Columbus the Exemplar: A Defense of the Italian Explorer who Discovered the New World

By Russell Kirk, from a lecture delivered in 1992

Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now we must pray,
For lo! The very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l, speak; what shall I say?”
“Why, say: ‘Sail on! Sail on! And on!’”

That stanza begins a poem, “Columbus,” once familiar to nearly every schoolchild. Its author was Joaquin Miller, comrade of Indians, horse-thief, judge, editor, political visionary, and poet. The settlement of America that Christopher Columbus had commenced in 1492 was completed along the Pacific coast during the decades when Miller (who died in 1913) rode the last frontier. One hundred years have elapsed since Miller set down in verse his veneration of Columbus. Near the end of the twentieth century, America’s spirit of the age is quite different than it was in 1892.

Yet about the year 1927, when we sixth-grade pupils at Starkweather School memorized Miller’s “Columbus,” we took it that Christopher Columbus of Genoa and Hispaniola was to be our exemplar—our model of high courage, wise vision, and immense fortitude. With faith and zeal we recited Miller’s rousing lines. About that time, my grandfather presented me with his copy of a large book, Columbus and Columbia, that had been published on the eve of the Columbian Exposition of 1892. The volume’s life of Columbus, drawn almost wholly from Washington Irving’s four-volume biography of 1828, was embellished by a great many lively illustrations, from Columbus at the gate of La Rabida to the Admiral of the Ocean-Sea on his deathbed.

I loved that book. I read it so much that its cloth cover fell off; I replaced it with a red cardboard cover of my own manufacture. It lay in a tub in an attic for many years, when I was far away; but in the fullness of time I rescued it, and today it lies in my library—its back broken, its first thirty-nine pages missing, but still beloved.

If we emulate no exemplars, we drift through life purposeless and confused. To emulate the Admiral of the Ocean-Sea may make you a visionary; but your visions will be those true dreams which, as Virgil instructs us, arise from between the gates of horn, not the illusory visions that issue from the gates of ivory. At the age of ten, I took Columbus for one of my exemplars, and have not come, at the age of seventy-three winters, to regret my choice.

To emerge from obscurity; to make one’s way by imagination and perseverance toward a great change in the affairs of men; to open the eyes of the captains and the kings; to risk all, but confidently, upon one perilous venture; to survive mutinies, shipwrecks, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the displeasure of the great, the envy of the small-souled; to throw open the gates to a vast world of wonder—what an overwhelming example for a boy of ten!

To choose the Admiral of the Ocean-Sea for an exemplar may be rather like emulating Don Quixote. It is no way to worldly success. But as the poet Roy Campbell remarked to me once upon a time, if you emulate Don Quixote, all your windmills may seem giants; but then, all your giants will turn out to be no more formidable than windmills. By much study, by much inquiry, by much persuasion, Columbus prepared to contend with giants.

When I was a young man, there fell into my hands, for two or three dollars, an unblemished set of Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, bound in calf. How fascinating, bound into the first volume, those charts (themselves antique) of 1828, showing Columbus’ maritime routes during his four voyages, and the shores he explored! Those volumes are with me for life, and have the prospect of being read by some scholar or book collector in the year 2092. In recent decades various writers about Columbus have turned up their noses at Washington Irving; but he remains their chief source of information, and writes better than they do. When minister to Spain, Irving drew together the Spanish documents that tell us, after all, a surprising amount about the Genoese adventurer, dreamer, cartographer, navigator, commander of men, discover of two continents. Joaquin Miller put Irving into verse:

“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
“What shall I say, brave Adm’r’l, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say, at break of day:
‘Sail on! Sail on! Sail! On! And on!’”

In our final decade of the twentieth century, mockers and condemners deride past greatness and even the notion of the existence of exemplars.… Columbus, moreover, is indicted for having imposed tyrannical and repellant Christianity upon the blissful pagans of the New World. Rousseau’s contrived myth of the Noble Savage dwelling in a State of Nature, quite free from state, church, and property is revived by the half-educated of our time in an endeavor to sweep away any celebration of the events of 1492. The American liberal—like the chameleon on the aspen leaf, always trembling, always changing—begins to wonder whether he should boycott the Quincentenary altogether.

In his poem “The Lesson for Today,” Robert Frost imagines himself (or is it himself?) in conversation with a scholar of the age of Charlemagne. The twentieth century man says to his silent counterpart of the tenth century:

“I’m liberal. You, you aristocrat,
Won’t know exactly what I mean by that.
I mean so altruistically moral
I never take my own side in a quarrel.”

Columbus was an aristocrat—by nature, although not by birth, it appears. He would take his own side in a quarrel. He believed fervently in the Christian faith; he aspired to bring to the peoples on the western shores of the Atlantic, and all those Indians and Japanese and Chinese presumably not a great many leagues beyond, the salvation of the soul and the Christian life. He intended, too, to save the native Arawak peoples from being devoured by the Caribs. And with the wealth he hoped to obtain from his interests in Hispaniola and elsewhere, he meant to raise armies and fleets so that Jerusalem might be rescued from the Turks. Between the aristocratic, mystical Columbus of the fifteenth century and the democratic liberal a great gulf is fixed. Ought we to be surprised that the typical liberal in the United States feels uneasy about Columbus? The Admiral of the Ocean-Sea was endowed with the high old Roman virtues; the liberal of our time, a secular humanist (a term supplied by the historian Christopher Dawson), is endowed with anxieties. He refrains from taking his own side in a quarrel.

