Christopher Columbus has, at least in my lifetime, gone from celebrated explorer to shunned conquerer. As far as historical figures go, he has landed himself a permanent spot on the naughty list alongside others such as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. It is no secret his voyages across the Atlantic brought a varied state of pestilence, slavery, and decline for those previously living in the Americas. You might say his placement of the Spanish flag on a land already occupied by a rich society of people with distinct traditions and customs of their own, was quite egotistical and unarguably fueled by self-interest.
And while I recognize the faults in his quest, as well as the prolonged suffering his actions inflicted, I also refuse to minimize the spirit of exploration in which his voyages were taken.
As a young child, Columbus was first introduced to me as an Italian hero. The more macabre aspects of his explorations were absent from my childhood idealism.
I was fascinated by explorers. I idolized women like Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975. I was captivated by the Lady Hester Stanhope, who after a series of severe romantic disappointments, left Britain for the Middle East, where she conducted the first modern archeological excavations of the Holy Land. Historical lore says that when she arrived in Athens on her way east, men were so charmed by her beauty and conversational skills, the English poet Lord Byron jumped into the sea to greet her. She was a woman of persistence, delivered into the hands of constant economic and romantic failure. Most admirable was her ability to defy societal norms of the 18th century.
Lady Stanhope continued her exploration, after a shipwreck on the Turkish island of Rhodes, in full men’s attire. She refused to don the veil insisted upon Middle-Eastern women. She continued to dress in a more male-centric manner in order to blend and level the playing field throughout her life. She was a fascinating individual who broadened not only the geographical world for foreigners but also for women as well. She is completely worthy of some further acquaintance.
As a mini-explorer, I stared at maps for hours, accounting every detail. I created alternative lands in creekbeds and gardens around my childhood home. I dressed up as Napoléon Bonaparte for Halloween. I covered my room with posters displaying foreign destinations I one day dreamed of traveling to.
I was born with an explorer’s heart – a curiosity of the places and people speckled throughout the globe, and I owe my very early curiosity to the men such as Christopher Columbus.
And so it is with that spirit of exploration, I wish everyone a Happy Columbus Day.
LeAnne J. Smith