Acton Institute Powerblog

Columbus Day: Why Does It Matter?

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The second Monday of October is designated as “Columbus Day” in the United States, ostensibly to give honor and tribute to the man, Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” America. Every American school kid learns to sing-song, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Today, the reason most people in the U.S. notice Columbus Day is because they don’t get any mail, and federal workers get the day off. (Of course, with the federal mail system dying a slow death and the government shutdown, there may not be too many people who notice Columbus Day at all…)

Does Columbus Day matter?

Many indigenous groups in North America don’t think so. While Italian-Americans boast of their countryman’s accomplishments, native groups see the celebration of Columbus’ travels as a day of mourning the death of many of their ancestors. And of course, Columbus wasn’t trying to discover a “new land” but rather a better route to Asian trading partners for Europe. Even Columbus wanted to be remembered for finding Asia, not this new land.

At best, we can call Christopher Columbus a “flawed hero,” according to Warren H. Carroll. The man was daring and brave, undertaking a voyage with the best information of his time, which wasn’t that great. And since he thought he was sailing to Asia, had he not run into North America, he and his crew would have died, as they were unprepared for a voyage of that length. Carroll says we should still honor him:

It is for the boldness of his conception and his magnificent courage in laying his life on the line to carry it out that Christopher Columbus is most rightly honored. It was these qualities that Queen Isabel of Spain recognized in him, that caused her to override the cautious advice of counsellors doubtful that such an unprecedented enterprise could succeed. Isabel knew nothing of navigation and little of world geography, but she was a superb judge of men and women.

Carroll also tells the story of Columbus’ return journey, with only two ships (the Santa Maria had run aground and left for timber for a fort), and those two ships became separated. The Nina ran into a hurricane, and lost all but one sail.

The slightest error in turning into the monster waves rolling up from behind would swamp the ship and sink it like a stone. They could not do it in trough or on crest, but only on the upward roll, when there was moonlight or lightning to show them their opportunity.

The sail was drawing hard, adding its pressure to the pull on the helm. The tall Admiral, his once red hair bleached white by sun and strain, stood with feet braced, waiting for his moment. So far as he knew, his ship and men and they alone bore the secret of the greatest geographical discovery of all time. Their lives and its fate depended on what would happen in the next few minutes.

Nina made the turn flawlessly, and squared away on her new course. “God protected us until daylight,” Columbus says, “but it was with infinite labor and fright.”

It is in this scene, above all, that we see the hero Columbus best, and understand why for five hundred years men of all races knowing of him honored him…

We honor Columbus today, not because he found America, or even because he was a good ship’s captain. We honor him for the same reason we honor men and women like Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Marie Curie: because they are visionaries.

Columbus was a flawed hero — as all men are flawed, including heroes — and his flaws are of a kind particularly offensive to today’s culture. But he was nevertheless a hero, achieving in a manner unequalled in the history of exploration and the sea, changing history forever. For some strange reason heroism is almost anathema to our age, at least to many of its most vocal spokesmen. But heroes and the inspiration they give are essential to uplift men and women; without them, faceless mediocrity will soon descend into apathy and degradation. Heroes need not be perfect; indeed, given the fallen nature of man, none can be perfect. It is right to criticize their failings, but wrong to deny their greatness and the inspiration they can give.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.