfections of the United States in the year 1992. And surely we Americans confront grave difficulties today; some voices ten us that we have fallen into decadence. What we call decadence, according to the late English philosopher C. E. M. Joad, is “the loss of an object”—that is, our loss of an end, an aim, in existence. However that may be, our social and personal tribulations are tremendous, here near the end of the twentieth century of the Christian era.
We find ourselves in a country increasingly ravaged by hideous venereal diseases; afflicted with rapacious politicians; its cities decayed and dangerous; a considerable part of its population addicted to narcotics; its educational system for the most part ineffectual and boring; its economy in very precarious condition; its taxation oppressive, producing “disincentives” to production; its federal government using up, through taxation and borrowing, one half the gross national product; its private and its public morals shaken; its family structure dissolving; its private enterprises giving way to impersonal corporations; its citizenry dividing into hostile ethnic and political camps; its literature, its arts, and its architecture too often perverse and shoddy. But why prolong this litany of our American woes? Shine, perishing Republic!
Who is responsible for all these afflictions? Why, Christopher Columbus, of course. Anyway, he is not around to deny it.
What are we to do about our tribulations? Are we to rouse our moral imagination, dialogue about practical remedies, commence searching reforms, take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? Oh, no, that sort of thing requires serious thought, and thought always is painful.
Do not think, ladies and gentlemen; just blame Christopher Columbus. If he and other explorers had not arrived in the Americas, you and I would not be here, and so would not have to think. Whining is more fun than thinking. Be a nineteen-nineties radical: whine. Blessed in the university are the whining radicals, for they shall know tenure. Let us all mourn blearily that catastrophic day when Columbus sighted land.
Such is the mood of the contemners of Christopher Columbus: a death-wish mood. But some of us feel the contrary impulse, life-giving, to reinvigoration, personal and social.
A few days after American troops burst into Cambodia, I was conferring with President Nixon in the White House. We talked for perhaps an hour of the American Republic’s distresses—some of which I mentioned to you, ladies and gentlemen, a few minutes ago. And rather abruptly, then, the President inquired of me, “Dr. Kirk, have we any hope?” For emphasis, he repeated his question: “Have we any hope?“
I replied that if most Americans come to believe the vaticinations of the prophets of despair, then all is lost, for such predictions work their own fulfillment—supposing most men and women give up hope. But if, on the contrary, people do not flee to hide-in-holes, but pluck up their courage and proceed to work together in the cause of restoration—why, renewal becomes quite possible. And I went on to offer Mr. Nixon historical instances. Sanguine by temperament, he nodded assent, his spirits reviving.
So it is with us in this year of 1992. If you and I take Columbus for our exemplar—if we refuse to take for our exemplars the most notorious movie-tart or the most swaggering professional athlete or the most vociferous demagogue—we may win through to better days. Columbus offers us the example of those virtues that the old Romans called fortitude and constancy; and the example of those virtues that the early Christians called faith and hope. The word virtus, virtue, to the ancients signified energetic manliness. Columbus was cast in that mold. But to those who choose to sneer at Columbus, virtue is a word merely.
By the year 2092, America will be a very different country, no doubt. But I venture to predict that a century from today, Columbus still will be venerated in the United States, while the pert loquacity of his detractors in 1992 will be altogether forgotten. Sail on, God willing; ladies and gentlemen, sail on, and on!
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2016.
Republished with the gracious permission of Continuity: A Journal of History (Fall 1992).
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