Review: Columbus and the Crisis of the West, by Robert Royal

Columbus and the Crisis of the West by Robert Royal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A colleague of mind recently co-published an article in a prestigious journal of American history, arguing that the prevalence of disease in the destruction of native populations did not mean that Western explorers who came to the Americas in the early modern period could be absolved of the charge of genocide. Even though they did spread these diseases intentionally, so the argument goes, their imperialistic attempts to settle the Americas. In other words, just because Christopher Columbus and others did spread the diseases intentionally, they are still culpable for the natives dying of these diseases because they came there in the first place.

This article came to mind as I read Robert Royal’s book “Columbus and the Crisis of the West.” It is an updated version of a book Royal published in 1992, around the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas. Then and now, Royal dispels several myths about Columbus: that he “proved” the world was round, that he was some proto-Enlightenment figure of progress, and above all, the myth that he is particularly reprehensible representative of the most reprehensible civilization on earth–Western Civilization. In the course of the book, Royal goes beyond Columbus to defend the Spanish evangelization of the Americas, trying to balance coverage of the very real atrocities committed by the Spanish with some of their more redeeming qualities.

Royal’s book is an apologia for Western Civilization, and the insistence that it is not irredeemably evil. As he puts it “Who in his right mind advocates throwing out a whole culture?” (100)
Royal admirably makes the case that Columbus is a pivotal figure in world history and that our world still grapples with issues that Columbus set in motion in the fifteenth century. (203) Royal rightly decries how the failings of Western figures like Columbus are judged on a different scale than other civilizations. As he puts it, “we cannot evaluate the voyages of discovery properly without gratitude for what they achieved.” (197)

I wish I could assume that critics like my colleague will read Royal’s with book with an open mind, but I am not sanguine on that score. Much of the animus towards “Western Civilization” is the result of Western elites promoting such ideas, which make those lower on the social totem pole want to imitate them. Many of our students hear nothing but how evil their ancestors were, and don’t have to listen to anything contrary if they so please. Still, for the sake of historical accuracy and fairness, Royal’s book is a necessary one, and a good one to recommend to those skeptical of Columbus’ achievements, as well as the culture which produced them.

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