October 12, 2001

(Editor's Note: October 12th is Columbus Day. The impact of Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America is addressed here through two divergent point of views. The first and most prominent is that Columbus is a great explorer and deserves all the accolades for his discovery.

The second point of view, from the Indigenous communities, is one of a Holocaust perspective.

The following stories present both perspectives on Christopher Columbus. We hope you enjoy them and that they help you draw your own conclusion: great explorer or great destroyer?)

Columbus leaving Palos. Painting by Joaquin Sorolla y Basitda

"Why Did Columbus Sail"

by Kevin A. Miller

The bright noon sun beat down on the stone walls of the Church of St. George in Palos, Spain. Inside, in the cool quiet, knelt Cristobal Colon, captain general of three small ships anchored in the town's inlet below. With Colon, saying confession and hearing mass, were some ninety pilots, seamen, and crown-appointed officials. Later that day they would row to their ships, Colon taking his place on the Santa Maria, a slow but sturdy flagship no longer than five canoes.

The next morning, Friday, August 3, 1492, at dawn, the Santa Maria and its companion caravels caught the ebb tide and drifted toward the gulf. Their sails began to fill, and the crosses emblazoned on them caught the light. Their mission—the wild- eyed idea of their foreigner captain—was to sail west, away from all visible landmarks. They would leave behind Spain and Portugal, the "end of the world," and straight into the Mare Oceanum, the Ocean Sea.

In that Ocean of Darkness, some feared, the water boiled and sea monsters gulped down sailors so foolish as to sail there. Beyond—if they lived to see it—lay the fabled island of Cipangu. There, in the land of the Great Khan, houses were roofed with gold, streets paved in marble. And this was but one of 7,448 islands Marco Polo had said were in the Sea of China. But even if they reached the Indies, how would they get back, since currents and winds all seemed to go one way?


Why take the risky voyage?

Commander Cristoforo Colombo (as he was known in his hometown of Genoa, Italy) was taller than most men; so tall; in fact, he couldn't stand inside his cabin on the Santa Maria. He'd had "very red" hair in his younger years, but since he'd passed age 40, it had turned prematurely white. His face boasted a big nose and freckles.

Columbus, as we know his name today, was an experienced mariner. He had sailed the Mediterranean and traveled to parts of Africa, to Ireland, and probably even to Iceland. He boasted later in life, "I have gone to every place that has heretofore been navigated." He knew the Atlantic as well or better than anyone, and he probably knew more about how to read currents, winds, and surfaces of the sea than do sailors today. "He [our Lord] has bestowed the marine arts upon me in abundance," Columbus said.

For nearly seven years, the "socially ambitious, socially awkward" Italian had become a fixture at the Spanish court, carelessly lobbying for his crazy "enterprise of the Indies." A royal commission in 1490 had judged "that the claims and promises of Captain Colon are vain and worthy of rejection.... The Western Sea is infinite and unnavigable. The Antipodes are not livable, and his ideas are impracticable." Yet Columbus had pressed on, proving, as he said, "If it strikes often enough, a drop of water can wear a hole in a stone."

Why? Why would someone, anyone, doggedly spend years getting funding for a death-defying feat?


The misleading textbook answer

The textbook answer, as any schoolchild could recite, is that Columbus wanted to find a trade route to the Orient. Writer Robert Hughes expressed the conventional wisdom: "Sometime between 1478 and 1484, the full plan of self-aggrandizement and discovery took shape in his mind. He would win glory, riches, and a title of nobility by opening a trade route to the untapped wealth of the Orient. No reward could be too great for the man who did that."

That's true, but incomplete—so incomplete it's misleading. At least later, Columbus saw his voyage in much greater terms: "Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures,...urging me to press forward?'

Columbus felt that Almighty God had directly brought about his journey: "With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible...and he opened my will to desire to accomplish that project...The Lord purposed that there should be something miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies."

