Paul M. Craig: The significance of Columbus

  • In this Aug. 27, 2017 photo, the Christopher Columbus statue stands at Manhattan's Columbus Circle in New York. AP

Published: 10/11/2019 10:01:58 PM
Modified: 10/11/2019 10:01:45 PM

Until 1493, the Western Hemisphere was outside all global trade routes. Possible pre-Columbian seafarers to have reached these shores had been Polynesian, Chinese, Phoenician, Irish or Viking. There is evidence of trans-Pacific contact as early as 40,000 years ago, but it is not yet accepted as definitive.

The Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean Sea, may have reached the Canary Islands in the 12th Century B.C. and actually crossed the Atlantic. Irish contact before and into the 6th century A.D. is recorded in the writings of St. Brendan.

Myth and reality intertwine. But we know with evidential certainty that Vikings reached America during the Medieval Warm Period late in the first Christian millennium. Their trans-Atlantic voyages declined, even before the Little Ice Age, beginning about 1250 A.D.

Until Columbus’s three ships reached “New World” shores on Oct. 12, 1492 (having left Spain on Aug. 3) and two ships returned to Europe on March 15, 1493, American contacts never produced enduring exploration or trade.

During his first voyage, Columbus explored the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola, thus establishing the Caribbean Basin as the maritime center for emergent trade with Europe and Africa. In all, from August 1492 to November 1504, Columbus made four New World voyages, but always thought he had reached his destination of the Asian Indies.

The significance of Columbus is that he established permanent contact between America and the “Old World” of Europe and Africa. His voyages spawned an influx of migrants to the Americas that engendered the most dynamic expansion of wealth, both national and personal, that the world had ever seen; not to mention having enabled our own existence.

How we turn the lost promise of that past into a better future depends not on bashing Columbus, or renaming Columbus Day, but on a frank and fair study of early American history that creates an honest and accurate basis for an enhanced hemispheric pursuit of happiness.

Paul M. Craig


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