Christopher Columbus: Ambassador of Western Civilization

On October 12, 1492, the Genoan navigator Crisforo Colombo first reached land in the Western Hemisphere.

Columbus takes a lot of ribbing these days, for having thought he was in another part of the world, for not really being the first to discover the Americas, for having worked for a different country than the one of his birth, for never admitting that he had discovered a whole new land mass.

But, buried beneath these minor complaints, his accomplishments were enormous.… He did what had never been done before, showing amazing creativity, political skill, and determination.

Yes, Columbus does deserve a day to himself… Not only here in the United States, but across the Americas. We all owe our superior standard of living to the man who opened up this hemisphere to the ways of the West.

Not Really The First

Let’s begin by dispensing with the silly notion that Columbus shouldn’t deserve credit, because others discovered the Americas first.

Well, so what if they did?

Yes, Erickson and his Vikings discovered Greenland, and probably Nova Scotia too, hundreds of years earlier. But they didn’t do much with it. They stayed a little while, then left, and it was forgotten.

Thousands of years earlier, the Mormons believe, a lost tribe of Israelites landed in North America, and settled here. But even if that’s right, they didn’t bring western ways to the Americas; they disappeared.

Similarly, thousands of years earlier than that, Asians crossed over to the Americas and settled. Some came by sea, across the South Pacific. More came by land, across what is now the Bering Strait, over what is assumed to have been a land bridge at the time. They established civilizations of a sort, but they were what we would call prehistoric civilizations. Some had a calendar, some had some temples, but none were civilized in the way we view the term.

This is not to insult the people who were here when Columbus arrived. It is not to insult any of the cultures in the Americas… It is just a fact. We are not perfect today, no one claims us to be… But we are certainly more advanced than the populations who lived in caves, mud huts and tents. We are certainly more advanced than civilizations that practiced human sacrifice, lived as hunter-gatherers, and enslaved or slew the warriors they conquered in battle.

Western civilization was far beyond that, in the 1400s. It wasn’t perfect, but it had progressed incalculably further than the pre-Columbian American civilizations had.

Columbus didn’t bring any evils to this hemisphere that weren’t there already; the Americas already had disease, war, slavery, dictatorship. He didn’t introduce such things anew.

What Christopher Columbus brought with him to the Americas was that greatly advanced civilization: the civilization of written language, advanced metalwork, artwork, and industry, the Judeo-Christian family of religions, building techniques that could provide comfortable and even beautiful housing for unlimited numbers of people, and so much more.

Admittedly, Western Civilization was not then as advanced as it is today. We have continued to advance; time and progress did not stop in 1492. Since then, we have made incredible advances in medicine and all the sciences, in industry, philosophy and law. Since Columbus’s day, we have banned slavery; we have established countless career paths for people of all origins. We have set examples for governing by the rule of law rather than by the rule of might. We have improved standards of living immeasurably, with luxuries from grocery stores to home computers, from HVAC systems to automated factories.

Western Civilization has done this.

It is not one man, or one order, or one ruling family, or one book. The source of the continuous advancement of the ages is Western Civilization.

It is Western Civilization that encourages, facilitates, and rewards such advances. Non-western societies have not done so. Pre-Columbian American civilizations did not do so.

If Columbus had never set foot in the Americas, there is no reason to believe that these two continents would be any further along today, in terms of advancement, then they were then. Pre-Columbian American society was stagnant, and has been for thousands of years.

Again, this is nothing against the people; it is just a statement of fact about their civilization. It took western ways to facilitate advancement in Europe too, after all. If Europeans have been stuck with the same societies the pre-Columbian America had, then Europeans would not have advanced either. Europeans too would have been living in caves, mud huts and tents without the worldview of Western Civilization to spur them to improve.

It is the western approach to life… The Judeo Christian tradition, the western worldview, the philosophy of the Renaissance, that enabled every place under the umbrella of Western Civilization to develop as it has.

Bringing that worldview to the Americas was a gift.

Perseverance, Dedication, and Talent

The personal story of Christopher Columbus is a fascinating one.

Born in Genoa, in what is now northwest Italy, he went to sea early, sailing from a home base of Lisbon, Portugal by the age of 20. He spent his young years in merchant sailing, at a time when marine commerce was booming.