The real Columbus, however, matters little enough to the present enemies of the Quincentenary. What they attack is an effigy of their own creation: a wooden figure, or perhaps a plastic one, to whom they attribute all manner of evil. To them, this effigy-Columbus represents much that they detest: dignity, aristocracy (that is, leadership of the best), European civilization, Christian faith, the distant past of humankind, disciplined skills, manly courage, high imagination, the power to dream the lofty dream.

The Columbus-reviling crowd is composed of an unpleasant congeries of comminators: militant feminists, aggressive Native American activists, black radicals, college teachers who obtained graduate degrees in the later ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies, Marxists otherwise left as rebels without a cause, the more fanatical sort of secular humanists, anti-Catholic bigots, and the general array of discontented Americans who invariably cry “Pull it down!”—no matter what is to be demolished. Although not great in numbers, these enemies of the permanent things, from intellectuals to Skid Row types, are sufficiently vociferous.

My point, however, is that Christopher Columbus was a remarkably humane leader of men (the fifteenth century’s ways considered) and does not require anyone’s apologies. His motives were good; and his treatment of the natives of the West Indies was as good as he could contrive under most difficult circumstances. His successors in power, Bobadilla and Ovando, worked to death the peoples of Hispaniola and slaughtered many of them; Columbus, on the other hand, had called those people the real treasure of the islands.

But the Quincentenary does not celebrate the colonial regimes of Bobadilla and Ovando; it celebrates chiefly the deeds and character of the Admiral who suffered under those two enemies of his. It is not Columbus in chains, transported back to Spain at Bobadilla’s command, whom we behold in our imagination at five centuries removed; rather, in our mind’s eyes we see Columbus in mid-Atlantic, in the autumn of 1492, sailing resolutely westward. Joaquin Miller shows him to us:

They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Adm’r’l and say”—
He said: “Sail on! Sail on! And on!”

Christopher Columbus was at his noblest in times of great adversity. I admire him most when he was shipwrecked in a Jamaican cove, beginning on June 24, 1503, and languishing there until June 28, 1504. Irving describes the predicament when, suffering from hunger and thirst, in sinking ships, they took refuge in what is now called Don Christopher’s Cove.

“Here, at last, Columbus had to give up his long and arduous struggle against the unremitting persecution of the elements. His ships, reduced to mere wrecks, could no longer keep the sea, and were ready to sink even in port. He ordered them, therefore, to be run aground, within a bow-shot of the shore, and fastened together, side by side. They soon filled with water to the decks. Thatched cabins were then erected at the prow and stern for the accommodation of the crews, and the wreck was placed in the best possible state of defense. Thus castled in the sea, Columbus trusted to be able to repel any sudden attack of the natives, and at the same time to keep his men from roving about the neighborhood and indulging in their usual excesses. No one was allowed to go on shore without especial license, and the utmost precaution was taken to prevent any offense being given to the Indians. Any exasperation of them might be fatal to the Spaniards in their present forlorn situation. A firebrand thrown into their wooden fortress might wrap it in flames, and leave them defenseless amidst hostile thousands.”

Columbus was sick and immobilized by the gout; Indian food injured his men’s health; the majority of the two crews mutinied and marched away into the island; there was real peril that they might murder the Admiral. Ovando, governor at Santo Domingo, failed to send the Admiral a vessel of rescue; Columbus and his handful of faithful men, together with the sick they tended, might starve.

In this exigency, the old Admiral comforted the fainthearted and sick, overawed the Indians, and showed himself a master of conciliation; he did not despair throughout the whole year of desolation aboard a wreck. His brother the Adelantado in the end broke the mutiny, and finally a ship rescued Columbus and his party. By the middle of November, 1504, he was back in Seville, petitioning the sovereigns. But the death of Isabelle of Castile swept away his prospects of the restoration of his dignities and emoluments, and he died, worn out, on May 20, 1506. His had been a life of much suffering and astounding achievement, a notable instance of the dignity of man.
He never redeemed Jerusalem from the Turk, but he opened Christendom’s way to a New World. He never reached the Emperor of China, but he gave Spain an overseas empire for nearly four centuries. He never owned a roof—let alone a palace—in his adopted land of Spain, but he left a name that rings down the centuries.

I was a wise child, at the age of ten, to have chosen Cristobal Colon as one of my principal exemplars. The heroic example of his life has not made of me a hero, yet it has sustained me in western deserts and urban jungles. My navigation has been confined to America’s inland waterways of the Atlantic shore, by schooner, and to Michigan’s swift streams by canoe. But in my wanderings in four continents I have tried to emulate the fortitude of Columbus—more often in deserts and mountains than afloat. Fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice ran through the great explorer’s life. And I learned from him, too, not a little of faith, hope, and charity.

Until this very November day, I have not had the honor of addressing an audience on the virtues of Christopher Columbus. It is a pleasure to have done so before joining him in eternity. He prayed much and earnestly; let us trust he was heard.

In the last stanza of his poem, Joaquin Miller draws Columbus’ picture in the moment of the vindication of his vision:

Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck –
A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! Sail on!”

“Columbus the Exemplar: A Defense of the Italian Explorer who Discovered the New World,” Faith and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1992.

Copyright © The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC


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