Few today know much about the real Christopher Columbus, an exemplary figure worthy of celebrating for many reasons. He was born in 1451 in the port city of Genoa, now part of Italy, named Cristofor Colombo. It has been said he chose to call himself Christopher Columbus because he liked what this name meant. In Latin, Columbus means dove, while Christopher means Christ-bearer.
Some modern-day revisionist historians have taken cheap shots at Columbus, taking a chapter out of Lenin in charging him with being an imperialist. Others blame Columbus for unfair treatment of indigenous people without taking into consideration the mix of his Spanish machismo crew encountering ruthless tribes that included cannibals and the brutal Aztecs. These contributed to the force needed to survive.
In fact, Columbus never set foot on or even saw any territory that later became part of the continental United States. Columbus’s four expeditions to the New World between 1492 and 1504 were focused exclusively on Caribbean islands and territories that are now Latin America—Central America and South America. In discovering the New World, he opened the door to exploration and colonization of those new territories by Europeans who followed. This is his prime legacy.
Columbus left voluminous writings that reveal what motivated him. He was the consummate self-made man, at an early age going to sea crewing on various ships. As an inspired Christian, Columbus was deeply affected by the militant face of Islam at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that blockaded Europe’s important trade with the Orient. Then he felt God’s conviction to find a western sea route, knowing it would have far-reaching benefits.
Columbus faced death numerous times. When the Flemish-flagged ship on which he was crew was attacked and sunk off the coast of Portugal, he survived by sheer determination, finding some flotation debris and then kicking his way to shore some five miles away way. 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 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 the cost of such a voyage required 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 turned down Columbus several times. But because of his Christian faith, seafaring skills, and conviction about finding a westward passage, and his brave 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.
Few years in history have been punctuated by such pivotal events as 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 Columbus’s exploration and evangelistic expedition.
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. They believed landfall should have been made weeks before. When they became mutinous and threatened to heave Columbus overboard if he did not agree to turn back, Columbus turned to God.
In his personal diary, Columbus recorded 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 island outskirts of a massive continent—far from the Orient.
Columbus’s perseverance and courage in this first transatlantic crossing and three subsequent crossings 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 13 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 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 come from God, not the state.
Columbus Day is worth keeping and honoring because it remains foundational to the establishment of a new nation by people who largely shared the core beliefs and the qualities of character Columbus exhibited. Columbus Day commemorates character, embodies freedom, and celebrates the uniqueness that is America.