|Map of Columbus' 1492 voyage. Image from Wikipedia|
However, by his mistake and Spanish support, Columbus opened the New World. Besides proving St. Augustine's geography wrong he also helped give Nicolaus Copernicus the idea to rethink the universe. His opening of the age of exploration also added greatly to the geographic knowledge of the world. He also saved the world
First, he saved Europe. A few years ago I wrote in 1491 that Europe was slightly ahead of the Islamic world. Wrong. The authors of Nuremberg Chronicle thought the world was going to end soon because things were going so poorly. Italian Franciscan monks switched sides and became Islamic pirates, thousands upon thousands of people were captured into slavery in raids all along the Mediterranean by Islamic pirates, and the great Roman Empire fell in 1453 to the Ottomans.
The great book Admiral of the Ocean Sea : A Life of Christopher Columbus by Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison describes the situation pre and post-Columbus in Europe as so
At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .
Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”
Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.
Most importantly he ensured Western European ideals, specifically and ironically English-ideals, survived. Ideals of a separation between religion and State (the Catholic states had this compared to Islamic Caliphate and Sultanates where secular and religious offices were one in the same), the rights of individuals apart from being property of the state, and check-and-balances in governments were threatened by the Ottoman horde. Fortuantely, New World gold supplied the Hapsburg Empire with enough money to build an army and navy which could stop the Ottomans. Trade of New World goods destroyed the Ottoman's economy which was based on controlling the old trade routes. The stopping of the Ottomans and appeal of New World resources encouraged France, the English, and others to colonize. These colonies brought ideas of freedom to the New World.
Columbus' drive led to the opening of the New World. Western ideals of limited government and personal freedoms grew in the New World. While New World governments have not been perfect, sometimes failing miserably, in putting these ideals into practice, there is a constant drive to make a more perfect system. The New World also led the charge for the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, the former Ottoman world suffers somewhere between troubled democracy and dictatorship.
Columbus was not perfect. Spanish and other colonial rules had horrible defects. However, history has shown how the New World made the whole world better.