October once more brought us that festival called in the United States Columbus Day, in much of Latin America the Dia de la Raza, and in Spain, the feast of Hispanidad. Call it what you will, it commemorates the day upon which Christopher Columbus—Genoese sea captain in the service of Their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain—discovered the New World. Once a non-controversial holiday in honour of the beginning of Western Civilisation in the Americas (regardless of Leif Erikson, Prince Madoc of Wales, or any other earlier adventurers, Columbus’ work stuck), it has in recent years become the focus of puerile abuse. To be fair, such abuse is rampant in society to-day, as the ignorant products of substandard education howl their opinions from government, media, and academia. But it is particularly annoying with Columbus.
Setting aside his own virtues, whose defence better pens than mine have undertaken with success (irrefutable if not widely acknowledged), it is of course not merely the Admiral of the Ocean Sea who is being attacked but all that followed in his wake: Catholicism, Spanish culture, and European settlers. The simultaneous attacks on St. Junipero Serra—both from an ignorant populace that tears down his statues and an ignorant and incompetent legislature that passed a resolution slandering the good saint—are more of the same.
The basic narrative behind the attacks on Columbus, Serra, and other Western explorers is really rather simple. Prior to 1420, when the first of Europe’s demonic inhabitants broke the bonds of Mother Nature and settled Madeira, the globe (excepting, of course, that barbaric continent of Europe) was covered with a network of idyllic indigenous cultures. Usually matriarchal, these ideal societies knew no conflict, were at peace with nature and each other, and ensured that each of their happy denizens of colour were individually nurtured to their full and complete potential. Their worship was in the main what we would consider ‘New Age,’ and they were, of course, entirely vegan. But when the white devils broke out of their cage under Prince Henry the Navigator, the serpent was loosed in Eden. For the pure fun of mayhem and murder, Europeans rampaged across the world, genocidally annihilating some populations and enslaving others. Were that not degrading enough, they—especially the Catholic variants—forced their new subjects to worship alongside them, speak their language, wear their clothing, eat their food, use their medicine, and employ their inventions. Although the world has gotten very slightly better since the decolonisation and civil rights movements of the 60s, the descendants of the conquerors are still evil, abuse their non-white helots in every way they can get away with (limited only by the laws they themselves invented for the purpose of looking good while even more deeply oppressing their victims), and must be constantly insulted, lest they return to their evil ways.
While this view of things has the great advantage of being both simple enough for a moron to grasp and the basic view of so much of our opinion-manufacturing industry, it has the unfortunate drawback of being utter tripe. The sad truth is that indigenous societies were and are (in those places where they survive) as bloodthirsty and unequal as anything the Europeans have ever produced. It is almost as though whites and people of colour participate equally in a fallen human nature. There is a reason most of the Aztecs’ native subjects joined the Spanish; they were tired of having their brightest and best tormented and sacrificed. The Huron and Erie nations might have something to say about the Iroquois methods of “cutting off” (a particularly Native American phrase) opposing tribes. For that matter, while all the chatter about reparations for slavery is rising, has anyone given a thought to the responsibility for the practise not merely of the buyers of the human cargo, but its sellers? What about the still-extant petty Kings of the African West Coast, whose fathers gleefully carried on endless wars to gain prisoners to sell?
When in the 15th century the Tuaregs severed the caravan lines to North Africa, which were their usual sales outlets, these minor Kings must have rejoiced to see the European emerge from the sea! Of course, there is another, darker reality; the descendants of those sold to the Europeans and resident from Nova Scotia to Brazil are free and have lifestyles at least similar to those of their European buyers’ descendants. But many of those who spring from those sold to Muslims remain slaves in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. Never does one hear outrage about that—and one could imagine the reception that would be given to BLM or Antifa members who made their way to those places to complain. Western civilisation, with its Christianising impulse, has made more good-faith efforts to address and right the wrongs of slavery that any other civilisation in history.
That is a hard saying, to be sure. But there are more to follow. Portugal led the charge out of the Old World, down the coast of Africa, to the Cape of Good Hope, and at last into the Indian Ocean. To this day, in India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia—despite the later Dutch and British overlay—are countless individuals who owe their names and their religion these first explorers. The same, without the overlay, is true of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and Brazil. Spain, the next up at bat, evangelised and civilised most of Latin America, the Philippines, and Micronesia. To the French fell the Mississippi and St. Lawrence valleys, many of the West Indian and Mascarene Islands, and in time a huge chunk of Africa and the Pacific. The Dutch left their mark in places as diverse as South Africa, New York, and Java, and to the Brits fell—well, the Anglosphere. Earlier on the Danes and Swedes joined in, and at the tail end of the colonial experience (though they did not know it at the time) came the Germans and Italians. Like it or not, it is out of that experience that our “global civilisation” has emerged.
