COLUMBUS’ SEAFARING ACHIEVEMENT HAS BEEN CELEBRATED in various Western nations for different reasons. Here at home, Columbus Day entered the calendar as a day to celebrate the contribution of immigrants—particularly Italian Catholic ones—to the United States. So, please, folks, let us not pull our skirts back from a magnificent mariner, who first set sail at ten, and the glory—down the centuries—of his explorations.
The consummate historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Pulitzer Prize winning Admiral of the Ocean Sea, describes Columbus this way:
Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World, was first and foremost a sailor. Born and reared in Genoa, one of the oldest European seafaring communities, as a youth he made several voyages in the Mediterranean, where the greatest mariners of antiquity were bred. At the age of twenty-four, by a lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there, while employed partly in making charts and partly on long voyages under the Portuguese flag, he conceived the great enterprise that few but a sailor could have executed. That enterprise was simply to reach “The Indies”–Eastern Asia— by sailing west. It took him about ten years to gain support for this idea, and he never did execute it, because a vast continent stood in the way. America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it.
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We now honor Columbus for something that he never intended to do, and never knew he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge and the sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.
This was the most spectacular and most far-reaching geographical discovery in recorded human history.
One of the greatest seamen of all time, he was also an interesting man who lived in interesting times:
Born at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he showed the qualities of both eras. He had the firm religious faith, the a priori reasoning, and the close communion the Unseen typical of the early Christian centuries. Yet he also had the scientific curiosity, the zest for life, the feeling for beauty and the striving for novelty that we associate with the advancement of learning.
That is the paperback précis of a more nuanced passage that appears in the original 2-volume biography. His era, as Morison told it, bears a certain similarity to our own. Note the second sentence:
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.
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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.
Note: A reader writes to tell me that I neglected to give the full citation for Geiger’s painting. The portrait of Columbus is a detail from Allegory of the Territories, an extended work celebrating the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558). It hangs in a small castle museum in Trieste.