All the known world was excited at the prospect of buying and selling goods from distant lands. From Great Britain to the Mediterranean, from Western Europe to Asia, merchant caravans moved over land, and merchant vessels sailed the seas, creating business for exotic marketplaces, insurance firms, and all the wonderful developments that come from a bustling trade. Port towns flourished and the manufacturing guilds prospered.

But there was a problem – a problem that had been growing for nearly 1000 years already, interference by aggressive Muslim chieftains.

The aggressive spread of Islam was fast making eastward land routes too dangerous… And Muslim control of important passages, such as the Straits of Gibraltar and the land bridge between the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas (remember, there was no Suez Canal then) made even seagoing activity more dangerous than it had to be (as if the natural barriers of weather and Renaissance shipbuilding methods didn’t already make it dangerous enough).

So, not unlike today, when we are frustrated by an unpleasant obstacle, one of the most common exclamations of frustration among the sailors of the day, was the old saying, “If only there were another way.”

Well… Christopher Columbus believed that there was.

He sat down and did the math, and came to a decision. He believed that they could get to eastern coast of Asia by sailing due west from the Canary Islands.

On all of the big issues, he was right:

A western, all-water path would free them from the threat of hostile Muslim barriers along the way. Despite the obvious risk of an ocean voyage, on balance, a direct westerly all-water route could be both safer and quicker then sailing around Africa, or attempting any of the many overland routes then known. And financially, the potential for commercial activity was so high as to ensure it would be worthwhile in the end.

Someone, somewhere, just had to be willing to try it first.

Columbus and his brother Bartholomew went to work as salesmen for the idea; they pitched their plan to country after country. It is believed that the brothers pitched the idea to not only Castile, but also Portugal, Genoa, and England, maybe more.

King Henry VII of England even accepted the idea, eventually, and wrote back his intent to bankroll the effort, but only after taking so long to make up his mind, that Columbus had already accepted Spain’s offer and begun preparations.

Columbus tied a great many purposes together in both building his case and designing his plan:

He capitalized on the clear western recognition of a need to counter aggressive Muslim expansionism. He capitalized on a public excitement, all across Europe, for travel, exploration, and world trade. He capitalized on the international rivalries of the West – Ferdinand and Isabella were anxious to protect their new-won security; success in this endeavor would strengthen their position as European leaders. And of course, Columbus had a very real personal devotion to the Western Civilization that he hoped to help spread to Asia.

Columbus was masterful in his plans; right on almost everything, wrong on only one big issue: the earth’s circumference was bigger than he thought. If it weren’t for the Americas, it would’ve taken him much longer to get to Asia by his route.

The possibility that a western path would be too long for a sea journey had always been the mariners’ fear. What if the crew got fed up, and mutinied? What if the crew ran out of food and water? What if, as ocean storms spun one’s ship around, the stars changed their appearance, and the lack of maps made navigation impossible, one would go off-course so far as to be hopelessly lost at sea?

Other navigators had the idea before Columbus, but hadn’t had the courage to try it.

No doubt others would’ve had the idea after him, and the same lack of resolve would have stopped them as well.

It could easily have been another fifty years, another hundred, another two hundred, before another European country had the courage and the wherewithal to attempt that western journey.

Only Columbus made it happen.

Ah, but once Columbus started the trend, others followed. He blazed a trail soon joined by Italians, Portuguese, Englishmen, Dutch… all of whom would likely have continued sailing eastward if Columbus hadn’t proven the westward path was there.

We will never know how long the delay would have been without Columbus. All we do know is that Columbus was the first.

It was Christopher Columbus who convinced a king and queen to take a gamble on an Italian navigator with funny math.

It was Columbus who had the nerve, and the force of will, to inspire three shiploads of sailors to dare a voyage that had never been dared before, and to keep sailing west when nothing was in sight, day after day, and all the world they knew was east.

It was Columbus whose math told him that Asia would appear thousands of miles before it actually did, and who lucked out by discovering an entire hemisphere, a different land than he expected, but an important and welcoming land nevertheless… Just in time, just as his crew was beginning to lose hope.

Luckily for him, and luckily for us too, the Americas were there, unexpectedly, right when and where he needed them to be.

Whether that monumental discovery was luck or Providence, on October 12, 1492, it was indeed a blessing… for him, for us, and for all the world.

Happy Columbus Day!

Copyright 2020 John F Di Leo

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