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(Italicized text extracted from Christopher Columbus: Man of Myth? or Man of God?)
The “sound bite” style of writing on Christopher Columbus fails to provide a fair or accurate account of the mission of Christopher Columbus. A casual reading of the life of Columbus and the history of the Caribbean and Central America renders it nearly impossible to distinguish the acts of Columbus from the acts of blood-thirsty Spaniards in the hundreds of years following the first voyage in 1492.
Writing about his life is one of the most difficult and yet most rewarding challenges an author can undertake. Regardless of one’s opinions, some will agree while others will disagree. Most acknowledge, however, that Columbus was a successful explorer. Noted Professor Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard claims: “Christopher Columbus was one of the greatest seamen and navigators of all time,” and his voyage to America “ranks among history’s most important events.” Other authors, on the other hand, attribute his accomplishments to simply “pure luck.” In 1939 Charles Nowell observed that Columbus is “alternately praised and belittled, groomed for canonization and charged with piracy, lauded as a scientist and branded as an ignoramus” (Charles Nowell, The Age of Discovery, 1939).
Here are 5 myths about Christopher Columbus we seek to dispel.
Myth 1: Columbus proved the earth was round while the 15th century world believed it was flat.
No one was trying to prove the world was round, as so often has been said. Thinking people knew the world was round. “Scholars in literally all of the major universities of Europe at that time taught that the earth was round. The flat-earth myth is a fable that refuses to die in an otherwise enlightened world” (Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, New York, Praeger, 1991, pp I-II). The current problem of the 1400s was that most learned men believed the sea distance between Europe and the Indies was so great that it would be impossible to make the voyage without first running out of provisions. Christopher’s dream was to disprove this fear by attempting the trek himself.
According to Phil Newman at NASA, scholars knew the earth was round approximately 2,000 years before Columbus:
It has actually been known that the Earth was round since the time of the ancient Greeks. I believe that it was Pythagoras who first proposed that the Earth was round sometime around 500 B.C. As I recall, he based his idea on the fact that he showed the Moon must be round by observing the shape of the terminator (the line between the part of the Moon in light and the part of the Moon in the dark) as it moved through its orbital cycle. Pythagoras reasoned that if the Moon was round, then the Earth must be round as well. After that, sometime between 500 B.C. and 430 B.C., a fellow called Anaxagoras determined the true cause of solar and lunar eclipses – and then the shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse was also used as evidence that the Earth was round.
Around 350 BC, the great Aristotle declared that the Earth was a sphere (based on observations he made about which constellations you could see in the sky as you travelled further and further away from the equator) and during the next hundred years or so, Aristarchus and Eratosthenes actually measured the size of the Earth!
Myth 2: Columbus was looking for Asia to engage in trade or conquest.
Some unfamiliar with Columbus’ intentions of gently converting millions to Christianity have severely misunderstood his selection of a Jewish interpreter for his first voyage. Voyagers carefully selected interpreters to attend each journey based on where they planned to sail. If his expedition was intended to lead to the Asian island of Cipango (Japan), Columbus’ should have selected an interpreter who could speak something close to their language. Instead, Columbus chose a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity.
Columbus’s second task was to select an interpreter. His selection was most interesting. He said he had “seen [in vision] the people he would find.” Also, he had quoted several times that he would find the “other sheep” that Jesus had talked about as recorded in the Book of John. Apparently he felt their language would be similar to those of ancient Israel, so he selected a former Jewish Rabbi, who had been converted to Christianity, by the name of Louis de Torres, for the duties of interpreter. Every step of the way, from his preparations to his return, Christopher Columbus would claim Divine guidance.
Christopher, meaning “Christ-bearer,” believed his mission was to find the lost 10 tribes (who he believed were these “other sheep” spoken of in John 10:16) and convert them to Christianity through peaceful relations. He believed the people who he would find would be of Hebrew decent, since they were supposedly the lost 10 tribes, and so he brought this Jewish interpreter along for the voyage.
