First, most people in the time of Columbus lived in the “Old World”–Europe, Africa, Middle East, and Asia–than in the “New World”. So, no one in the Old World knew of the Americas before Columbus discovered it. It was only through the achievement of Columbus that all Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners eventually got to know about the New World. So, for the Old World–most of humanity at least–, Columbus did indeed discover America. When we say a certain astronomer ‘discovered’ a new planet, we don’t mean he invented it or the planet came to exist ONLY BECAUSE the astronomer ‘discovered’ it. We mean he came upon the existence of a planet for the common pool of human knowledge. The planet had always been there, but it became a reality to us thanks to the hard work of the scientist.
So, yes, the American continents had always existed, and they had already been inhabited by indigenous peoples. But, it must be said there is a difference between migrating and settling AND exploring and discovering. The Asiatic peoples who migrated across the Alaskan-Siberian land mass during the Ice Age were not explorers nor discoverers. They migrated with the animals they hunted. They didn’t have exploration or discovery in mind, only food and survival. These peoples came to inhabit the Americas, and some of them–especially in Meso-America–developed notable civilizations and cultures. But, they didn’t have a clear idea of what the American continent as a whole looked like. Those in the South America didn’t know that North America existed, and vice versa. Most ‘native’ peoples of the Americas were tribal and primitive, and their view of reality was fixed to the immediate world they could travel on foot and see with their naked eyes. Indeed, there weren’t even horses in the Americas before the arrival of the Spaniards(though fossil records do show that there had been horses 10,000s of years ago). So, in a way, the Americas were discovered even for the natives by the white explorers and settlers. Prior to the arrival of whites, ‘native’ peoples had no idea what the continent they inhabited looked like. ‘Native’ peoples lived on the American continent but had no clue as to the extensive nature of land mass they inhabited and how it connected or were separated from other parts of the world. So, Columbus and others like him didn’t just discover the Americas but the very idea of a unified world. They did it for ALL humanity since everyone around the globe came to know about the world thanks to the voyages and explorations of European pioneers. It’s like there was always Antarctica and penguins living there, but we credit the DISCOVERY of Antarctica to the men who explored and mapped it out. We don’t give credit to the penguins.
Columbus didn’t just discover the Americas, but it’s through him that the natives of the American continent came to discover the “Old World”–which to them was a strange new world. And we should keep in mind that there is a difference between conquest and discovery though they’ve often been carried out by the same people–which certainly applies to the Spanish Conquistadores and of course, Alexander the Great in ancient times. Columbus really did seek knowledge and sought the true nature of the entire world. Of course, he was also serving commercial interests, but he needed to find financing somehow.
It appears we interpret and approach Columbus in three ways. There’s Columbus the actual man examined in biographies. But, there is also Columbus the mythic Promethean figure of history, the hero visionary, kinda like the romantic vision of Napoleon which captivated many progressives in the 19th century. . There is finally Columbus as a symbol of All the European explorers who followed him and expanded on his earlier discovery.
The truly momentous things for both the Old and New World took place after Columbus initial voyages to the Americas, but we find it convenient to attach a vast historical event to one figure, which is why the Pilgrims figure so much into the narrative of American history. Even today, we have ideas such as the ‘Age of Reagan’ even though the accomplishments of the Reagan era had been an intensely cooperative, with much good and bad happening outside Reagan’s control and power. We tend to lionize or scapegoat single individuals for the triumphs and tragedies of history.
We need to define and/or understand terms a little better if we want to deal with the confusion as to whether Columbus did or didn’t discover the Americas. To discover isn’t the same as thing as merely being. Discover means to become CONSCIOUSLY AWARE of something hitherto unknown. For the Old World, Columbus’s voyage to the New World could only be called a great discovery. And, even though the natives of America had long existed on the continent, they were not CONSCIOUSLY aware of their place on the planet, their relation to other parts of America. Prior to the arrival of Columbus and his followers, the natives of the Americas had known only their little world–and many peoples lived on a level not much higher than that of animals.. So, the indigenous natives of what is today Cuba or Haiti had no clue as to their place in the whole scheme of things. It was Columbus and his followers who came to map the Americas, mentally collect and unite the data, and draw up a big picture of what all of the Americas looked like. In this sense, Europeans also discovered much of Africa whose natives didn’t know what Africa was or looked like. “Pan-African consciousness” never existed prior to the white man’s mapping of Africa and the extensive research, archaeology, and studies that came to draw up an idea of a vast dark continent inhabited mostly by Bantu blacks(at least in the sub-Saharan part). The idea of “Africa” too is a European discovery, even an invention.
