Revisiting Columbus Day

Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus
Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, painting by Salvador Dali from Wikipedia

Christopher Columbus

The more we know about Christopher Columbus, the Genoan sailor who ventured across the Atlantic in 1492 and safely landed on the island of Hispanola, the more the great adventurer becomes a modern-day enigma. Though contemporary evidence from Iceland and Newfoundland places doubt on the idea that Columbus was the first European to cross the Atlantic, his knowledge of the sea and his New World exploits are still legendary and shall probably remain so for generations to come. This is especially true, when one realizes that Columbus had to cross thousands of miles of open seas, while the Vikings and Celtic monks essentially traveled  between islands with the largest distance of open sea being only 250 miles.

painting of the Norse settlement of Iceland, by P. Raadsig, 1850

Iceland – Stepping Stone To America

According to Icelandic history, the Norse arrived in 874 A.D. and made a small settlement at Reykjavik with  Ingólfr Arnarson as the founder. However, it is generally believed that the Norse were preceded by Irish monks, who may have made it as far as the mainland of North America. Just a quick look at a map of the North Atlantic will give the viewer the perception that anyone who was able to sail to Iceland, would not have a difficult time traveling the extra miles to Newfoundland or beyond. It is even believed that Christopher Columbus visited Iceland in 1477, 15 years before he made his fateful voyage to the Caribbean. One possible reason for the journey would have been a search for the Northwest Passage to the Orient.

The Four Journeys of Christopher Columbus

After Columbus made his first voyage to the New World, he returned three more times with each trip becoming more and more harrowing, as he ventured further from his original landing point. For a fascinating account of Columbus’ fourth voyage, readers should check out The Last Voyage of Columbus: Being the Epic Tale of the Great Captain’s Fourth Expedition, Including Accounts of Swordfight, Shipwreck, Gold, War, Hurricane and Discovery by Martin Dugard. This non-fiction tale reads like a sci-fi adventure story and should be taken in by any serious student of the Great Admiral.

What Columbus Did

Columbus is an easy person to hate. Before he sailed across the Atlantic he was a slave trader, an adventurer, a courtier to the royal court. He brought Native peoples back to Europe as hostages to prove his exploits and his travels lead to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to America. Still, he was the most able of sailors and sea captains, for Columbus was the first European sailor to understand and detect hurricanes. Also Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors forever changed the balance of power in the New World. This was not always a bad thing, especially when one considers the defeat of the Caribs, a powerful and horrendously terrifying alliance of Indians that enslaved local tribes all across Central and South America. Also in Columbus’ wake there emerged a great exchange of food and raw materials. Without these things our world would be very much poorer today, for nowadays people can make tomato salsa in Italy, while cafe guests can sip coffee in South America with all due respect to the early explorers.