Even though the extent of Columbus’s inspiration in his youth is not fully known, we do know that very early in his adult years he was already fixed in his beliefs that he had a special mission pertaining to a new land and the peoples that would be found there. Columbus quoted Seneca, saying: “The years will come…when the Ocean will loose the bonds by which we have been confined, when an immense land shall lie revealed” (Pauline Moffitt Watts, “Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Enterprise of the Indies’” American Historical Review, 1985, p. 94). He believed himself chosen by God to find that land and deliver the light of Christianity to the natives there. A map, contemporaneous with his voyages, depicts him bearing the Christ child on his shoulders across the waters, thus the name Chrisloferens which means “Christ-bearer.”
Columbus also sincerely believed that he was to help usher in the age of “one fold, and one shepherd,” citing John 10: 16, and spoke of finding “the new heaven and new earth” (Kay Brigham. Christopher Columbus: His Life and Discovery in the Light of His Prophecies. Barcelona: CLlE, 1990, p. 50).
Myth 3: Columbus was motivated by greed and fame.
Accusations against Chistopher point to his desire for gold and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea as evidence of his greed and reckless ambition. An understanding of his character disarms these accusations and allows light to shine on his true intentions.
A description of him in his adult years also gives understanding about his youth. By 1501, Columbus was described as “a tall man and well built, ruddy, of a great creative talent, and with a long face.’ His son Ferdinand added: ‘He had an aquiline nose and his eyes were light in color: his complexion too was light, but kindling to a vivid red. In youth his hair was blond but when he came to his thirtieth year it all turned white.’ He was simple in dress, and moderate in eating and drinking. His manners were pleasant but dignified” (New World Book Encyclopedia, Op. Cit.). Ferdinand also wrote that his father, “was so great an enemy to cursing and swearing” that he “never heard him utter any other oath than by St. Ferdinand!’” (Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus. Translation: Benjamin Keen; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1959, p. 9).
It’s difficult to reconcile the humility, pleasant manners, and modesty of speech Columbus is credited with and the unjust force and mass genocide he is accused of committing. Distinguishing the acts of the Spaniards with those of Columbus and observing incidents in contexts provide us a clearer understanding of the environment in the early Spanish colonies (Unfortunately, this essay must remain brief. Click here for an in-depth training on the life of Christopher Columbus).
It has already been mentioned that Columbus’ true intent was to spread Christianity around the world. But what about the gold? Columbus wanted to obtain gold sufficient to raise an army to restore the city of Jerusalem to the Jews and to assist them in rebuilding their temple. Modern historian Carol Delaney reports:
Everybody knows that Columbus was trying to find gold, but they don’t know what the gold was for: to fund a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world. A lot of people at the time thought that the apocalypse was coming because of all the signs: the plague, famine, earthquakes, and so forth. And it was believed that before the end, Jerusalem had to be back in Christian hands so that Christ could return in judgment.
Was Christopher overly ambitious by requesting to be named Admiral of the Ocean Sea? With the title of Admiral, Columbus could govern all lands he discovered and helped settle. This was necessary for him to punish crimes and maintain order and peaceful relations with the natives.
Myth 4: Columbus was immoral and encouraged rape and torture.
During the days of Columbus, it was standard practice to recruit sailors from prisons in exchange for amnesty. This practice guaranteed that the sailors were essentially ‘scum-of-the-earth’ types. Perhaps this is where “sailors mouth” comes from?
Columbus’ case was different. Normally he would have to select men from the prisons of Spain. As it turned out, only four of Columbus’s crew would sail under the promise of amnesty by the king: A man who had killed someone during a quarrel, and his three friends who rescued him from jail before he could be hanged. The friends were also sentenced to death, so all four agreed to sail with Columbus under the king’s amnesty. (Ibid., p. 142)
Columbus felt he would need to have God-fearing men if he was to accomplish his task of being a “Christ-bearer.” The goodness of the men he eventually hired is borne out by the fact that before they had returned home, every one of the men on the returning ships had declared their commitment to complete a pilgrimage and recommit themselves to the Savior.
Columbus was very concerned as to how the natives should be treated, and admonished his men to always be Christ-like. “I charged them to consider the great blessings that God had bestowed upon me and upon them up until now, and the benefits He has offered them, for which they must always give Him endless thanks, and dedicate themselves to His goodness and mercy, taking care not to offend Him, and placing all their hope in Him.” (Fuson, Op. Cit, p. 162) Columbus felt that if his men had this attitude towards God, they would be Christ-like towards the gentle people he found in the New World, and would treat them properly.
