The once-radical belief that Christopher Columbus was evil has sadly become mainstream. But Columbus was a brave and tenacious explorer—flawed, of course, like every man—who expanded the knowledge of the Old World, changing it and the New World forever.
Christopher Columbus changed the world. It’s as simple as this. We might argue that these changes were good, or we might argue these changes were bad, but we’re not going to be able to argue that the changes did not matter. Good or bad—or more likely somewhere in-between—the world became something new when Columbus reached the New World, especially on his second voyage in 1493. Though his life ended poorly, most rational people have recognized his importance in the half-millennium since he first sailed.
In 1893, for example, the world celebrated Columbus’s journeys in one of the greatest world’s fairs yet held, then in Chicago. Buffalo Bill Cody performed there, and Frederick Jackson Turner gave what was arguably the single greatest essay written by an American historian, “The Significance of the Frontier.” Remnants of that celebration still shape the skyline of the Lake Michigan shore.
The New Left happily began to vilify Columbus in the 1960s—in the classrooms, on the streets, and in Hollywood movies (indirectly through Westerns such as Little Big Man)—and, by 1992, the five-hundredth anniversary of his first landing, many colleges had begun to teach Columbus as the harbinger of genocide, a sort of Genoese Hitler. Of all American businesses that year, only Long John Silver’s attempted to promote Columbus as something good, but their marketing campaign failed miserably.
In the unrest of the last few weeks, we have been witness to the all-pervasive influence of the New Left on our culture over the last half-century. What was once radical—a belief that Columbus was evil—has sadly become mainstream. Even organizations dedicated to the victories of Columbus, such as the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus and Daughters have Isabella, have remained entirely silent as street mobs tear down statues of Columbus in the name of countering genocide. What kind of knights or daughters remain silent while their exemplar is ruthlessly beheaded and devoured by the mob? The Knights and the Daughters should at least have the decency to change their name if they no longer wish to support Christopher Columbus or his extraordinary voyages to expand the Old World into the New.
Whatever Columbus’s intentions, he did change the world. In his profound work of moral philosophy and economics, Adam Smith rightly noted that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.” A more modern scholar, Alfred Crosby stated of Columbus, labeling his voyages the “most important event in human history since the end of the Ice Age.” Let’s leave Jesus out of this for a moment. These are no small claims, and they are no exaggeration. For all intents and purposes, Columbus’s voyages recreated the ancient land mass of Pangea, bringing together what continental drift had broken apart. On his second journey, in 1493, Columbus brought with him—in 17 ships—1,200 men as well as livestock (pigs, chickens, cattle, horses, and sheep).
Overall, the Old World gave to the New: honeybees, cattle, sheep, chicken, horses, wheat, coffee, rice, barley, turnips, cabbage, pears, peaches, lemons, bananas, oranges, and olives.
In turn, the New World gave to the Old: tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peppers, chocolate, beans, pumpkins, squash, peanuts, cashews, pineapples, and sunflowers.
It would be difficult for even the brightest among us to imagine Ireland without the potato or Italy without the tomato. The potato, especially, allowed northern Europe to compete with southern Europe in its crop productivity as well as in the caloric intake of its people. I always joke with my students, while Protestantism did not arise because of the potato, there is no doubt that the central and northern Europeans of Luther’s generation were so much better off than that of pre-contact Europe. Clearly, it would have been harder for Protestantism to maintain itself without the increase of caloric intake among post-contact northern Europeans.
From American natives, Europeans also gained tobacco, coca (including cocaine and eventually Novocain), rubber, and some sports.
In the best book on the subject, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (1986), Crosby notes that the Europeans changed and quite fundamentally remade the ecosystem of North and South America, knowingly and unknowingly, through four things. First, the Europeans brought with them weeds—plants that had been competing for dominance in the economic and cultural collusion of European, African, and Asian societies. When these “weeds,” such as “Kentucky Blue Grass,” encountered American plants, they predominated.
Second, the same is true of animals. Crosby wrote:
Fortunately for the Europeans, their domesticated and lithely adaptable animals were very effective at initiating that change. The prospective European colonists were livestock people, as their ancestors had been for millennia. The founders of the Neo-Europes were descendants, culturally and often genetically, of the Indo-Europeans, a west Central Eurasian people who spoke the ancestral language of most of the tongues of Europe (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, etc.), a people who were practicing mixed farming, with heavy emphasis on herding, 4,500 years before Columbus.
Especially damaging was the pig, with its cloven hooves that served as mini-ploughs, breaking the soil and allowing European seeds to colonize.
Finally, and most immediately damaging though, were the “ills,” the diseases such as the poxes that devastated the American Indian populations. Of course, no one understood germ theory until the 1860s, and it did not become commonly believed until the 1890s, so the massive death rates from disease were completely unintentional. As William McNeill has rightly argued, every people, everywhere, has gone through its disease phases from time to time. On the American frontier, diseases spread about 20 miles ahead of European settlement and movement. Disease proved the greatest killer, killing upwards of ninety percent of certain American Indian populations.
Syphilis moved the other direction—from the New to the Old World—and with terrible consequences among the European ruling houses, but it never really affected the average European.
Is Columbus guilty? Of course not. He was a brave and tenacious explorer—flawed, of course, like every man, and guilty of ethical misconduct with some of the Indians he encountered—who expanded the knowledge of the Old World, changing it and the New World forever.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.