Reflections on Columbus Day

A week from today you have a holiday, a long weekend, by any measure a good thing.  If you are like me, you probably do not reflect sufficiently on the meaning of the holiday, content instead simply to be grateful for a little extra sleep, the chance to decompress, perhaps another opening to hang out with good friends or family, and maybe the opportunity to catch up on a task or two.  I look forward for all those reasons to Columbus Day, arriving just in time as the pressure builds in the first academic quarter of the school year.

Yet I am an historian.  Over the years I have taught both United States and European History.  Christopher Columbus holds an exceedingly important place in both of those historical narratives.  And that place is increasingly regarded as highly controversial and a conundrum.  Any informed, reflective person has to struggle with Columbus, what he represents, and the meaning of his actions.

For some, Columbus is best understood as a heroic explorer.  He was a man with a bold vision, and the qualities of character and the talent to see that vision to fruition.  He set out into the unknown, and through his courage and skill a path was set, and a spirit was established, that led to the creation of modern America.

For others, Columbus was a buffoon.  He was lost and didn’t know it, a man who set out on a fool’s errand with bad information.  He succeeded only through blind luck.  He replicated his mission three more time, in each instance seeking Asia, yet still managing never to reach even the continents of America, of which he remained blissfully unaware, instead sailing aimlessly around the Caribbean.

And for others Columbus is a great historical villain, a purveyor of genocide.  He came to the New World armed with diseases and guns that led to the imperialist annihilation of cultures and the death of millions of native people.

There is truth within each of these perspectives.  Columbus did indeed possess many admirable qualities.  He sought to take incredible risks.  He was an inspirational leader, and he was tenacious and determined in pursuit of lofty goals.  He was a visionary.  And, indeed, his ambitions did transform the world, leading ultimately to remarkable opportunities and advances for all of humanity.

At the same time, when you read Columbus’ own letters it is clear that he had four specific ambitions.  He sought gold, hoping to extract wealth by any means from the people and lands he discovered.  He sought converts to Christianity with an utterly inflexible view of the wrongness of any faith other than his own.  He sought, through violence if necessary, to seize territory and monopolize trade routes for his sovereign, Queen Isabella of Spain.  And he sought personal glory.  Columbus justified many moral atrocities, including theft, murder and slavery, in pursuit of these objectives.

I turned to one of Nobles’ Distinguished Graduates, the great Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison of the Nobles Class of 1904, for some balanced insight into Columbus.  Morison saw Columbus as simply a man, complicated in his passions and motives, a product of the moral, political and economic imperatives of his times, and not easily evaluated in a modern context.  Morison said, “America was discovered by a great mariner who was looking for something else; when discovered, it was not wanted, and most of the exploration of the next fifty years was done with the hope of getting around or through it.  America was ultimately named, not for Columbus, but for a man who discovered no part of the New World.  History is like that, very chancy.”

I do not think we should stop observing Columbus Day, and this is not just because I like having the day off.  Rather, I hope it is preserved so that we can continue to reflect on the complex meaning of this immensely significant man and his legacy, which are at once great, yet profoundly flawed and troubling.  History is often like that, both ambiguous and, as Morison said, “chancy,” and it is left to the living to extract meaning and direction from the actions and intentions of those who came before us, with the hope that we can do better, and live with greater wisdom.  Indeed, I believe that examination of the life and legacy of Columbus can be of immense aid to all of us as we make the choices and decisions that will shape our own lives and the future of our society.

Have a great week, and enjoy the well-deserved long weekend ahead of us.

—Bob Henderson

These remarks were first delivered during assembly on Monday, October 7, 2013


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