Celebrate Columbus' Achievements - WSJ

Christopher Columbus landing in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 12, 1492. Photo:...


Christopher Columbus landing in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 12, 1492.


Photo:

Archives of Universal History / Getty Images

Friends, Americans, citizens of the world, lend me your ears. I come to bury Christopher Columbus, not to praise him.

In the famous speech of Marc Antoine de Shakespeare, he speaks of the “serious fault” of ambition of Julius Caesar and the honorable nature of the friend and murderer of Caesar, Brutus. Antony then reverses the charges against Caesar, deftly and sarcastically reminding the assembled crowd of Caesar’s accomplishments and the love of the Roman people – and how they all loved him in return.

I doubt my abilities are so convincing on behalf of Columbus, who achieved great things and deserves to be honored for them with a national holiday, but I must express what I know to be true. His incredible feats of exploration were due to individual qualities that Americans should find admirable, and have already done so almost unanimously. Holding historical figures to modern moral standards is a method of antihistoric political control, just like the pseudohistory that I grew up being taught in the Soviet Union.

My earliest memories of my father are not failures, but his gift to me of a globe and our reading the stories of the great explorers together – stories by authors like Stefan Zweig, not Communist propagandists. So I was ready to be critical when Soviet history books portrayed these men as callous imperialists who exploited the natives in the same way their capitalist descendants exploited the proletariat. It also prepared me to hear the same tropes being repeated by Western leftists today.

This caricature of Columbus who is little more than a rapacious villain is as simplistic and misguided as the version of him as the savior-hero who proved the world to be round. As usual, the reality is complex and does not provide easy and comfortable answers.

You could say that Columbus’s years of navigating the Spanish courts and courtiers was a greater feat than the Atlantic navigation, which hardly went as planned. He was motivated but diplomatic, traits he employed in his dealings with indigenous communities in the Americas, where he and his men also committed atrocities in the name of holy conquest.

Like I said, I am not here to praise the man but to celebrate his actions. Columbus himself learned Latin to study ancient and medieval manuscripts for clues about the circumference of the globe and his future travels. Admittedly, his calculations were seriously flawed, overestimating the size of Asia and underestimating the size of the globe. But he also knew he had to make the mission easier, like any startup looking for venture capital. Columbus yearned to fulfill Medea’s prophecy of Seneca: “An age will come after many years when the ocean will lose the chains of things, and a great land will reveal itself. And that’s what he did, on four remarkable journeys that mapped and changed the world.

Revisionism has a vital role in history, as we discover new information and apply new ideas to past events. There should be no room for laundering and chauvinism in the service of a supposedly patriotic agenda – or any agenda. We must teach the good and the bad of our leaders, our founders, our heroes and our saints.

Otherwise, myths set in too easily, like the Confederate “lost cause” left to fester like an open sore. His infection has spread into the 21st century. There should be no honor to those who waged a war against the Union to preserve the evil institution of slavery – which, critically, even some of its supporters at the time considered evil.

Comparing the American statues of Columbus to those of Robert E. Lee fails this test of context. The appeal to objectivity also applies to those who would judge a 15th-century European who took outrageous risks and achieved incredible feats of exploration to advance modern civilization. Humanism and the Enlightenment were still two centuries away. The year of Columbus’ iconic voyage, 1492, was also the year that Spain expelled many Jews and subjected others to the horrors of the Inquisition.

The line of ambitious explorers goes from Columbus to Elon Musk. Their accomplishments should not blind us to their flaws, but neither should their flaws blind us to their accomplishments. Honoring great deeds and risk-takers who defy conventional wisdom can inspire others to follow in their footsteps, whether in uncharted waters or in space, and we sorely need such boldness today.

We too are complex. We are capable of judgment and reason, unlike the “brute beasts” invoked by Marc Antoine. History is not a zero-sum game. We can honor Indigenous peoples and all they stand for – and all they have lost – without erasing the greatest achievements of the Age of Discovery. I will be celebrating Columbus Day, and I hope you will join me.

Mr. Kasparov is President of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation.

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Published in the print edition of October 11, 2021.

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