Even in the moonlit night it was but a flicker; a mere sliver of illumination bobbing up and down in the distance – nothing more than a tease of brightness that melted into the cavernous, overwhelming darkness that consumed the unbreakable stillness of the sea.
But its glint was provocation enough to excite the straining eyes of lookout Rodrigo Triana, who seizing upon the solitary, ghostly light, inhaled a lungful of air and shouted high from the crow’s nest of the little caravel “Tierra, tierra, tierra” (land, land, land) a cry soon heard across the Atlantic to Continental Europe marking the most consequential, geographical sighting in human history.
After 33 drawn out days and interminable nights, the sighting of what would be called the Americas would exert an irrepressible gravitational pull from the old to the new world. It was an epochal event so monumental, so far reaching, that its impact would stretch over hundreds of years to literally many hundreds of millions of peoples changing, as no discovery before, the destiny of the whole world.
With the first streaks of light, the anxious sailors of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria anchored their ships offshore and strenuously rowed across the pellucid, turquoise sea, a royal flag fluttering briskly in the breeze, before they alighted on a tropical island of lush, sprawling vegetation, exotic flowers and a majestic landscape believed to be present day San Salvador.
In this Edenic paradise, nature was triumphant with its husky leafy screens and its tangle of hues and colors gleaming in the morning sunlight. But this glorious panorama had yet to reveal the most amazing sight of all. It would be left to the white haired mariner, Christopher Columbus, deliberate and self-possessed, who had, on this long journey, stared down gnawing doubt, growing desperation and imminent mutiny to record in his log that one, solitary observation that simmered with the heat of suppressed excitement: “We saw,” he wrote, “naked people.”
Neither the explorers from afar, nor the astonished native inhabitants of the so-called “New World” would ever be the same. A seismic shift had occurred on Oct. 12, 1492, and its vibrations would jar the whole world. Columbus’s explorations would sow the seeds of colonization, sprouting new civilizations, setting in motion a gigantic wave of economic, cultural and political forces in an absorbing, tangled and complex narrative that continues to unfold in manifold ways.
Original sin, however, in this Eden would be no different than that of the first. With Columbus’s discovery darkness would also descend upon the Western Hemisphere, bringing war, disease and death in a shattering and tragic clash of civilizations.
Such was the historic voyage of Christopher Columbus, a self-taught, restless dreamer whose maritime skill and fiery determination to find a westward route to the Indies and Spice Islands sounded the starting gun for an unprecedented and unbroken trans-oceanic migration of multiple populations, an assimilation as well as decimation of cultures and a new and profound understanding of the vast, previously unknown, geographical dimensions of the earth.
Today, contradictions and controversies regarding Columbus Day have become deeply politicized. Once a celebrated icon of Western civilization, Columbus’s achievements are often hotly debated and, in a few circles, he is savaged for crimes against humanity. But, then, few historical figures can survive, in the long run, their apotheosis. This certainly proved true of Columbus, whose blend of resourcefulness and optimism, unfaltering courage and passion for knowledge and discovery personified the modern spirit. These sterling qualities, however, began to suffer in the pale light of multiculturalism, which was painfully mindful that Columbus’s voyage was also the title page of a tragic story.
One can understand the sympathies involved; perhaps as long as 15,000 years before Columbus the population that would be identified as the American Indians began to settle in the Western Hemisphere. On the high plains and in the enclaves of the wilderness, from the open prairies to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, these populations carved out human habitats.
With the arrival of the Europeans, indigenous cultures would be threatened and ultimately destroyed. Casting, however, the entire blame on Columbus’s shoulders is an exercise in historical futility. From time immemorial, human history has been stained by endless strife, subjugation and warfare. Considering the perversities of human nature, the immense geographical distances, the unexpected suddenness and trauma of two completely different cultures encountering each other for the first time, it would have been surprising if matters had unfolded much differently.
Tribal warfare, before the arrival of Columbus, was pervasive and cycles of violence and revenge were commonplace. With assimilation proving to be impossible, the Europeans, sad to say, had done to the tribes what the tribes had done to each other. This hardly diminishes the tragedy of Native Americans, it only proves they were no more immune to the frailties of human nature than they were to disease, which was rampant and utterly devastating. While atrocities of war existed on both sides, the real killer of Native Americans was not gunpowder but smallpox, typhus, the measles, and influenza.
But after seeing what was lost, which was profound, it is only right to see what was won, which was extraordinary. For history is not just a recounting, it is a set of measures, a gauge marking not only mankind’s tribulations but also its progress. As the first European settlers possessed the land, there began a subtle, spiritual process in which nationhood slowly crystallized.
Great towns and cities would be built and bridges, aqueducts and highways would traverse the continent. An explosion of capital would ignite unprecedented material wealth raising the standard of living beyond the imagination of previous generations. A vast landmass that would one day be called Kansas and Nebraska would not only feed hundreds of millions of its own but would become the breadbasket for much of the undeveloped world.
Ultimately, its borders would be a sanctuary for the poor and the oppressed and a fortress against tyranny, dictatorship and despotism. Its universities and research centers would become renowned for elevating science and medicine to liberate humanity from the burdens of physical drudgery while providing cures and vaccines from disease and succor to the afflicted. Its Foundations would promote the most glorious art, music and literature, while its people, the American people, would make this land the most charitable, philanthropic nation on the face of the earth.
Perhaps, most importantly, it became a country that nurtured and husbanded a political philosophy whose very center would transcend the barriers of race ethnicity and religion. It would, by stirring sentiments, and noble example, pronounce the inviolability of the individual conscience, defend the metaphysical equality of mankind and become a citadel of human liberty.
Even in the midst of a terrible Civil War, where the very ideals of the nation were being tried, Abraham Lincoln called America “the last best hope of earth.” It still is, which is why I always look forward to celebrating and honoring Columbus Day.