As an historian, I shall be the first to admit that terrible things happened during that era. No period of human history has been without its own share of horrors. Indeed, quite apart from all else that is happening to-day, if one has the view of abortion that the vast majority of human beings had until recently— and may have again in the not-too-distant future—we are undoubtedly one of the bloodiest and most disgusting generations ever to repulse the planet. One wonders if we are any better equipped to judge the past than Soviet judges were to sit in on the Nuremberg Trials.
Such considerations aside, there were many glorious chapters in colonial history as well—the suppression of the slave trade not least among them. There was the eradication of disease, the ending of barbarous practises from human sacrifice to suttee, and—yes—the spread of Christianity around the world. Lest anyone be offended by my missionary zeal, I shall simply point out that everyone is the same way, as President Obama proved when he tried to browbeat various African nations into accepting the LGBTQ agenda. We all have a Faith we want everyone to accept. What differs are the deities and what they require.
Moreover, literally everything we have to-day—to include your reading my words in these pages—we owe to the colonial expansion of Europe. NONE of us—to include the Chinese and Saudi Arabians, who were never colonised outright—would be eating what we eat, drinking what we drink, or enjoying the technology we enjoy without it. This being so, we should be proud of all that was best in the colonial era, and happily accept the gifts it brought the world. As far as its injustices go, before we attack them, we must accept the truth that we benefit from them as well. That does NOT make them less unjust; but it should destroy—in common with our own earlier referenced failings—our sense of moral superiority over the past.
Nevertheless, a grave defect in the colonial enterprise must be noted, one that shall not be by those who, despite benefitting from colonisation, constitute themselves its detractors. Why did colonialism fail? And by failure we do not mean physical failure; the modern world is in fact the sign of its physical success. Rather, why have things degenerated to such a pass that such predominantly benevolent thing is so excoriated by those charged with the keeping of its memory in government, academia, and media? Sadly, if any current sensibilities have not yet been outraged, we must outrage them further.
Why did Europe conquer the world, rather than the other way around? Without a doubt, the reason is religious. Every culture has had seekers after gold and power; from China to pre-Columbian America there have been Empires. But few have had a religion as evangelistic as Christianity. Gold and power may incite some to violence; but they cannot provide the impetus for either peaceful settlement or transformation of alien populations into loyal fellow citizens—the latter of which can never be accomplished entirely by compulsion. Unlike Islam, moreover, the God of the Christians expected initiative out of His followers—they must “know not kismet.” The technological advances that allowed Europe to break her bonds were driven by a desire to make labour easier; this desire had no place in cultures where drudgery was the just reward for bad karma.
But at the same time, the religions divide that tore Western Europe in two happened just as the colonial adventure was getting underway, and as a result that divide was also exported to the four corners of the Earth. It played a large role in the series of sail-era world wars that expanded European influence in general even as they led to the slaughter of native and settler populations alike: the Wars of the Grand Alliance, Spanish Succession, Austrian Succession, Seven Years, American Revolution, French Revolution, and Napoleon played out on every continent and the high seas.
The secularising influence that began with the last two conflicts we have listed here slowly became dominant in every European nation as the 19th century played out. Gradually, evangelisation was replaced with “civilising” as the goal of colonial endeavour—in Kipling’s words, “all valiant dust that builds on dust, and guarding calls not Thee to guard!” The Two World Wars put paid to that, as the Mother Continent was able through her superior technology to descend to unheard-of realms of barbarism, and those who were truly her best and brightest were slain. Shaken to varying degrees, her religious leaders lost their confidence, while Europe herself was divided into two spheres by the United States and Russia—what had been peripheral powers, themselves the products of colonial expansion. With Faith moribund— at least among the dominant circles—reason too declined. Into the resulting cracks crept the seeds of the insanity now triumphant among us; with fall of the Soviet threat, the last need for any kind of functional rationality among our leadership vanished, and we are given up to the phantasms of those in power and their minions.
But, of course, nothing human is permanent. In this month of October, let us pray to such Saints as Junipero Serra and Francis Xavier—and perhaps even Columbus himself (an opening of his cause has been spoken of)—that just as their Faith gave them the strength to face the geographical unknown for the sake of Christ, we might do the same with whatever faces us. St. Junipero Serra himself frequently counselled his brother friars “always look forwards, never look back.” Wise words indeed, in this terra incognita of the 21st century.
Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.