There may be many things we don't know about history's most famous mariner. We don't know exactly what Columbus looked like. We don't know the precise design of his three ships. And most bizarre of all, we don't know—and will probably never know—the spot where he came ashore.

But we know beyond doubt that Columbus sailed, in part, to fulfill a religious quest. Columbus's voyages were intense religious missions. He saw them as a fulfillment of a divine plan for his life—and for the soon-coming end of the world. As he put it in 1500, "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev. 21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it."


Medieval "evangelical"

The overwhelming evidence has led Delno C. West to conclude that Columbus "is best viewed as an `evangelical' but not in the sense of the Catholic tradition and the church of the times."

Evangelical? In 1501 Columbus wrote, "I am only a most unworthy sinner, but ever since I have cried out for grace and mercy from the Lord, they have covered me completely. I have found the most delightful comfort in making it my whole aim in life to enjoy his marvelous presence." He constantly associated with reform-minded Franciscans and spent perhaps five months at the white-walled monastery of Santa Maria de La Rabida. He may have been a member of the Franciscan Third Order (for lay people). At least once he appeared in public wearing a Franciscan habit and the order's distinctive cord.

But he and his faith were wholly medieval. He died more than a decade before Martin Luther would post his 95 Thesis protesting the abuse of indulgences. In fact, advances on indulgences helped pay for Columbus's voyage. He read from the Vulgate Bible and the church fathers but, typical for his era, mingled astronomy, geography, and prophecy with his theology. Columbus and his faith reflected, to use Alexander von Humboldt's phrase, "everything sublime and bizarre that the Middle Ages produced."

But only in the last 40 years—and particularly in the last 10—have scholars examined Columbus's religious motivations. Not until last year was his most important religious writing—the Libro de las profecias, or Book of Prophecies—translated into English.

Columbus's deep Christian faith still causes academic bewilderment. Some scholars attribute his recurring encounters with a heavenly voice to mental instability, illness, or stress. Others complain that Columbus biographers described him as more religious than he really was. Some protest that Columbus was greedy and obsessively ambitious, so he couldn't have been truly religious, as if competing qualities cannot exist in one person.

But why explain away his intense religious devotion, when it was obvious to those who knew him and persistent throughout his writings.

Concludes Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Samuel Eliot Morison, "There can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement."


Reaching land-but where?

Columbus would need that vital element. The voyage was immediately beset by calamities—a broken rudder, leaks so bad they needed immediate repair, and threatened capture by the Portuguese. A week after losing sight of the Canary Islands, the pilots discovered to their consternation that the compasses no longer worked right. (They varied a full degree at various times of the day, because of the rotation of the North Star, which pilots had thought was fixed in its location.)

On September 23, the ship hit a calm, causing the seamen to complain they'd never be able to get back to Spain. But later, the sea rose without the aid of any wind. This "astonished them," and Columbus compared it to the miracles that accompanied Moses.

After going a month without seeing land , the men belly- ached about the endless voyage. But on October 11, the ship's log records, they began seeing signs of shore: seabirds, bits of green plants, sticks that looked they had been carved, a small plank. At 10 that evening, Columbus saw a faint, flickering light like a candle in the distance. Few took it as a sign of land, but when the crew gathered to sing Salve Regina ("Hail, Queen"), Columbus instructed his men to keep careful lookout. He would give the first person to sight land a silk jacket and 10,000 maravedis. At about 2 A.M., a crewman yelled "Terra!"— land.

At daylight, the wide-eyed Europeans saw people "as naked as their mother bore them" and many ponds, fruits, and green trees. Columbus and his captains went ashore in an armed launch and unfurled the royal banner and two flags. Each was white with a central bright ceross flanked by a green F and Y for "Ferdinand" and "Isabella." Columbus declared that these obviously inhabited lands now belonged to the Catholic sovereigns.

