How to Talk to Your Kids (and Yourself) about Christopher Columbus, Hero, Villain

Image via Library of Congress

Image via Library of Congress

Today we honor an explorer, navigator and colonizer–an Italian by birth, but funded by the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to find the New World “first” (i.e., after Viking Leif Erikson found it first, after those already living here found it first).

We know his name as surely as we know the earth is round: Christopher Columbus.

But who was this explorer really, and why do we in the United States celebrate him to the tune of a federal holiday?

Born around 1451 in Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus grew up in a family of wool merchants. While just a young man, he joined a merchant ship’s crew and began his sailing career. After an unfortunate encounter with French pirates, Columbus’ boat sank. He made it safely to shore in Lisbon, and it was there that he was educated in seaworthy ways to include navigation and astronomy. Here he began thinking about a way to make himself famous. He believed he knew more than his colleagues in cartography and had a better and faster way to get to Asia than the route of the current day. After England and Portugal refused him, Spain offered funds for the journey, in return for the furtherance of the Catholic faith (and some monetary reimbursement and fame and fortune). Columbus was amenable to Spain’s terms and set sail in the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. And the rest, as they say, is history. (,

At least, that was history as most of us were taught it as youths. But sometime between third grade and adulthood, we discovered the Columbus about whom Mrs. Hughes, Miss Wilson, and your second grade teacher didn’t tell us: Columbus the villain.

In a pattern we can trace throughout most of human history, when fame and fortune go to the head of the victor, victory takes a villainous turn. Establishing a settlement in the Caribbean Islands, Columbus enslaved the natives and took them captive as a gift for Queen Isabella. He also left his ruthless brothers on the islands to maintain order while he sailed around looking for China (clueless that he was still a continent and an ocean away). Columbus continued to promise King Ferdinand riches beyond compare, even after a bloody mutiny led to the explorer’s arrest and he was stripped of his title and the fortune he had amassed. Sailing once again to the New World, he was shipwrecked on the island of Cuba, where he threatened the locals with “taking away their moon,” because he knew a lunar eclipse was about to happen. Sources say that after being rescued and returned to Spain, he lived a rather empty life chasing after his dream of finding a shorter route to Asia from Europe.

Image via Library of Congress

Image via Library of Congress

Heck, as the Washington Post noted yesterday via, “Even his most ardent admirers acknowledge that Columbus was self-centered, ruthless, avaricious, and a racist.”

So, why do we celebrate him? What does he have to offer us today? Isn’t he just another almost-hero who made some terrible choices (not to mention cartographical errors)?

Maybe those whom this holiday frustrates are trying to celebrate him for the wrong reasons. Columbus Day becomes less of a square peg in a round hole when we remember the man not for his virtue, but for his adventurism. A passionate, and initially poor, dreamer caught a vision to improve the world (and himself) in the face of enormous risks; instead, he stumbled across a new continent–if only new to him, and new to most of Europe. His wise choices were riddled with terrible ones, a fact that justly damages his legacy. At the same time, he was challenged by his education, saw a global navigational problem, developed a vision for how he might solve it, and repeatedly pursued that vision–all things we’d like our children to embrace.

We’ll be the first (well, the “first” like Columbus was “first”) to concede that you can ride this thinking only so far before it runs aground of figures seedier than Columbus, and more socially destructive and morally bankrupt. But that is no reason not to ride this thinking where one safely can.

In many respects our post-postmodern, relativistic age is one of anti-heroism, seeking saviors where we never were meant to find them and, when we come up empty-handed, declaring that virtue, truth, beauty, and God are dead or irrelevant. But when we look to past leaders (and current ones) not as failed messiahs but as flawed actors who may, if God blesses, accomplish a portion of the goodness set before them, we do well to raise a flag when they succeed.

Our willingness to claim the good without whitewashing the bad is especially important for flawed parents teaching flawed children. To some extent, a hero’s and heroine’s darker moments make them real to us. They shouldn’t discourage us from embracing the adventurous and hopeful moments of Christopher Columbus’ life.