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Marco Polo, as he drew his last few breaths, was implored by the priests: Renounce this so-called middle kingdom, this so-called China, this so-called Asia, these people of your visions, so you can go to your death free of all these lies. After all, who could believe such stories? Such apparitions? Such inventions? These things, these people, these places--India? Japan? Peking?--you made them up, yes?

If Marco Polo died without confessing, the priests assured him and his family, he'd die without redemption.

Marco Polo's answer, supposedly, was that he hadn't described half of what he'd experienced. Take that, padres.

Some people believed him. A couple of hundred years after Marco Polo's travels and Livres des Merveilles du Monde, somebody would try to find the kingdom of the Kublai Khan, only not over land. He'd try by sea.

He'd go west to find east.

All in all, Christopher Columbus would make four journeys to what he thought was Asia, with only a few scattered thoughts (as evidence mounted) that he'd found something different. No matter what you might have read in grammar school, few people in Columbus' time still thought the world was flat. But they had no idea how large the globe actually was. Some say Columbus himself had underestimated it at 1/6 its size. Of course, when he set out to sail the ocean blue in 1492, he had no idea about another whole continent in his way. Or anything about the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on the planet.

But Christopher Columbus was important because he set out. We don't recognize him today for his principles or his purity. But for his audacity and nerve.

So what that he bumped into Cuba instead of Japan? He did a helluva thing. A thing that the most dauntless of explorers of his time wouldn't have dared try.

Let's get this out of the way: Christopher Columbus was a man of his time. That is, he wasn't a good man. (Who is?) But it's enough that he was an important man.

When he first saw the natives, naked and unarmed, his first thoughts were of converting them. Then of enslaving them. Then he saw a few specks of gold in several nose rings, and his mind turned to economics. That is, how could he enrich the sovereigns of Spain--with perhaps a 10 percent gratuity for the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which he liked calling himself. Ten percent of the world's gold and spices would be a fair deal, don't you think?

History also shows that while Don Columbus was border-line brilliant when it came to navigation--he could look at the stars and make a pretty good guess at where he was, without instruments--he was lacking when it came to administration. In fact, he faced mutinies as governor of the Caribbean and at one point was slapped in irons. Arrested! And he had to reclaim his name and reputation back in Spain.

Still, Christopher Columbus was important. Not because he was good. Or even first. But because he was a visionary, and his voyages forever transformed the world, and bridged the hemispheres.

Can that be disputed? Certainly there is a lot to dispute when it comes to Don Columbus. His obsession with gold is almost modern. And even when he wasn't trying to harm the natives of the Americas, he inevitably did--with diseases that his boats, and the boats that followed, brought to the New World. Yes, there are those who'd blame him for illnesses and plagues, even though the best doctors of his time knew nothing about how they were transmitted.

Even if he was a man of his unfortunate time, C. Columbus was a far piece ahead of his time when it came to daring. He had no GPS. He had no motors. He had no satellite photos. He had only a vision:

If the Earth was round, you could sail around it. Still, at the time, nobody had any idea about the size of the Atlantic, which Europeans simply called the Ocean Sea. Who was to say it would take only five weeks to bump into land? Why not five months? Or five years?

Somebody from Europe, obviously, was going to reach out far enough one day. But fate could have chosen anybody, a decade before, or a decade later. Instead, fate chose Christopher Columbus. Today we don't celebrate him as much as recognize him and his importance. And as important a man as he was in the history of mankind, most of us wouldn't know that he found the Indies in mid-October if today we didn't notice the bank being closed. We keep up with significant historical dates. But not October 12, 1492.

Some people won't honor him at all today, or even recognize him. Instead, they'll recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. They'll tell us that we shouldn't recognize anybody from Europe who handed such a fate to native American peoples. And also scold us: Calling him a man of his time is a cop-out. It reminds us that once we were told not to quote Mencken, another man of his time, because some things he said, and wrote. Should we put aside all our Dickens quotes, too, or our store of Twain's, for the same reasons? We'd prefer to separate the art from the artist. Without such a habit, our history books would be filled with asterisks, instead of real stories.

The United States has had its share of sins, too. But that doesn't stop us from celebrating Independence Day. Or shouldn't. Besides, how could we blame Columbus for the consequences of his discoveries? He didn't even realize what he'd discovered! In the end, he was a remarkable man, a gifted navigator, and an acceptable diarist. But mostly, a traveler.

Even after his death, he traveled. He died in Spain in 1506. But then they moved his remains to the Dominican Republic--without his say-so. Then somebody said they should move his old bones to Havana. Which they did. Then back to Spain. We think. Apparently modern scholars/governments/busy-bodies did some DNA research to prove where he finally rests, but there are still disagreements. Which figures.

Christopher Columbus was also damned lucky. He made the impossible voyage not once, but four times. He was shipwrecked a handful of those times. He came across cannibals without losing a limb. He beat back storm after storm, tempest after hurricane. He even wrote a farewell of sorts a couple of times. Still, he managed to live to an old age--for a mariner, for his time.

For his time. It's a phrase that we must use whenever we debate Christopher Columbus in an academic setting. And when we think of ourselves.

Editorial on 10/14/2019

Print Headline: Columbus Day 2019


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