But what land was this? Where was he? The natives called the island Guanahani. Columbus dubbed it San Salvador, "Holy Savior." He probably figured it was, in one writer's words, at the "gateway to the kingdom of the Grand Khan."

Columbus had woefully miscalculated—by thousands of miles. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell explains, "In six stages of calculations, Columbus had cooked the figures to suit himself and reduced the width of the Ocean Sea to 60 degrees, less than a third of the modern figure of 200 degrees for the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan.... Providence—or fool's luck—placed America in the middle of the sea to save him."

Columbus said it was Providence. As he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella late in his life, "I spent six years here at your royal court, disputing the case with so many people of great authority, learned in all the arts. And finally they concluded that it was all in vain, and they lost interest. In spite of that it later came to pass as Jesus Christ our Savior had predicted and as he had previously announced through the mouths of His holy prophets....I have already said that reason, mathematics, and maps of the world were of no use to me in the execution of the enterprise of the Indies. What Isaiah said was completely fulfilled."

Now here he was, standing in the distant isles of the Indies. So he called the Taino-speaking peoples of the Arawak tribes "Indians." The name, though flatly wrong, stuck.


Voice in the storm

After ten weeks of exploring the coastline of Cuba and Hispaniola, continually trading trinkets for gold, Columbus and his men hit a problem. In the wee hours of Christmas morning, a sailor decided to catch some sleep and left the tiller in the hands of a boy. The Santa Maria ran aground.

But what most would have viewed as a calamity, Columbus did not: "It was a great blessing and the express purpose of God" that his ship ran aground so he would leave some of his men. Yes, the ship was wrecked beyond repair, but now he had lumber— lots of it—for building the necessary fort. He left a small garrison of men with instructions: treat the natives well and don't "injure" the women; explore for gold; seek a place for permanent settlement.

The Nina and Pinta sailed for home in January. On February 12, the ships encountered a frightening storm. Waves broke over the ships, sails had to be lowered, and soon they were driven by the wind until they were wildly lost. "I knew that my life was at the disposal of him who made me," Columbus wrote, "and I have been near death so often....What made it so unbearably painful this time was the thought that after our Lord had been pleased to enflame me with faith and trust in this enterprise, and had crowned it with victory,...His divine Majesty should now choose to jeopardize everything with my death....I tried to console myself with the thought that our Lord would not allow such an enterprise to remain unfinished, which was so much for the exaltation of His Church."

The storm raged on. On February 14th, Columbus gathered his crew on the heaving and rolling deck to pray and make vows. They put chick-peas in a cap and had sailors draw to see which one picked the chick-pea with a cross cut into it. that sailor would go on a holy pilgrimage to a shrine of the Virgin Mary if they landed safely. Columbus drew the cross-marked bean.

Apparently, on that frightening day, Columbus also heard a celestial voice. In his youth, he felt God had promised him, that his name would be proclaimed throughout the world. And at age 25, ha had survived a shipwreck and six-mile swim—a sign, he told his son Ferdinand, that God had a plan for him. But this was different.

Although the words are recorded only indirectly, God spoke to Columbus and assured that God would take him to safety. God had given him great favor in allowing him to accomplish this great feat. God would allow him to complete what he had begun.

The next day Columbus's men spotted an Island in the Azores; less than three weeks later they landed triumphantly on the Iberian peninsula.


"Communion with celestial joys"

When Columbus anchored the Nina in Palos, seven months after he'd left, shops closed and church bells rang. Columbus had forwarded a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella: "Our Redeemer has given this triumph.... for all of this Christen-dom should fell joyful and make great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity... for the great exaltation which it will have in the salvation of so many peoples to our holy faith and, secondly, for the material benefits which will bring refreshment and profit."

Columbus was greeted in the Barcelona court as "Don Cristobal Colon, our Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor of the Isles discovered in the Indies."

