Barcelona. Monument to Christopher Columbus.
Barcelona. Monument to Christopher Columbus.

Why the Woke Perspective on Columbus Day Is Wrong

Originally published at Townhall

Today’s woke perspective condemns Columbus Day as an unworthy holiday. However, a circumspect understanding of history offers numerous reasons why Columbus should not only be celebrated, but also why his qualities of character make him an exemplary figure worthy of emulation for all time.

First, it’s ironic that criticism of Columbus Day emanates from the left in America for Columbus never set foot on or even saw any territory that later became part of the continental United States. Columbus’ four expeditions to the New World between 1492 and 1504 were focused exclusively on Caribbean islands and territories which are now Latin America. A primary legacy of Columbus was that in discovering the New World, he opened the door to exploration and colonization of those new territories by Europeans who followed.

Christopher Columbus was less controversial and more consequential than many other important historical figures. He embodied a range of attributes that are necessary for solving many of our contemporary problems and actually saving our country from further decline and collapse resulting from abandoning God, group think, corruption and abuse of power.

Columbus grew up in a working-class family, and his life was punctuated by hardship, failures, and near death that would have been the demise of most ordinary people. If he had not been a man of character and determination with deep faith in God, self-confidence to ignore critics, and go against the crowd and remain steadfast in his vision and his calling, he never could have accomplished what he did, which was of course the discovery of the New World in the Western Hemisphere.

Columbus left behind voluminous ship logs, diaries and writings that reveal what motivated him to do what he did. Born and raised in Genoa, Italy, he was the consummate self-made man who shipped out at an early age. Experiencing the militant face of Islam at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that created a blockade to Europe’s important trade with the Orient, he felt God’s conviction to find a western sea route, knowing it would have far-reaching benefits.

Columbus faced death when the Flemish-flagged ship on which he was crew was attacked and sunk off the coast of Portugal. But by sheer determination to survive he was able to find floating debris that enabled him to kick his way to shore. For a seafarer with his ambition and vision, there was no better country on which to wash up than Portugal, a nation with the world’s most advanced tools of navigation and map-making. There he learned about celestial navigation, which further confirmed his confidence to sail west “around” the world to India and the Spice Islands. By his late thirties, his “calling” came, recorded in his diary: “It was the Lord who put into my mind, [and] I could feel his hand upon me…that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.”

Recognizing that such an undertaking would need state sponsorship, Columbus spent the next six years traipsing across Europe seeking support from sovereignties of the leading maritime countries, only to find rejection and ridicule. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain had turned down Columbus several times. But because of his seafaring skills, conviction about finding a westward passage, and his bravery and willingness to lead an armed flotilla to rescue the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim hands in the eastern Mediterranean, they had a change of heart toward Columbus.

Few years in history have been punctuated by such pivotal events as what happened in 1492. It was in that year that Christendom—still suffering from the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks 40 years prior—drove Islam out of Spain and Europe with Isabella and Ferdinand playing the pivotal role. They then decided to support Christian expansion and finance the exploration and evangelistic expedition of Columbus.

In his first voyage of three ships—the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria—after being at sea for two months Columbus faced an anxious crew, who believed landfall should have been made by week five. The situation became mutinous with threats to heave Columbus overboard if he did not agree to their demands to turn back. Recognizing that he alone could hardly restrain let alone punish his mutinous crew of some fifty, Columbus turned to God. In a letter that has been preserved among his personal historical records, Columbus wrote that God inspired him to make a deal with his Spanish crew and stake his life on it. He asked for three more days, and if land was not sighted, the crew could do with him as they wished.

As providence would have it, in the early morning hours of the third day on October 12, under the light of the moon and the stars, the lookout from the ship Pinta, shouted out the siting of land. Assuming it was an island to the east of India or China, Columbus had no idea that he was about to discover a new part of the world—the outskirts of a massive continent—far from the Orient.

Today’s woke culture, which has held Columbus accountable for the chain of disasters that followed in his wake in the Caribbean and South America is not only unfair, but it overlooks the essence of the man. Not of Spanish culture, Columbus was at heart a simple but ambitious individualist—a seafaring explorer and evangelist. He had neither interest in founding colonies nor was he an effective leader and administrator of strong-headed hidalgos that undertook setting up colonial outposts at the behest of Isabella.

Columbus’s perseverance and courage in his transatlantic crossing inspired successors from northern Europe who had been transformed by the Protestant Reformation with the ideas of equality and freedom. They would set out to pursue a new life in that New World, ultimately establishing thirteen different colonies in coastal North America.

Suffering injustice from Great Britain many years later, those colonists reluctantly banded together to fight for independence. Over the six years of the Revolutionary War, they lost more battles than they won. But like the course of Columbus, George Washington’s persistence, courage and faith in God empowered an underequipped and underfunded colonial army to get to final victory and achieve independence. That in turn enabled the founding of a new nation, unlike any other—one based on the revolutionary idea that people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness were inviolable because those rights came from God and not man or the state.

Seen from the big picture, Columbus Day is worth keeping and honoring because it opened the possibility of founding a new nation unencumbered by past corruption and for the simple reason that it celebrates beliefs and qualities of character that would be foundational to America. It could even be said that Columbus Day is the holiday that commemorates the character, attitudes and choice of human action that made the other American holidays possible.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.