The current orthodoxy on Columbus is that he, and his impact, were unmitigated evil. This is, to say the least, an over-correction from earlier mythologizing.
Columbus certainly treated the people of Hispaniola who fell under his authority abusivley and cruelly. In that regard, he was typical of his day and age.
What was atypical about Columbus was his ingenious insight about the Atlantic wind patterns, and his superhuman drive to cross the Ocean Sea and arrive, as he incorrectly believed, in the Far East. It is of course false that people in his day did not know that the planet was spherical. Columbus did not have to prove that. Columbus was mistaken about the size of the sphere, and he imagined China to be a lot close than it was.
The argument which Columbus now laid before the learned men of Spain was this: The eastern route, even if the Portuguese succeed in finding it, would be of no use to them, as the voyage to Cipango, to Cathay, even to the spice islands, would be too long for profit. It was better to sail out into the West, for that route would be scarcely 3000 miles to the extremity of Asia; the other would be 15,000, apart from the tremendous circuit of Africa, the extent of which was ascertained by Diaz while Columbus was pursuing his uphill struggle. The basis of the entire calculation was that the circumference of the earth is 18,000 miles at the equator, and that Asia begins, as is shown in Toscanelli’s chart, somewhere about California. Misled by his belief in cosmographers, he blotted out the Pacific, and estimated the extent of water to be traversed at one–third of the reality. The Spaniards, who were consulted, pointed out the flaw, for the true dimensions were known; but they were unable to demonstrate the truths against the great authorities cited on the other side. The sophisms of Columbus were worth more than all the science of Salamanca. The objectors who called him a visionary were in the right, and he was obstinately wrong. To his auspicious persistency in error Americans owe, among other things, their existence.
Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit annually posts a quote from Samuel Eliot Morison‘s superb Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus:
At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .
Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”
Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.
Glenn recommends the Morison book as an antidote to the simplistic anti-occidental prejudice of today, and he cites Jim Bennett’s comment regarding the source of this currently fashionable bigotry:
This is primarily an effect of the Calvinist Puritan roots of American progressivism. Just as Calvinists believed in the centrality of the depravity of man, with the exception of a minuscule contingent of the Elect of God, their secularized descendants believe in the depravity and cursedness of Western civilization, with their own enlightened selves in the role of the Elect.
The downstream influence of American Puritanism on contemporary political correctness is under-appreciated, and Jim Bennett and I discuss it in America 3.0.
The importance of the discovery by Europeans of the Western Hemisphere is difficult to overstate. First, it devastated the indigenous populations due to exposure to communicable diseases carried by “disease experienced” Europeans, whose filthy cities were petri dishes of disease. This story is told in many places, including Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill. As Bennett put it: ” The New World had been epidemiologically isolated from the Old for geologic eras, and thus was, epidemiologically speaking, a huge tinderbox waiting to be set alight.”
(The massive destruction wrought by European disease was partly avenged by the introduction of a virulent strain of syphilis, which the crews of Columbus’s ships brought back from the New World.)
The impact on Europe of Columbus and his discoveries was complex and highly consequential. In the excellent, but now rarely cited, book by Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle the author aptly refers to the four centuries from the battle of Diu to the battle of Tsushima as the Columbian Age. During these centuries, European naval power dominated the oceans of the world, and created the foundations of a global economy. Entire continents were subjected to conquest, annexation, re-population and ransacking by Europeans.
The expansion of Europe in space was accompanied by an expansion in the perceived opportunities the world presented. And as Morison said above, “the human spirit renewed.” The world became a zone of adventure and discovery and exploration — at least for those not on the receiving end of European technical superiority and firepower.
The sudden opening to Europeans of the Western Hemisphere, and the contemporaneous discovery of sea routes to Asia, is one of many links in the chain of causation that led to the modern world. These sea voyages were essential early steps on the “circuitous and near-miraculous routes by which agrarian mankind has, once only” escaped from the Malthusian trap of pre-industrial production, the “closed circle of agrarian production.” This once-in-history escape is referred to by Ernest Gellner and Alan Macfarlane (adopting Gellner’s usage) as the Exit. The Exit originated in England. This English Exit was then adapted to local conditions and replicated around the world.
Another way to describe this unique and world-transforming change is, in Bennett’s words, the triumph of production over predation. In a post-Exit world, exploitation of other humans being, by slavery and more subtle means, is no longer the primary path to wealth and power. Technology, science and production are the better paths, and they led to the destruction of age-old slavery in much of the world.
The sea voyages of the great explorers, and the discovery of the New World appear in retrospect to have been necessary though not sufficient conditions for the Exit.
As Bennett put it:
Would the Exit have happened without the linking of the New World with the Old? We can never say for sure. Likewise, we can’t say for certain that the particular combination of history, technology, and geography that led the British Isles to become the driving force for the Exit was inevitable or unduplicatable. What is clear that the chain of events set in motion, as it happened, by Columbus ended up in the Exit. It is also the case that had the Old World been colonized entirely by Mediterranean civilizations, it is not clear that the Exit would have happened. Therefore the chain of events triggered by John Cabot’s voyaging to North America, leading to the extension of the Anglosphere to the bulk of North America, must similarly be treated as essential to the Exit.
Bennett’s piece is entitled Columbus, the Exit, and the Forge of Modernity, and you should read the whole thing.
A further detail worth mentioning on Columbus day is Bennett’s observation that we in the Anglosphere may be celebrating the wrong Italian. There were really four European discoveries and settlements in the Western Hemisphere, a Spanish one, in the Caribbean and Mexico, then points further South, a Portuguese one in Brazil, a French one in the valleys of the St. Laurence and the Mississippi, and an English one along the coast of North America. And the explorations of John Cabot, a/k/a Giovanni Caboto, were the first recorded English incursions into North America.
So, while giving Columbus his due praise, and appropriate condemnation, let us also celebrate the achievements of John Cabot whose discoveries led to the planting of the Anglosphere in the New World — which led in turn to America 1.0, America 2.0 and the America 3.0 which is now struggling to be born.