According to Las Casas, "The King and Queen heard [Columbus's report] with profound attention and, raising their hands in prayer, sank to their knees in deep gratitude to God. The singers of the royal chapel sang the `Te Deum laudamus'...and indeed it seem-ed a moment of communion with all the celestial joys."


High point of his life

Columbus was at high point of his life. In his remaining 14 years, difficulties would only intensify the qualities in his life:

* His wanderlust. He took three more voyages across the Atlantic, each lasting several years and filled with harrowing storms, crew rebellions, illnesses (at one point his eyes bled), and encounters with native Americans.

* His passion for evangelism. In May 1493, he asked Ferdinand and Isabella to set aside 1 percent of all gold taken from the islands to pay for establishing churches and sending monks. They instructed him "to win over the peoples of the said islands and mainland by all ways and means to our Holy Catholic faith" and sent 13 religious workers on his second voyage. In his will, Columbus instructed his son Diego to support from his trust four theology professors to live on Hispaniola and convert the Indians.

* His inflexibility. To his death he continued to argue (against other evidence) that he had landed in Asia. As a colonial governor, he ruled the farmers and settlers with such a heavy hand they rebelled. Columbus was arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains.

* His drive for titles and money. Columbus became absolutely wealthy, "a millionaire by any standard." But he had driven such a hard bargain with the crown—hereditary titles and "the tenth part of the whole" of gold he found—that the monarchs continually had to limit his power and wealth. Columbus spent his last years in legal battles and worries that his estate would be whittled away.

* His encounters with the voice of God. Columbus had at least two more, both in dark hours.

In 1499, he said, "When all had abandoned me, I was assailed by the Indians and the wicked Christians [the Spanish settlers who were rebelling against his inept administration]. I found myself in such a pass that in an attempt to escape death I took to the sea on a small caravel. Then the Lord came to help, saying, `O man of little faith, be not afraid, I am with thee.' And he scattered my enemies and showed me the way to fulfill my promises. Miserable sinner that I am, to have put all my trust in the vanities of this world!"

In the Americas again four years later, he found himself alone. His worm-eaten ship was trapped by low waters from getting out into open sea. A local Indian cacique [ruler] had vowed to massacre the Spaniards. Some of Colum-bus's men had been killed. Feverish and in deep despair, he wrote, "I dragged myself up the rigging to the height of the crow's nest...Still groaning, I lost consciousness. I heard a voice in pious accents saying, `O foolish man and slow to serve your God, the God of all! What more did he accomplish for Moses or for his servant David? From the hour of your birth has always had a special care of you." The voice continued at length and closed with "Be not afraid, but of good courage. All your afflictions are engraved in letters of marble and there is a purpose behind them all."

* His belief in his role in end-times prophecy. Late in life, with the help of a friend, a monk, Columbus assembled excerpts from the Bible and medieval authors. The unfinished work, titled Book of Prophecies, uses Scriptures to show that God had ordained his voyages of discovery and that God would be doing further wonderful things for the Church. Some have criticized Columbus for the "providential and messianic delusions that would come to grip him later in life" and accused him of megalomania.

Columbus was often egocentric and, by today's standards, loose in his hermeneutics. But he wasn't the first or last Christian to read his personal destiny into a Scripture verse. Scholar Kay Brigham writes that he was "a man who had an extensive knowledge of God's plan for the world, revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and of the particular role that he was to play in the fulfillment of the divine purposes."

So why did Columbus sail? Certainly he sailed to "make a great lord of himself," as his crew members grumbled. But he sailed for far more. As Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, "This conviction that God destined him to be an instrument for spreading the faith was far more potent than the desire to win glory, wealthy, and worldly honors, to which he was certainly far from indifferent."

Columbus concluded the log of his first voyage with one simple desire: "I hope in Our Lord that it [the recent voyage] will be the greatest honor to Christianity that, unexpectedly, has ever come about."

Kevin A Miller is editor of Christian History. Christian History Issue 35 (Vol XI, No 3)

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