ONCE THE TARGET OF ANTI-CATHOLIC SENTIMENT, COLUMBUS IS OFTEN SLANDERED BY
THOSE WHO MISREPRESENT HIS LEGACY
An 1846 painting depicts Christopher Columbus and members of his crew on
a beach in the West Indies after arriving on his flagship Santa Maria
Oct. 12, 1492. The work was commissioned by the U.S. Congress and
installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1847. Landing
of Columbus, 1846, by John Vanderlyn
Driven in large part by political correctness and partisan academics and
activists, it has become fashionable in recent years to criticize
Christopher Columbus and the holiday named in his honor. A closer look,
however, reveals the famed explorer to be a man of faith and courage, not a
Many of Columbus’ modern critics rely on a warped and politicized reading of
history, and it is not the first time the explorer has endured such attacks.
When a resurgence of anti-Catholic bigotry erupted in early 20th-century
America, Columbus was a favorite target then as well.
Despite animus among some groups today, the majority of Americans view the
explorer positively and with pride. In a K of C-Marist poll from December
2016, 62 percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of the explorer
and 55 percent said they were in favor of Columbus Day, the holiday named
for him. By contrast, fewer than 3 in 10 view Columbus unfavorably and only
37 percent oppose the holiday named for him.
Nonetheless, there have been political efforts to strip Columbus of honor,
and the question of whether to continue to recognize Columbus Day is under
review in many places. Some states and municipalities have removed the
explorer’s name from the holiday or eliminated the observance entirely.
JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
Unfair attacks on Columbus, past and present, should not be allowed to
obscure the truth about the man, his voyage and his motives. Born in Genoa,
Italy, Columbus was a deeply Catholic explorer who was willing to go against
the grain. He believed he could reach the shores of Asia by sailing a mere
3,000 miles west across the Atlantic. Such a passage would establish faster
and easier trade routes than were possible through overland travel or by
sailing south and east around Africa.
Scholars of his day calculated the distance to the Orient across the
Atlantic at well over 7,000 miles, out of practical range for ships of the
day. Those who were skeptical of the admiral’s proposal did not hold that
the earth was flat, as popular myth has suggested, but rather that it was
much larger than Columbus believed. Despite his miscalculation, after 10
weeks Columbus did indeed find land — not the outskirts of the Orient, as he
went to his grave believing, but an entirely new continent.
Later, as a nation began to coalesce out of the American colonies, its
leaders recognized the admiral’s legacy. “Columbia” served as an informal
name for what would become the United States of America. The eventual
designation of the nation’s capital reflects the esteem the founders had for
the Genoese explorer.
Beginning in the 1840s, waves of European immigrants swelled the ranks of
Catholics in the United States, and along with that came an increasingly
anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant backlash from the Protestant majority.
Catholics were subject to discrimination, slander, ridicule, anti-Catholic
propaganda and sometimes mob violence.
It was within this hostile climate that Father Michael J. McGivney founded
the Knights of Columbus in 1882. He and the founding Knights chose as the
Order’s patron Christopher Columbus — one of the few Catholics considered a
hero of American history. Father McGivney believed the explorer represented
both Catholicism and patriotism at the very root of America’s heritage,
thereby symbolizing that faithful Catholics also can be solid American
A decade later, as the Order celebrated its patron on the 400th anniversary
of his discovery, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a national Columbus
holiday. He called for “expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for
the devout faith of the discoverer, and for the Divine care and guidance
which has directed our history and so abundantly blessed our people.”
Colorado became the first state to establish Columbus Day in 1907, and
others soon followed. In 1934, with strong urging and support by the
Knights, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress made Columbus Day a
federal holiday, mandating its first annual observance on Oct. 12, 1937.
This statue of Christopher Columbus, dedicated by Italian-American
residents in New Haven, Conn., was erected in 1892 in Wooster Square
Park. In 2004, restoration of the statue was partially funded by the
Knights of Columbus.
ATTACKS OLD AND NEW
As the 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World approached,
vocal opposition to Columbus was heard from partisan and revisionist
historians and activists who were often critical of Western civilization as
a whole. That year, the city of Berkeley, Calif., changed Columbus Day to
Indigenous Peoples Day, and several other municipalities have made similar
moves, often explicitly as a means of dishonoring Columbus.
In response to one such initiative in Baltimore, Eugene F. Rivers III,
founder and president of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy
Studies, published an op-ed article Dec. 2, 2016.
“To celebrate one cultural group does not require that we denigrate
another,” he wrote. “Rather than renaming Columbus Day, why not add another
holiday, Indigenous Peoples Day, to Baltimore’s calendar in honor of Native
The 20th century ended with criticism of Columbus and Columbus Day in
certain quarters, just as the early 20th century had seen similar
When the Ku Klux Klan was revived in 1915 and targeted Catholics, Jews and
minority groups whom they considered a threat to the nation’s “Native,
White, Protestant” identity, one of their targets was Columbus.
