• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Columbus Day In The Fray

August 2018


Among the many dates considered essential to human civilization, 1492 must be counted near the top. If pressed, we might also add to our list such years as 479 BC or 399 BC—the deaths of Confucius and Socrates respectively. The former died of heartache (burdened, as he was, by the premature loss of his son) while the latter died of hemlock and the democratic vote. So too might we add 146 BC (the year that Greece fell to Rome) or 476 BC (the year that Rome fell upon itself). We might even add AD 30 as the year of the Christian prophet’s bodily death or 632 as that of the Islamic prophet’s. Almost exactly a century thereafter, in 732, we encounter the defense of Poitiers at the Battle of Tours. This too is a date worth remembering; had Charles Martel not come prepared to fight for central France and Christendom, the Islamization of the west might’ve soon been complete. Thanks to his deliverance, our gentle Christianity was to be spared. We thank him, then, for the Great Schism of 1054 and the Investiture Controversy of 1076. The first split east from west; the second, church from state. One hardly makes it out of the eleventh century before first stumbling into Pope Urban atop his soapbox at Clermont. In 1095, he opened a centuries-long crusading can of worms.


We could go on, but 1492’s importance is commensurate with all other dates. Yet this isn’t my opinion alone. William Jefferson Durant (of no relation to the forty-second president, with whom he shares two-thirds a name), the understated erudite of all things historic and philosophic, believed this to be true.


The man who authored history’s most enlightening eleven-volume tome, The Story of Civilization, recognized the year’s centrality to the development of the west. “When Columbus discovered us”, Durant said—referring to “us” as the western hemisphere within whose girth America is but a humble part—“he put an end to the Italian Renaissance by changing trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic”. Columbus, he further expounded, brought “wealth and power first to Spain, making possible Velázquez and Cervantes, Murillo and Calderón; then to England, financing Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, and Hobbes; then to the Netherlands, producing Rembrandt and Spinoza, Rubens and Van Dyck, Hobbema and Vermeer; and then to France, generating Rabelais and Montaigne, Poussin and Claude Lorrain”.


If you’ve read Durant’s work, of which there is plenty and I urge you to do so if you haven’t yet, you’ll forever be enraptured by passages like these. He, unlike any other modern writer of history who comes to mind, is able to marry his subtle euphony and his intellectual force with the stroke of his pen. Not only that, he’s able to sustain this style (not unlike matrimony itself) until the very end and after a lifetime of work.


Aside from extolling one of my favorite authors, I have a point to make and it is this: If a man of Durant’s immense intellect considers Christopher Columbus’ seminal landfall in the Caribbean in the year 1492 to be an event worth celebrating, we would be wise follow his lead.


The issue arises annually—that of renaming October’s only federal holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, or some other culturally sensitive, newfangled nom du jour. Since that Democratic icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the holiday in the year 1937, the second Monday of the tenth month has always been Columbus’ day. Yet it’s always been a sticking point beyond which people can’t move. But the impediment to accepting Columbus and the argument for his dismissal is facile. We must celebrate Columbus and the day that bears his name in the proper context of history. Only then will we see he’s an important man and his is an important day. It’s the day to which Genoa’s most ambitious merchant marine and Spain’s adopted son and America’s primary founding father lends his name.


Columbus was born and raised in the northwest Italian city of Genoa. Then as now, Genoa serves that industrious north as one of the three prominent port cities welcoming trade from every side of the peninsula. The other two are of course Florence and Venice—no lesser than Genoa in import. The former housed the Medici, to whom the Renaissance and modernity owe so great a debt. That most accomplished and aristocratic of families did it all. It played patron to Michelangelo, prosecutor to Galileo, and prototype to Machiavelli. Leasing as well two of its noble sons to the papacy (Giovanni and Giulio received the vicars of Peter in the 16th century to become Popes Leo X and Clement VIII) the Medici had a toe in every pond: be it artistic, scientific, catholic, or politic, the family’s presence was in all fields known.


But it was Venice that inspired the imagination. It was from that eastern town—a lucky and profitable conduit between Orient and Occident—that Marco Polo ventured east. In the course of a lifetime, beginning first beside his swashbuckling father and uncle and then on his own, the precocious Polo took to traversing the seemingly endless Eurasian landmass. From Palestine to India, China to Malaysia and back again to his gentle Venice (for whose distant familiarity he couldn’t help but yearn), the gallant Polo sought it all. Centuries before Columbus would seek his own fortune, Polo strove for wealth, adventure, and fame. In his travels and in his subsequent writings, he was to discover all three. His stories—of which some were thought downright fictive and others too unbelievable to not be real—were feasible enough to inspire our young Columbus. He and his brother Bartholomew were so inspired by their Venetian countryman that they left their fair Italia behind for Iberia. There, they could pursue their romanticized “Enterprise of the Indies” and become Polos of the latter day.


To accomplish their task of reaching the east, the idea was quite simple. They would avoid altogether Vasco da Gama’s African route around the Cape of Good Hope. Though navigable and well-established, the Portuguese mariner da Gama’s path was circuitous and consumptive of time. By adhering to it, European shipping and trading companies would probably reach their destinations but at inefficient costs and in indirect ways.


To obviate this logistical mess, the Columbus boys wanted to sail westward in order to reach the east. The problem was that these ambitious brothers were rich in courage but poor in cash. And as any modern start-up company knows, having an idea and the requisite ambition is one thing; securing the funding, quite another. The effort to gain such necessary investments can be frustrating, if not completely vain. King John II, who ruled Columbus’s temporarily adopted Portugal, politely refused to finance the expedition. He wouldn’t dare be that profligate a king.


Undaunted, Bartholomew tried his hand. He sailed up to England to seek out a man with whom he’d once done prior business (his potential benefactor was a well-endowed venture capitalist of some repute). But old Bart fell on hard times. Almost immediately, he was taken by pirates along the way. Eventually, after working as a captive deckhand aboard this most inhospitable ship, he was dumped on an English beach. Destitute, haggard, but at the very least, free, he was in no shape to negotiate on his and his brother’s behalf. Poor Bartholomew looked more the part of an emaciated vagrant than an entrepreneur when finally he met his potential investor. How could he be expected to make the trans-Atlantic journey—so thought the capitalist—if he couldn’t even make it from the Spanish to the English coast? Needless to say, he left that rain-soaked island and returned to the continent without a cent.


Understandably wary of a longer voyage back to Portugal (and seeing France but a mere twenty miles away), Bartholomew decided to risk his luck across the Channel. There, he found himself in the audience of King Charles VIII. Nicknamed, l’affable, the young Capetian’s sobriquet might’ve been for Bartholomew an auspicious sign; affability (and, ultimately, money) was something of which he was in desperate need. But affability and prodigality are not two sides of a coin. Charles VIII proved a king could be not only affable, but frugal. He chose not to invest in the expedition. Deflated, Bartholomew returned to Lisbon penniless. Worse still, he was now without a hope that his and his brother’s grand idea would ever launch.


He despaired too soon. When at last brother Bartholomew found his way home to Portugal, he learned that Christopher had secured a fleet. If only to console his unsuccessful brother, the funding wasn’t ascertained easily. Christopher submitted his offer to the recently unified Spanish crown not once, not twice, but thrice. Only on the third attempt was he able to convince that miserly Ferdinand and his beloved Isabella of the boon that might come to them should they invest. The dividends, Christopher fulsomely argued, would be worth the initial cost and the crown would enter into a new and a refreshingly lucrative age.


Christopher’s persistence paid off. Sensing a good investment, or simply wanting to be rid of this entrepreneur-turned-interloper who kept meddling at court, Ferdinand and Isabella acquiesced. They decided to grant Christopher the subvention of which he was in so desperate a need. At any rate, the king and queen they had bigger fish to fry; the Inquisition and Jewish persecution were just about to start. Better to turn their full attention to the matters that counted most.


Knowing not where Bartholomew was (nor, more pressingly, when he was coming back), Christopher was caught in a bind. The financing was made available, but the timing was brief. He’d be made to set sail as soon as a crew was organized and the ships properly equipped. Sadly, after all his travails, Bartholomew was left behind as Christopher charted his course to the west. He’d reach this yet unknown “New World” in his brother’s absence.

The rest of the story is too well-known to be better put. With a flotilla of three, Columbus captained the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. After a journey of about eight weeks, he landed at Hispaniola—today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic. Travelling ostensibly for equal parts Christ and crown, he knew that only one had provisioned him with the finances he needed. As such, he was touching down in the Caribbean not as a missionary, but as a mercantilist. His ultimate aim was rather financial than spiritual, but who amongst us greedy capitalists to the north would reproach such a sin?


Columbus had to return to the continent and to Ferdinand and Isabella with something tangible in hand. And an exceedingly visible disease like syphilis simply wouldn’t do (although the venereal blisters certainly was rampant and easily procured). Knowing not exactly where he was setting his foot, Columbus proceed to search the island for spices or specie to recompense the crown’s investment. Neither were to be found. Unlike those things born of the earth and indigenous to the Peruvian mountains or the Philippine hills, neither silver nor cardamom were to be found at Hispaniola.


Desperate not to return to Spain as just another visionary on whom state funds were heedlessly wasted, Columbus chose to bring back flesh and bone in the absence of spices and metals. These were his spoils of incipient conquest. Of those islanders not yet infected by the European diseases (of which we number the bubonic plague, measles, cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis) he captured a few and brought them back to Spain. And just like that, the bricks of what would come to be known as the Middle Passage were laid. That highway of bondage—from the west African coast to the North, South, and Latin American east—would be paved in rapine and blood.


As the straight Middle Passage was beginning to take the shape of a triangular trade, conquistadores Hernan Cortés and Francisco Pizarro charged further inland. There, they began their savage pillage through Mexico and Peru. The combination of Columbus’ exploitation of human muscle and Cortés and Pizarro’s accumulation of Incan and Aztec gold compensated the Spanish crown in full—and then some. Spain awarded itself primacy over these inchoate colonies, and took from them the natural resources it saw fit. In so doing, it was able to accomplish many things: it was able to swell the coffers of its monarchs, requisition new lands, stratify its imperial society (with new categories of people with names like mestizo, mulatto, and creole), and promulgate the success of an economy based on bullion.


It’s easy, then, to see exactly how Spain acquired its prodigious wealth and in some ways provided the momentum for the Renaissance’s final leg. Of course, its assets were chiefly purloined—of this, there’s little doubt. But this redounded to and made possible the great achievements of actors like Velázquez, Montaigne, and Bacon. These and innumerable others added to the Western canon that which we most cherish today. Stimulating pieces of art, acerbic poetic tomes, electrifying advances in science, and profound philosophical penetrations—none would be possible without Columbus. We, like Durant’s contemporary Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shouldn’t feel shame, nor should we hesitate in celebrating the “promise which Columbus’s discovery gave to the world”, as that most vaunted of presidents once said.


Who, then, if not Columbus, will be our ersatz idol on this holiday? He, more than others, broadened the Western reach and was first to bring it near our America’s shore. His unlikely voyage in the year 1492 marked an Occidental anno mundi—a veritable year of creation that breathed into existence the fledgling modernity that was to come. To be certain, there was much despair and collateral damage along the way, just as there are birthing pains if life is to take stride. We must acknowledge and lament the life lost, and celebrate that which was gained. Columbus’ name—like that of Polo or Roosevelt—must live.

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