Columbus and The Spirit of Enterprise

This is the text of a little speech I gave at the New York City Yacht Club in 1992.  Yes, don't say it, a rather unusual venue for a professional trouble-maker.  I remember at one point mentioning George Gilder as exemplifying the same hardy Western spirit as Columbus and his adventurers.  I had corresponded with George, published his work, and probably met him once or twice, but I had not spotted him in the audience until I could see him blushing.  I don't have an electronic  text, but Col. Howell was kind enough to send me this .pdf of the  pamphlet we produced, which should be readable.  I hope I can find time to do a podcast.

If I could revise the text, I would alter my sneering reference to Kirk Sale's book on Columbus.  Kirk has become a friend, and so instead of a sneering reference to his dishonest book, I'd make it a merely mocking reference to his misguided book.

Columbus - Jul 16 2020 - 5-54 PM

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

16 Responses

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    Was this the same event at which you met friends of the other Thomas Fleming, they thinking that it would be he that would be speaking?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:


  3. Joe Porreca says:

    “Most great discoveries are the result of persistence combined with dumb luck. Anyone can be right, but it takes a peculiar kind of genius to be so monumentally wrong that he discovers penicillin or a new world.” Dr. Fleming, thank you for this.

    Regarding Cortez and the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spaniards were so vastly outnumbered by the Aztecs that they could never have conquered them without the help of various Indian tribes which allied with the Spaniards because of the extreme cruelties they suffered at the hands of the Aztecs. Hugh Thomas wrote a good book on the subject of the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortez.

  4. Roger McGrath says:

    It’s been well established that Columbus sailed to Galway in 1477. There was a monument honoring Columbus and created in Genoa that was erected in Galway in 1992. The monument was spray-painted during the American riots in protest over death of George Floyd. There’s also the old tale about a William Harris, who met Columbus when the latter was in Galway and told him about the Brendan voyages to a land in the western Atlantic. William Harris supposedly later became Guillermo Herries and sailed with Columbus in 1492. Herries was one of those left behind on Hispaniola so his story ends there.

    What most people don’t seem to understand about Columbus voyaging into the Atlantic was the Spanish had been in the Azores for a generation by 1492. From the Azores Spanish ships sailed in great arcs hoping to sight still more land to the west. The logs of one of these voyages suggests that at one point New England would have been sighted if it had been a clear day.

  5. Roger McGrath says:

    I should have said the Portuguese had been in the Azores well before Columbus’ voyage and the Portuguese ships were ones sailing in great arcs in hopes of discovery land to the west. I think this was all a part of Prince Henry the Navigator’s efforts.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    Nice talk and good comments. Reading this talk from 1992 and then the commentary by Roger McGrath and others was like returning to the days and geography of ones youth after a lifetime of living in re-education camps.
    I wonder if in the future, say two or three hundred years, the Afghanis and Assyrians, Libyans or Iraqis will ask for reparations from the surviving heirs of NATO and the US ? Or if their will even be surviving heirs of a people distinguished enough to identify ? Maybe drones and robots will be doing all the damage by then and the G7 will refer to the total number of Europeans still living in Gestadt instead of the countries they once represented.

  7. Michael Strenk says:

    “The logs of one of these voyages suggests that at one point New England would have been sighted if it had been a clear day.”

    A Spanish New England rather than a Puritan one. Sort of gets the imagination going. Even so, Portuguese managed to establish themselves well in fishing villages there and elsewhere along the East Coast, eh Dot?

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    In American textbooks, the ignorant Catholic clergy of Spain are ridiculed for believing the earth was flat. The real argument was over the size of the globe. Of course illiterate peasants believe what they say–namely, that we live on a flat earth–but the Greeks had mostly believed that the earth was spherical because the sphere was the perfect shape but also because sailors can see the curve of the earth as a ship rises up the horizon. Eratosthenes, a native of Cyrene (a Greek colony on the coast of North Africa) had taken land measurements between two cities in the Middle East and with his solid knowledge of geometry he calculated within a small degree of error the correct circumference of the earth–already in the Third Century BC. How much anyone knew precisely of Eratosthenes’ calculations in the late 15th century would be a matter for dispute, but there was a general knowledge that the earth was much much bigger than Columbus thought. In going to China or Indonesia, Columbus would have run out of food and water long before he got close. Of course, he did not realize this at first, which is why civilized people still refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas as “Indians.”

  9. Michael Strenk says:

    What are we to think of the theory that Columbus and his brother, who apparently worked for Henry the Navigator, had a copy of a Chinese map, which they stole, purportedly made during the Chinese age of exploration under the emperor Zhu Di and transferred to the West by an early Italian explorer (whose name escapes me) who accompanied part of the Chinese fleet, and that they therefore had a general expectation of what they would find and where?

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am not familiar with this theory. It sounds like something concocted by the full of bunk debunkers who tear down monuments. Supposing for a moment that there is any truth in it, it would mean that Columbus set off on what should have been an expedition fatal to himself and his entire crew, on the basis of a bogus Chinese map.

  11. Michael Strenk says:

    This is the book that I read on the subject years ago:

    I have no background suitable for judging the validity of the claims. Much of it seemed plausible. Menzies has been widely regarded as controversial in academic circles, which tells me nothing as many people whose work I admire, including some here and published in The Magazine would be similarly regarded in the same circles. He expresses admiration for Henry the navigator and the work of all associated with his efforts and does not seem to have any particular axe to grind. I have not read anything else by him.

    Possibly having had a map of dubious provenance does not in any way belittle the courage and achievement of Columbus and his successors. I certainly admire them and Menzies seems to have done as well with some reservations regarding how the map might have been obtained and the supposed desire of the Columbus brothers to monopolize the potential rewards of their potential discoveries. Who wouldn’t?

    I thought that someone here might be better placed to evaluate what was claimed in the book.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ah, yes, Gavin Menzies. A Sinophile fraud and freak who fictionalized his own life story along with everything else. He’s not a scholar, has no specialized knowledge that would entitle him to an opinion, and in running (unsuccessfully) against the sainted Enoch Powell called for unrestricted immigration into the UK. Frankly, he is the sort of nut Ireland is more likely to produce. If you want to sound off on these topics, living in China for a bit as a child is no credential.

  13. John Howell says:

    Thank you for posting this fine piece, Doctor. Today’s progressive anti-Columbus mob seems quite content maintaining cohesion with the Catholic-hating Second Klan and other grim grumblers of the past who defamed an imperfect but noble man mainly because he followed the crucifix and helped expand Western culture. It is easy to become despondent while elite iconoclasts and their army of rent-a-radicals joyfully curb-stomp our heritage. But I remain undaunted and strive to educate myself so as to preserve and share our Western tradition.

    With regard to Columbus I recommend reading both his journal and Morrison’s book. Many are unaware of the journal but it will profit a man to read the explorer’s own words.

    Doctor, I do hope that you will produce a podcast addressing Columbus. There appears to be considerable interest given what I’ve read in this discussion thread.

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Col. Howell, thanks for the kind words and for sending me the .pdf. Morrison’s “Admiral of the Open Sea” is a fine book, and I second your recommendation. Someon suggested Hugh Thomas’s book on Cortez, which is helpful but cannot escape the author’s bias. At the age of 12 or so, I read a translation of Bernal Diaz’s first-hand account of Cortez’s expedition. I was thrilled an appalled. I read it again as an adult, and that was, once more, a memorable read.

  15. Gregory Fogg says:

    I’ve only read the one volume abridgement of Morison’s biography but I thorouhly enjoyed it. His two volume work on the voyages of discovery is also a good read.

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It’s almost enough to forgive his family for producing his nephew.