When Christopher Columbus first made landfall on an unknown Caribbean island, Henry VII sat on the throne of England. Nicholas Copernicus was a young man studying at the University of Krakow, and decades away from publishing his theory of a heliocentric universe. Martin Luther was a 9-year-old boy.
The kingdoms of Castille and Aragon had only recently united through marriage to comprise most of what we now know as Spain. This was the context of Columbus’ famous voyage on behalf of the Spanish crown. The unification that it brought about, between the Old World and the New, was then and still is one of the most consequential achievements by any single man since the modern era began.
Split whatever hairs you like about whether Columbus “discovered” America or not. To everyone in Europe at that time, it came as big news that two massive continents loomed across the Atlantic. It was news even to Columbus, who — it is the subject of dispute — may never have realized he hadn’t in fact landed on the eastern shore of Asia.
Columbus is believed to be from Genoa, and Italian-Americans were the ones who first lobbied for a Columbus Day celebration in the U.S. But his background is shrouded in mystery. He is also claimed by Portugal and Mallorca, and is even reputed to have been secretly Jewish.
In today’s unpleasant political atmosphere, celebration of Columbus is taken by some as insensitive. His statues are defaced as if he had been a Confederate general. But Columbus made an undeniably positive contribution to human history. One need not eulogize or deify the man — a failure as governor of the land he found — to recognize the importance of his feat of exploration. He dramatically advanced science and human knowledge, and quite obviously shaped the world Americans live in today.
The celebration of what Columbus did is not intended as a slight to anyone. To do so does not deny that the colonization of the Americas had devastating consequences for many indigenous peoples in subsequent decades and centuries.
But most of the lasting results of the European discovery of America are positive. In the time since Columbus first landed, the western ideals of democracy, Christian, and secular humanism, and the rule of law have taken root, thriving as a transplant from Europe to the Americas. Humane anxiety over historical injustice, which is at the core of the debate over Columbus, is a feature of the Christian and western intellectual tradition that Columbus helped spread. It was not a notable feature of the more primitive civilizations it supplanted.
European civilization arguably found its better self in America, as heroes like George Washington and Simon Bolivar led a rebirth of republican ideals that has spread in all directions (including back to Europe) ever since.
Without access to the counterfactual, we cannot categorically say that the benefits of uniting the world’s peoples in the knowledge of each others’ existence outweigh the drawbacks, or vice-versa.
But we can say for certain that there is no point in anyone who enjoys the rich bounty of this continent today — including the unprecedented political freedoms to which it gave birth — longing for a history that never happened, and probably never could have happened.