Even today, more than 500 years after the most important sea voyage in history, there is much to be said for the spirit of exploration that led to the discovery of the New World. Much more still to be said for the spirit of entrepreneurship, courage and inquisitiveness that led a small group of men on three small ships to reach bravely, and without certainty across the vast unknowable ocean to finally set anchor on a beach of the Bahamas archipelago. The reasons underlying this spirit are why we still observe the holiday in October which memorializes the day Christopher Columbus stepped ashore.
Like so many of us who have had to undertake challenges to achieve our education – loans, missing out on time with family and friends, turning down short-term gain in exchange for long-term benefit all to work on gaining an education that may not result in the success we envisioned, Christopher Columbus was someone whose place in history was still uncertain when he set sail from Spain in 1492. Success was hardly a definite outcome, and the prospect of failure loomed large. Columbus had taken on massive risk in the form of financing from private Italian investors, and sponsorship of monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. To return an empty-handed failure would be unthinkable. The only alternative was to push on against all odds, eagerly aspiring to victory and refusing to accept any defeat, knowing that the ultimate reward would make all the sacrifices worthwhile.
Seeking to expand his own horizons and that of his world, Columbus undertook the process of self-education, and with determination learned Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian, and compelled himself to read books on astronomy, geography, and history. Historian Edmund Morgan, said that “Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading”. It is this same unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding that has led many students to strive against all the odds, to be the first in their family to achieve the distinction of a college degree.
The largely fruitless European explorations prior to the arrival of Columbus’ ships in the turquoise waters of the Bahamas did little to break new ground in the Western hemisphere. They had left behind little of significance and had done little to further the spirit of discovery. The native peoples which had crossed over from Asia millennia before had developed in relative isolation with little if any contact from Europe or their forebears. Columbus’ voyages led to the first lasting European contact with the Americas, inaugurating a centuries-long golden period of European exploration, triumph, and pioneering. As the trailblazer for the Spaniards, Portuguese, English and others who would follow in his wake, Columbus’ enormous impact in the historical development of the modern Western world can be neither underestimated nor under-appreciated.
It is that same spirit that encourages us to venture into the unknown, in spite of fear, in spite of the challenge. The spirit that motivates us to reject the status quo and the safety of complacency, to leave our comfortable world behind, daring to dream of something new, frightening and inspiring at the same time, to leave our mark upon the world, creating something unique and significant, changing the course of history; “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” That is the ultimate legacy of Columbus.