Myth 5: Christopher was on a violent religious crusade.
It is true that Columbus was deeply religious. Of his early life, Morison says: “Christopher had little schooling. The Genoese dialect that he spoke was almost a different language form Italian. When he went abroad and had to speak Spanish, he learned to read and write it. He also taught himself Latin because geography books were written in Latin. No record is left about what sort of boy he was. But judging from his later life, he was dreamy and sensitive. He said his prayers several times daily and attended Mass whenever possible” (New World Book encyclopedia, 1979, Vol. 4, pp. 690-696, Samuel Eliot Morison).
The fact that little else is known of his early years is indeed fascinating, but we do know that Columbus claimed that in his youth he “had a special spiritual experience” where he was permitted to hear “the voice of the Lord” as well as some of the “Old Testament prophets.” Columbus also believed that the “Holy Spirit had spoken to him, saying that his name would be proclaimed throughout the world” (Delno C. West and August King. The Book of Prophecies of Christopher Columbus, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991, pp. 53-54).
After discovering American land on the first voyage, Columbus and his crew praised God.Impatient and anxious to explore their new discovery, the crew waited through the night, and sailed excitedly towards the shore at daybreak. Upon reaching dry ground, the landing party knelt, kissed the sand with tears of joy, and offered prayers of thanks to God. “O, Lord God, eternal and omnipotent,” exclaimed Columbus heavenward, “by thy sacred word, the heaven, the earth, and the sea, thou hast created. Blessed and glorified be thy name, praise be thy majesty, which has been made worthy through thy humble servant, that thy sacred name be recognized and proclaimed in this other part of the world.” Rising from his knees, the new Admiral named the island San Salvador (Holy Savior), thus beginning a personal tradition of giving names of religious significance to many newly discovered lands (Ferdinand Columbus, Op. Cit., p. 59).
In reviewing his attitude toward religion, we are indebted to Las Casas ….and others for a brief description of Columbus’s religious habits. “In matters of the Christian religion, without doubt he was a Catholic and of great devotion …. He observed the fasts of the Church most faithfully, confessed and made communion often, read the canonical offices like a churchman or member of a religious order, hated blasphemy and profane swearing.” (Morison, Op. Cit., p. 63) The priest further pointed to Columbus’ belief in divine blessings: “he hourly admitted that God had conferred upon him great mercies, as upon David. When gold or precious things were brought to him, he entered his cabin, knelt down, summoned the bystanders, and said, ‘Let us give thanks to Our Lord’” (West and Kling, Op. Cit., p. 107)..
It is clear that Christopher has deep religious roots and motivations, but he was not on a crusade. He was on a mission and believed the natives must be treated with care else they reject Christianity when it is preached to them. For example, Columbus found the Cuban natives without any form of worship, and they were so hospitable and friendly that he said they should become converts to Christianity very easily, if treated kindly. He confided, “I recognized that they were people who would be better freed [from error] and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force.” (Ibid, p. 65) Therefore he said no immigrants should be allowed to come to these islands, but those who were “good Christians.” (Morison, Op. Cit.” p. 279)
Through an Indian interpreter, the village was informed “of the way the Christians lived and that they were good people.” Later, the women of the village came toward the two explorers, “kissing their hands and feet and feeling them, attempting to see if they were, like themselves, of flesh and bone” (Ibid). When it came time for the two Spaniards to leave, hundreds of the natives wanted to go with them. Columbus wrote that, “more than 500 men and women would have come with them, because they thought that the Spaniards would return to the heavens” (Ibid).
This “project,” Columbus proclaimed, was to spread Christianity! In a letter to Amerigo Vespucci (the explorer for whom America is named) he wrote: “I feel persuaded by the many and wonderful manifestations of Divine Providence in my especial favor, that I am the chosen instrument of God in bringing to pass a great event-no less than the conversion of millions who are now existing in the darkness of Paganism” (c. Edwards Lester, The Lift and Voyages of Americus Vespucius, New York, New Amsterdam Book Company, 1903, p. 79).
This has been a very brief review of the accusations and truths about the life of Christopher Columbus. For more information, click here.