“Eugh,” we say. “Columbus Day. Why do we have to remember this guy? Usually we try to forget the people who came back from a long trip with tomatoes and syphilis.”
And we don’t even get a day off work!
Well, sure, the federal government’s closed, but it closes whenever a slight drizzle is expected or it’s Woodrow Wilson’s half birthday, or sometimes “just because.” Sure, the mail won’t be delivered, but how does that differ from most days, when I receive either nothing or odd-smelling packages addressed to Walter Kovacs?
But in Columbus’s case this lack of a real day off just seems to twist the knife. Everyone’s down on Christopher Columbus these days.
Time was, the Columbus story was popular. We sang merrily about it at school — “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” — and discussed the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
He was an explorer! He was a discoverer!
But of late his escutcheon has been slightly tarnished.
“Columbus?” our grade-schoolers ask. “The guy who was wrong about where India was? That guy who mislabeled everything and mistreated and misnamed the Native Americans?”
Maybe he deserves another look. There are qualities in Columbus that we prize highly nowadays: persistence, belief, and the ability to travel long distances without burning fossil fuels.
Everyone knows the story — Columbus thought he could reach India by sailing west across the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic to us) instead of east around Africa. He was right, but he was using Ptolemaic calculations that misunderestimated the Earth’s circumference. Also there was a continent in the way. In what some described as a “totally postmodern gesture,” Columbus decided that this absolutely had to be India, and that all he had to do was refer to it that way often enough to make this so.
Now the story that has increasingly emerged is of a bumbling fool unwilling to admit that he was ever in the wrong, who in addition exploited people for gold. It sounds as though he might have a future on cable.
But what we ought to celebrate about Columbus is his sheer tenacity — without him, we wouldn’t be here.
He discovered America — well, as much as you can discover anything that already has people in it, like the guy who made trucker hats popular.
“You are going to fall off the edge of the world,” everyone told him.
But Columbus, like Ron Paul before him, was not going to be swayed by what everyone else thought about these things.
And it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
On this day in 1492, the men on board the Santa Maria nearly mutinied. But he rallied them, noting: “I reproached them for their lack of spirit, telling them that, for better or worse, they had to complete the enterprise on which the Catholic Sovereigns [Isabel and Fernando] had sent them.... I also told the men that it was useless to complain, for I had started out to find the Indies and would continue until I had accomplished that mission, with the help of Our Lord.” (“The Log of Christopher Columbus,” edited by Robert Fuson, quoted in an essay by Warren Carroll.) Say what you will about what happened afterward, I respect anyone capable of sailing off into the unknown with nothing but slightly faulty mathematical calculations, faith, and a ship full of angrily muttering men. That’s the kind of intestinal fortitude behind which we can get!
Willingness to undergo extreme hardship to maintain a belief in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary? The sheer tenacity to go blundering off into the unknown? Smallpox? Check, check, and probably.
He’s a man for our times.
And I’m not just saying that because I want the day off.