The Klan opposed the observance of Columbus Day, trying to suppress
celebrations of the holiday at the state level. Klan members published
articles calling Columbus Day a “papal fraud” and even burned a cross at a
Knights of Columbus observance in Pennsylvania.
Today, one can still hear echoes of anti-Catholic prejudice in the modern
attacks. For some, Columbus’ sponsorship by Spain and introduction of
Christianity and Western culture to the lands he discovered make him
immediately suspect. The new wave of anti-Columbus attacks go so far as to
say that Columbus intended nothing good.
“These criticisms primarily charge Columbus with perpetrating acts of
genocide, slavery, ‘ecocide,’ and oppression,” explained Robert Royal,
president of the Faith and Reason Institute and author of 1492
and All That: Political Manipulations of History (1992).
Nonetheless, a closer examination of the record reveals a different picture.
“The dominant picture holds him responsible for everything that went wrong
in the New World,” wrote Carol Delaney, a former professor at Stanford and
Brown universities, in her book Columbus
and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011). In her opinion, “we must consider
his world and how the cultural and religious beliefs of his time colored the
way he thought and acted.”
In a 2012 Columbia interview,
Delaney further explained that Columbus found the native peoples to be “very
intelligent” and his relations with them “tended to be benign.” He gave
strict instructions to the settlers to “treat the native people with
respect,” though some of his men rebelled and disobeyed his orders,
particularly during his long absences, Delaney added.
Columbus’ voyage made the Old and New Worlds aware of each other for the
first time, eventually leading to the founding of new countries in the
Western Hemisphere. Diseases inadvertently carried to the New World by the
Europeans caused the greatest number of casualties by far, killing some 90
percent of native populations according to some estimates.
“There were terrible diseases that got communicated to the natives,” Delaney
said, “but he can’t be blamed for that.”
A RENEWED DEFENSE
According to Royal, arguments against Columbus by modern critics often
constitute a “new, contemporary form of the ‘Black Legend’” — anti-Spanish
propaganda dating back to the 16th-century that stereotypes Spanish
explorers as uniquely cruel and abusive.
The writings of Bartolomé de las Casas — a 16th-century Spanish Dominican
priest, historian and missionary — exposing the abuse of the native peoples
are often cited in an effort to impugn Columbus. But while de las Casas
lamented the suffering of indigenous people, he also admired and respected
Columbus for his “sweetness and benignity” of character, his deep faith and
“He was the first to open the doors to the ocean sea, where he entered the
remote lands and kingdoms which until then had not known our Savior, Jesus
Christ, and his blessed name,” de las Casas wrote in his History
of the Indies. While cognizant that Columbus was human and made
mistakes, de las Casas never doubted the explorer’s good intentions,
writing: “Truly, I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions, for I knew
him well and I know his intentions are good.”
According to Delaney, Columbus “fervently believed it was the duty of every
Christian to try to save the souls of non- Christians,” and it was this
passion that “led him on a great adventure, an encounter such as the world
has never seen.”
Not surprisingly, popes since the late 19th century have praised Columbus’
mission of evangelization. Pope John Paul II, while celebrating Mass at a
Columbus monument in the Dominican Republic near the 1992 quincentenary,
said the crossshaped memorial “means to symbolize the cross of Christ
planted in this land in 1492.”
In a speech to the young people of Genoa in May, Pope Francis talked about
how a disciple of Christ needs the “virtue of a navigator,” and he pointed
to the example of Columbus who faced “a great challenge” and showed
“courage,” a trait he indicated was essential to becoming a “good
As it did a century ago, the Order is defending Columbus today. When
Colorado lawmakers weighed a bill to repeal Columbus Day as a state holiday
earlier this year, the Knights of Columbus helped lead the opposition.
Recalling the Klan’s earlier efforts to oppose Columbus Day, the K of C
noted that the measure was not a progressive step but rather “regressive as
it takes us back to what the Klan outlined in the 1920s in order to promote
ethnic and religious resentment.”
The Knights of Columbus has defended its patron from unfair attacks, urging
that he continue to receive official recognition as a man of faith and
bravery. Columbus represents the kind of heroic courage and religious faith
that inspired the establishment of the United States. Although he surely
holds special meaning for Catholics and for Italian Americans, Columbus is a
figure all citizens of the New World can celebrate.
For this reason, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in his annual report this
year, “We will continue to defend the truth about Columbus and Columbus
GERALD KORSON writes from Fort Wayne, Ind.