To better understand the meaning of ‘discover’, let us consider people like Galileo and Copernicus. They both came to discover that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. This doesn’t mean that Earth began to revolve around the Sun BECAUSE Galileo and Copernicus found out it was so. Indeed, Earth had revolved around the Sun since time immemorial–even before mankind ever existed. But, it became a scientific fact and common knowledge thanks to the pioneering discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus. And, consider the discovery of the DNA by Crick and Watson. Again, it doesn’t mean that Crick and Watson invented the DNA. The DNA had existed for billions of years. Now, one may ask, like anti-Western skeptics ask about Columbus, “how can you discover what already exists?” But, this person has a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘discovery’. It doesn’t mean creating or inventing something that never existed. For instance, one doesn’t say the Wright Brothers discovered flying; no, they invented a flying machine. One doesn’t say one discovered the atomic bomb. No, Oppenheimer and his colleagues invented and built it. To discover means to become aware of something–land, object, law of nature, etc–that pre-exists but isn’t known to people or at least isn’t known in a certain way. DNA existed as long as much of life existed, but it was only in the 20th century that humans became aware of it. So, Crick and Watson did indeed discover the DNA.
The same could be said of the Darwinian theory of evolution. Evolution has operated since the beginning of life, but it was Darwin who developed a theory that finally seemed to grasp some of the fundamental features of how it worked. One could argue that the idea of species changing through time goes back to the ancient times, and in that sense, Darwin didn’t really discover the concept of evolution. But, Darwin(and Wallace)did figure out what had evaded previous scientists and philosophers; they cracked the very mechanism of evolution, how certain traits were chosen through NATURAL SELECTION. So, even if we argue that Darwin didn’t discover the idea of evolution, he arrived at or discovered the true theory of evolution.
But, some discoveries are more subtle and elusive than others. Perhaps, the most subtle is the idea of the subconscious as developed by Freud and Jung. What we’ve come to call the ‘subconscious’ or the ‘unconscious’ has always existed in all higher forms of life before man began to think about it as a concept. And, it’s true enough that artists going back thousands of years wrote plays and poems and composed songs and music about the dark hidden side of the human mind and heart. But, it was Freud who took a scientific–rather than spiritual, poetic, or philosophical–approach to the reality of the subconscious. So, one could argue that Freud discovered the subconscious in the modern sense. But, this is still controversial, not least because of many of Freud’s ‘scientific’ ideas have been rejected or discredited by the modern psychological community. So, was Freud’s concept of the subconscious a false discovery or an overly simplistic one, like Marx’s concept of class dynamics in the making of history?
Finally, there are two kinds of discoveries–existential and collective–, and it’s the collective one that really matters. Each of us discover things on our own; we may even think no one has thought of it before… only to find out that it’s already ‘been there, done that’. We see this especially among kids who find a lot of things on their own and want attention/validation from adults. But, some individuals do indeed come upon a discovery that (1) no one had come upon before or had come upon but failed to share with rest of humanity and (2) may have profound impact on humanity/history. After all, discovery of the mechanism of cancer is going to be more important than the discovery of a new species of centipedes in the jungles of the Amazon. The discovery of Columbus was truly one of the most momentous discoveries in the history of mankind. (It must also be noted that some things are discovered, lost, and then rediscovered, which is precisely what happened with much of classical knowledge in Western Europe. With the fall of Rome came the Dark Ages, and much of the wisdom going back to the Greeks had been lost in all the sacking and pillaging. But, through Arab scholars and merchants who maintained connection with Byzantium and North Africa–colonized by the Romans at one time–, Western Europe ‘rediscovered’ much of ancient wisdom.)
Some people understandably object to observing Columbus Day because of the very tragic dimensions of white conquest of the Americas. No one with a mind and heart can deny the horrible side of this story, nor should we say whatever whites did was justified because the pagan natives also committed horrendous acts–such as grisly human sacrifice. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But, we can’t ignore the truly great side of this story either, the story of progress, development, and understanding.
Also, we should keep in mind that a special day need not be CELEBRATED. One of the problems is that people approach every observance day as a holiday, as if it’s supposed to be all fun and games. But, consider Memorial Day. Is it really for celebration? No, it is properly for sober reflection. It is for remembering the men who fought for a great cause, an evil cause, who fought and died bravely, who died shitting in their pants, for men who fought for ideals, for men who were just following orders, for heroes, for war criminals, for all those who died nobly or ignobly on the battlefield. It is a day for sober reflection than celebration and partying.
Well, it seems to me we can appreciate and remember Columbus Day in the same spirit. We need not see it ONLY as a day of praising Columbus as a great hero nor ONLY as a day for bashing him as a murderous pig. The truth lies somewhere in between, and that goes for all of humanity, white or non-white, male or female, then and now. It’s too bad that in our consumer-addled culture, we think of every special day as a time for barbecuing and funning around and acting stupid. No, some days should be observed as a day for special reflection. Here we are living in the great powerful rich nation called America only because men like Columbus discovered it. But, let us not forget the horrible decimation of entire populations due to diseases from the Old World, the enslavement of the natives, and the problems that exist among many indigenous peoples even today. Nothing in this world is all good nor all bad. And, we should approach Columbus the same way.