Columbus Day was established as a national holiday by FDR in 1937 to commemorate Christopher Columbus who discovered the New World on Oct. 12, 1492, when he made landfall on what is now known as San Salvador in the Bahama Islands. Although many give him credit, Columbus didn’t discover America, but he inspired many successors who explored coastal lands and made settlements in what became known as America.
Columbus was remarkable in many ways. According to his writings, from an early age he had a passion for seafaring, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, navigation and exploration. Arriving on the scene a full century before Galileo, Columbus also had the courage to go against the orthodox belief of his age that the Earth was the center of the universe.
He was convinced that by calculating the position of the sun, moon and stars he could navigate a more direct route from Europe to India and the spice islands by sailing west around the Earth. Up until that time in the 15th century, the route to India had been east over land or sailing a long and indirect route south around Africa, and then north and east.
In addition to having bravery and skill, Columbus was a devoted Christian who attributed his passions, ability and vision to his creator. In his 30s, he spent seven years traipsing across Europe trying to convince different monarchs to finance his proposed westward passage expedition. Columbus encountered rejection from one after another. Most criticized his proposed venture as foolhardy — even laughing and ridiculing him.
Then everything changed. Few years in history have been punctuated by such pivotal events as what happened in Spain in 1492. It was in that year that Christendom, still suffering from the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks 40 years prior, drove Islam out of Europe and undertook spreading its influence to new territories and people.
Both were made possible by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand who defeated the last Muslim enclave in Granada on the Spanish peninsula, and who then threw their support behind Columbus. Unlike other monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand had willing ears for Columbus, not just on account of his seafaring skills and vision for a westward passage, but also because of his Christian character and evangelistic zeal.
Columbus never doubted his vision, remarking that “there is no question that the inspiration was from God … encouraging me continually to press forward, and without ceasing for a moment …” Departing Spain on Aug. 3, 1492 with a crew of 87 on three small ships — the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — Columbus embarked on the longest voyage ever made out of sight of land to find the western passage to India. A little more than two months later, on Oct. 12, Columbus made landfall and went ashore on a Bahama Island that he named San Salvador, meaning Holy Savior. Before returning to Europe, he continued to explore and land on other islands, erecting on each a large wooden cross as his first order of business.
There was no common language with the natives on any of the islands, so Columbus commanded his crew to act with love and not force. And by giving small gifts, such as glass beads, as noted in Columbus’s journal, they were greatly pleased.
Such accounts recorded by Columbus in his journals paint a very different picture of the man than what most of us have been exposed to. Columbus Day is important for its historical significance, but also because it celebrates character traits that are as vital today as they were more than 500 years ago. Observing Columbus Day celebrates those virtues. Courage, independent thinking, persistence, creativity, having the vision to combine a worldly commercial pursuit with a spiritual calling, and expressing love as a universal language are qualities of character that never go out of style.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute.