COLUMBUS SAILED THE OCEAN BLUE IN 1492. That’s where the agreement begins and ends on the controversial subject of the quincentenary. Five hundred years ago, a small fleet of ships sailed from Spain to discover the New World, or, according to some, to rape and pillage what the original inhabitants of the Western hemisphere had been building for centuries.
The attack on 1492 is usually accomplished in the following manner: the figure of Columbus is first loaded up with all of the academic heresies of the modern day – Eurocentrism, imperialism, élitism, etc. – and the collective sins of America are weighed upon him. The second step is to portray the Native American as the mythical “noble savage” – an uncorrupted race of humanity – and pre-Columbian America as a virtuous Eden of ecological harmony and peace. The discovery of the Western hemisphere by the Spanish is thus presented as a crime rather than an event to be honored and celebrated.
It is true that some conquistadors and explorers were barbarically cruel to the native inhabitants of the Americas. Yet the European settlement of the New World should be compared to another events of its kind in history – the rise of Islam, the Norman Conquest of England, not to mention the American Indian tradition of raiding, conquering and depopulating the tribes of neighboring lands.
The presentation of the Native American as pacifist is, at best, a cinematic fantasy derived from films such as Dances With Wolves. At worst, it is the historical reality of the Inca empire – a pyramidal, totalitarian society in which the individual had no importance and virtually no existence. According to Peruvian historian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Inca civilization was founded on “a state religion which took away the individual’s free will and crowned the authority’s decision with the aura of a divine mandate which turned the Tawantinsuyu [Inca civilization] into a beehive.”
Is it Eurocentric to be thankful for Columbus and the cutting of the Atlantic channel to allow European settlers to come to the New World? Would it be better to extol the virtues of a society in which the individual had no more rights than those of an insect?
On Columbus’ foundation of discovery a society has been built in which a culture of liberty has flourished. The individual has been raised to a greater level of dignity and sovereignty than in any culture in history.
Just who was Columbus, anyway? Your interpretation of this man’s accomplishment in discovering the New World may depend as much on your political alignment as on historical reality. Shrouded in an almost legendary mystique, there are only a few facts about Columbus that are usually given to history students about the character of the famous explorer. Given his importance to the current society of the Western hemisphere, the true Columbus is as mysterious and evasive a figure as one is likely to find.
Yet Columbus kept extensive diary entries, wrote letters, and signed documents which are available for our study today. Before we can make any judgments pertaining to the virtue or villainy Columbus, we should take a close look at the world and circumstances from which his quest of discovery arose.
Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, the son of a weaver, and early on took to the sea. “At a very young age I became a sailor, and I have continued to this day,” he wrote in a letter. “The art of navigation incites those who follow it to learn the secrets of the world. For forty years I have followed this trade, and I have sailed all the navigable seas.”
“Christoforo Colombo” – meaning “Christ-bearer” – is how he signed his name in letters and documents. Columbus had a deeply ingrained belief from his youth that he was God’s servant: “A man to fulfill His purpose” (Isaiah 46:11). In his writings, Columbus often refers to his quest of discovery glowingly as a “holy enterprise” – an exalted mission which was to implement God’s plan of redemption in history.
What was it that motivated Columbus to sail west, thus becoming renowned as the European discoverer of America? One theory that is popular, yet false, was that Columbus wanted to prove that the earth was round. (No educated person – and certainly no Mariner – in the late 15th century believed otherwise.)
Columbus was a scholarly man who collected a vast library. Four of these volumes still exist and bear marks of his note taking. In his writings to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, he explained that it was his learning that first put into his mind the possibility of sailing west to reach the East Indies:
“At this time I have seen and put in study to look into all the Scriptures, cosmography, histories, chronicles and philosophy and other arts, which our Lord opened to my understanding, so that it became clear to me that it was feasible to navigate from here to the Indies, and He unlocked within me the determination to execute the idea….
“There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvellous illumination from the Holy Scriptures. For the execution of the journey to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics, or maps. It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied. No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our holy Savior; if it is just and the intention is purely for His holy service. The fact that the Gospel must still be preached in so many lands in such a short time – this is what convinces me.“1
The Bible was undoubtedly available to Columbus. As a learned Italian man and having mastered several languages, he could read the Latin text of Isaiah with ease. Thus the Age of Exploration was fueled by biblical prophecy.2
As early as 1484, Columbus sought sponsorship for his voyage. After being turned down by the monarchies of Portugal, England and Italy, he finally was successful with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. King Ferdinand was not in favor of Columbus’ plan, but Isabella wanted to proceed. Spain was involved in a ten year war with the Moors at the time, however, and Isabella believed in doing one thing at a time. Meanwhile, Columbus enlisted the financial support of some Genoese and Florentine merchants.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, possibly the most murderous couple in modern European history, are central figures in this world. Charles Coffin, the 19th century historian, describes the cruelty of Ferdinand and Isabella in financing the Spanish Inquisition to persecute “heretics,” in their campaign against the Muslim Moors, and in driving the Jews out of Spain:
“Men and women have their clothes ripped from their backs, and they must stand exposed before these questioners (the Inquisition)…. Isabella and Ferdinand urge the men who ask questions to do their work thoroughly – to let no heretic escape, especially if they have money, for by confiscating their wealth the King and Queen will replenish their purses…. Thousands are cast into prison. More than two thousand men and women are burned – thrown into furnaces. Other thousands flee from the country…. Liberty of conscience, liberty of thought, speech, or action, are all unknown … While Ferdinand and Isabella are thus rooting out heresy, they are trying to drive the Moors from the country…. The war against the Moors goes on. When Ferdinand and Isabella are in need of money to pay the troops, the rich Jews supply them…. Besides the five hundred thousand Jews driven out, more than one hundred thousand heretics are burned to death, or are thrown into prison, or lose their property by confiscation.“3
During this time of treachery, Columbus first laid his plan of sailing west to reach the East Indies before Ferdinand and Isabella. There is no evidence that Columbus was aware of the extent of the cruelty of the Inquisition or felt any remorse that Isabella and Ferdinand had taken so much money from the people of Spain. In fact, Columbus was with the royal couple at Grenada, the sight of their last victory over the Moors. He saw the last Jews depart from Seville harbor the day before he set out on his first journey to America.
In all of his letters to the Spanish monarchs, Columbus expresses tender love and sincerity and never mentions any knowledge of their wrongdoing. Could Columbus have been ignorant of the atrocities perpetrated by his sponsors? Was it the darkness of the age that blinded him to this great evil? Perhaps it was because after waiting so many years for the war against the Moors to end, and after years of seeking support, that Columbus always blessed his King and Queen, never losing hope that the war would end and they would turn their support toward him. In any case, the explorer’s character must be weighed in terms of his own actions.
On October 12, 1492, Columbus landed in the Bahamas, which he christened San Salvador, meaning “Holy Savior.” Native people came to watch as Columbus knelt to pray and kissed the ground. He planted a flag of Spain and a cross on the soil of the New World. For three months, Columbus sailed among the islands, rowing up rivers, exploring coastlines, discovering Juana (Cuba) and Hispaniola (Haiti). On Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria ran aground on a shoal off of Hispaniola. Columbus took this to be a sign from God and abandoned the badly damaged ship leaving a settlement of 39 men behind to build a fort and look for gold.
That the discovery of San Salvador was the discovery of the New World was never known to Columbus and he returned to Spain triumphant believing he had found islands off the coast of Asia. Even to the end of his days he believed that he had discovered a trade route to the East Indies.
In May of 1493, Columbus set sail on his second journey with seventeen ships and 600 men. He was charged to convert the natives to Christianity and establish a trading colony. The relationship that Columbus’ crew had with the natives was a mixture of admiration and cruelty. On the island now called St. Croix, Columbus and his men fought with the Caribs, natives who were cannibals. The natives of Hispaniola, who Columbus called “Indios” (believing he had reached the Indies), were admired for their beauty and friendliness, unlike the ferocious Caribs. According to Columbus’ journals, the Indios were a timid people, a trait which was despised by the Spanish settlers.
They reached Hispaniola only to find that the original settlement burned to the ground. Evidently the “timid” people of the island of Hispaniola had reacted to being exploited by the first settlers. For a year and a half Columbus remained in the area of Hispaniola attempting to establish peace and order among the unruly Spanish settlers. As a symbol of his role as a peacemaker, he began to wear the habit of a Franciscan friar and continued to do so for the rest of his life. Before returning to Spain, he explored the Lesser Antilles and Jamaica.
On his third voyage, Columbus was arrested by the King’s commissioner in rebellious Hispaniola. Columbus was pronounced Governor of New Spain by the King, yet his men became jealous and resentful to have an Italian set over them. They began to invent accusations and persuaded the commissioner – a vain, cruel man named Bodilla – to arrest Columbus. Thus the explorer was thrown in prison, set in chains and fetters, and sent back to Spain as a prisoner.
Columbus was outraged, yet nevertheless submitted to Bodilla. Appearing before Isabella and Ferdinand in chains, Columbus used his humiliation to pressure the king to let him continue his explorations. On his fourth and final voyage, Columbus traveled as far as Panama and was within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean. Had he gone only a few miles up a river in a small boat, he would have seen the Pacific before Balboa.
In the twelve years which followed Columbus’ first journey, thousands of Indians were killed, and others carried off into slavery. The Spanish conquistadors’ only purpose became to gratify their lust for gold. The jealousy of the Spaniards toward Columbus again worked against him. Although dubbed Governor of New Spain, he received no honor upon returning home for the last time. Several years after his final journey, he died in poverty in 1506.
It was the gold seized from the Moors, the Jews, and other “heretics” that financed Columbus’ journeys. Yet ironically, it was the discovery of the New World which eventually led to the formation of colonies by the English a century later where religious dissenters could come to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.
Charles Coffin comments on this historical irony in The Story of Liberty: “How easy it is to plan! How nice it would be if we could only carry out our plans! So we think. Why do we not carry them out? Because there are other plans besides our own. Before we get through with this Story of Liberty, perhaps we shall see that, somehow, almost all the great plans of kings and emperors have been overturned; that things have not come out as they intended. Perhaps we shall see that behind all the plans of men to advance their own interest, there will seem to be another plan – that circumstances and events will take such shape that we shall be able to discover a new arranging of things – a plan superior to all others, as if God had a plan and were behind all the overturnings and defeats of men.“4
1 Christopher Columbus’ Book of Prophecies, trans. by Kay Brigham. Libros CLIE, Spain, pp. 178-179.
2 See for instance Isaiah 2:2-5; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; 32:15-17; 40:4-11; 42:1-12; 49:1-26; 56:3-8; 60:1-22; 61:1-11; 62:1-12; 65:1-25; 66:1-24.
3 Charles C. Coffin, The Story of Liberty (Maranatha Publications, Gainesville, FL, 1987) pp.80-96.
4 Ibid, p.226.