‘Columbusing’ and the Crisis of the West

Our culture that refuses evangelization needs it the most.

LEFT: Joaquín Sorolla, “Christopher Columbus Leaving Palos,” c. 1910. RIGHT: Book cover.
LEFT: Joaquín Sorolla, “Christopher Columbus Leaving Palos,” c. 1910. RIGHT: Book cover. (photo: National Catholic Register graphic)

In the summer of 2014, the website College Humor coined the term “Columbusing.” It was defined as “discovering things for white people.” “Columbus” is no longer merely a name, but a verb of derision. Since comedy follows the culture, College Humor was commenting on a social norm: Columbus represents the West’s sins, destroying everything it touches. The 15th-century explorer is now an emblem of Western civilization’s crimes, especially Christianity. This presents a persuasion problem, since most people are in some way Christian.

Dr. Robert Royal, a visiting professor at St. Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, tackles this argument in his new book, Columbus and the Crisis of the West (Sophia Institute Press).

By the time Royal’s book was published, several states had replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day and many Columbus statues were destroyed. Royal’s book is a powerful reflection on how Columbus has become a topic of the culture war. Columbus’ experience has become a battleground on the meaning of history and Western civilization. “Columbus” provides much food for thought about Western civilization, evangelization and the uses of history.

In his introduction to the 1992 edition, Royal presciently wrote:

“In a culture that has long denied epic and tragedy, both praise and blame quickly become ultimate weapons. For the critics, who often give the impression of having just discovered some of the unfortunate, violent, but long-known facts of the American past, the presence of evil in the historical record totally discredits the myth of American exceptionalism and of the United States as a just society. These critics charge that Americans have hypocritically disavowed the unsavory parts of their past to protect a self-righteous, sanitized national story. For many defenders, who frequently seem to regard any criticism of the United States as a prelude to total denunciation, admitting the tragic dimension of America’s past threatens to obliterate the distinctive character of our history… They point to the basic decency of modern-day America and suspect — not entirely wrongly — that many contemporary critics of the American past are really pursuing an agenda for the American present.” 

Royal’s description of the battle over history describes the controversy over Howard Zinn, the 1619 Project, the 1776 Commission, and the nature of “patriotic” history. The fraught debate over the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives in September exemplifies Royal’s point. The debate centered on what constitutes “patriotic” history, and the nature of propaganda.

History is now weaponized, and Royal notes that a historical sense without epic and tragedy degenerates into praise and blame. Columbus is guilty of all the New World’s evils, from slavery to environmental destruction. On the other hand, there is the view, to quote a defender, “Columbus harmed no Indians, but they killed and tortured each other in warfare.” This is merely distraction instead of defense. It is “Columbus Good, Indians Bad” to counter the “Columbus Bad, Indians Good” narrative.

Both sides, then, engage in idealism and idealization. There is a nostalgia for a Golden Age that never really existed, or for a Golden Age yet to come. Royal takes into account original sin; as St. Paul said, all have fallen short of the glory of God. 

Weaponized history becomes partisan propaganda. It is no longer about learning from the past but using it against one’s ideological opponents. The past is used as an ideological bludgeon in the present day. Columbus Day is now considered an example of “white supremacy” and “colonialism.”

How did this happen? The key lays in history itself; our experience, if we could recall it. In October 1991, Boston University professor Howard Zinn gave his “1492-1992: The Legacy of Columbus” lecture in Madison, Wisconsin. And on the anniversary of the voyage in 1992, now-retired Portland, Oregon, high-school teacher Bill Bigelow began classroom “trials” of Christopher Columbus that would spread nationwide. New Haven novelist Hans Koning’s Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth was republished in January 1992. 

Columbus was also the subject of two high-profile films. In August 1992, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery with Georges Corraface as Columbus, Marlon Brando as Torquemada and Tom Selleck opened in theaters. Then 1492: The Conquest of Paradise with Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver premiered in the United States in October 1992. Anniversary or not, both movies were critical and box office failures. Both movies valorized Columbus, though they did portray the Catholic Church as authoritarian and superstitious. Decades later, the 2016 video game movie “Assassins’ Creed” would be lambasted for making Columbus the object of the hero’s quest. 

1992 signaled a shift in the Columbus narrative. While the movies would be forgotten, the teachings of Zinn, Bigelow and Koning would be perpetuated to this day in the classroom. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that Columbus despoiled the Americas and tyrannized its indigenous population out of lust for gold and power. Columbus is now a focal point for cultural rage, an embodiment of villainy. Demonization is as much a form of mythology as idealization; it is still a fairytale.

Royal discusses the mythologizing of Columbus. In 1837, Washington Irving portrayed Columbus as the progressive forerunner of a Protestant United States, standing up to Spain’s superstitious Catholic monarchs. Now, Columbus is vilified as a genocidal maniac. Royal notes:

“Popular accounts of American history have been too uniformly rosy… Knowing the full truth about our past — even the unsavory parts — need not weaken us. Rather, it should make us both more modest about our expectations and prouder of the true achievements that have taken place on these shores in the past five hundred years.”

St. Paul himself warned about those who “occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Mythology — our idealization of our history and its characters — is a diversion from reality, and the spiritual rootedness that the true faith nourishes.

The current controversy over Columbus — and now Thanksgiving — centers on Christianity itself. Christianity is portrayed as the villainous aggressor. This November, the Cape Cod Times had an article by Emily Clark titled “Pilgrims who sought freedom, denied same to Wampanoag.” Eryn Dion, in USA Today, wrote in an article titled “Thanksgiving Myths,” writing, “It’s also worth noting that, while the Pilgrims wanted the freedom to practice their religion, that freedom did not extend to anyone else. One of their main goals was to convert the Native people to Christianity.” Evangelization is equated with coercion.

That same month in Teen Vogue, Angie Jaime wrote of Kymon Palau, a Navajo filmmaker, “After coming out as gay and finding acceptance in his mom, part of his experience as an Indigenous person also involved undoing this Christian indoctrination and reconnecting with his ancestral culture.” Indigenous spirituality is romanticized, while Christianity is vilified. Evangelization is depicted as a violation of religious freedom. In his book, Royal notes how Columbus’ desire to spread the Gospel among Native Americans is demonized.

The current indictment of Columbus is an indictment of Christianity in general. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (853) notes:

“On her pilgrimage, the Church has also experienced the ‘discrepancy existing between the message she proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted.’ Only by taking the ‘way of penance and renewal’, the ‘narrow way of the cross’, can the People of God extend Christ’s reign.” 

Our culture that refuses evangelization needs it the most.

Royal’s book is not merely a defense of the historical Columbus, or an attempt to debunk critics like Zinn. He does not uphold an idealized Columbus bound to disappoint. It is an exploration of history, and he faces the charges against the explorer rather than running from them. “Columbus and the Crisis of the West”, while intended for a Catholic audience, is an appealing, engrossing and persuasive work. Royal stands up, not for mere mortals and monuments with feet of clay, but for the enduring values of Christianity and Western civilization.