The Catholic Thing
Columbus and the Pizza Theory Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 14 October 2013

I searched out and studied all kinds of texts: geographies, histories, chronologies, philosophies, and other subjects. With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and He opened my will to desire to accomplish this project. . . . For the execution of the journey to the Indies, I was not aided by intelligence, by mathematics, or by maps. It was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied. – Columbus, The Book of Prophecies

It took me a while to discover the man whose exploits we, in theory, celebrate today. I say “in theory” because our holidays seem less and less a connection to our national history and more and more an excuse for three-day weekends.

Anyone of a certain age will remember being told that Columbus “proved the world was round,” i.e., a ball, rather than flat, which some historians jokingly call the Pizza Theory. Anyone familiar with ancient and medieval science – read Dante, if you’re in doubt – knows that informed people already understood that. Aristarchus, who lived 250 years before Christ, had even calculated a good estimate of the Earth’s circumference. The Flat-Earth story was concocted in modern times to discredit the allegedly ignorant and superstitious monks and theologians of the middle ages.

Columbus actually did something far more interesting: he set us on the path to a truly global world. And he did it for reasons that, despite advances in historical knowledge, almost no one knows.

I myself only came to know about them by chance. In 1991, First Things asked me to review The Conquest of Paradise, a book published in the run-up to the 1992 Quincentennary of Columbus’s first voyage. The title tells the whole story: “conquest,” bad; “paradise,” New World and its Eden-like inhabitants, good. The point: European Christians arriving on these shores = disaster.

I knew little about the American side of the Age of Discovery. “Discovery” had become a politically incorrect term. We had to speak about “the Encounter” – and, for some reason, in Spanish (el Encuentro), the language of the oppressor. But I did know the European history, which the hyperventilating critics had wrong. The review appeared, people told me I had to develop it into a book. And so my 1492 and All That came to be – the first and the only of my books to be reviewed, and favorably, in The New York Review of Books.

Professional historians knew this material far better than I did, but wouldn’t speak of it on campuses. I lectured at dozens of them. Often, someone would pull me aside and whisper, “I’m glad you said that: it’s impossible for us to do it.” You had to sympathize. Why ruin your academic career for a guy dead 500 years?

Who was Columbus? Ethnicity, a little uncertain, most likely Italian. A sailor who combined astute observation of weather and sailing conditions with the reading of books, lots of them: Ptolemy, Pliny, Augustine, Isidore of Seville, Aquinas, Pius II, Pierre d’Ailly, and many others. And a soul committed to the apocalyptic wing of the Franciscans, which had arisen under the inspiration of Joachim of Fiore, who proclaimed the advent of a Third Age, the Age of the Holy Spirit. 

As a consequence, Columbus believed that the Church urgently needed to travel to and evangelize all nations so that Christ could return in triumph. You’ve probably heard him dismissed as serving “God, Gold, and Glory.” But the three G’s were not all on the same level.

He needed money, for his journeys, and he knew that he would be forgotten and need means to live in his later years. Of course, he didn’t mind receiving recognition for what he’d done – though he was not as successful a self-promoter as Amerigo Vespucci, who managed to get his name on two continents.

But God and the Christian vision were the force behind everything else. And after it all ended, he died poor back in Spain, probably as a secular Franciscan.

What of his actions in the New World? Was he the monster colonialist of recent multicultural coinage? All that is wildly overblown out of ideological motives. He could have done better in a couple instances. His problem was that he was more a visionary explorer than a firm leader. He lost control of circumstances at times, but acted pretty well towards native peoples otherwise, especially given the unprecedented nature of this “encounter.”

           Columbus Landing at Guanahani by John Vanderlyn, 1847

In fact, at first, he fell prey to the “noble savage” myth. He told Ferdinand and Isabella that the New World peoples were of the most wonderful disposition and without religion. After the later voyages, however, he was saying: “At home they judge me as a governor sent to Sicily or to a city or two under settled government and where the laws can be fully maintained, without fear of all being lost. . . . I ought to be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people, warlike and numerous, and with customs and beliefs very different from ours.”

Those “customs and beliefs” ranged from relatively harmless polytheism to cruel human sacrifice. Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit missionaries followed and wrote riveting reports on the varied and fascinating indigenous peoples, learned native languages and, in the process, developed ethnology, anthropology, and trans-cultural studies, disciplines we pride ourselves on today.

I used to ask college audiences: if you blame Columbus for everything that’s gone bad in the Americas since 1492, are you going to bless him for what’s been good? I got few takers.

Between the good and bad in his character, one extraordinary fact remains. In his enthusiasm to bring the Gospel to all nations and usher in God’s Kingdom, Columbus gave us a global world, our world, in which all parts of humanity were finally in contact with one another.

We would understand him – and ourselves – better if we learned more about how all that happened and, who knows, even felt some gratitude for the vision and courage it took.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, October 14, 2013
Mr Royal,
I love it!
written by Jack,CT, October 14, 2013
Mr Royal,
Great piece as always
thanks and God Bless!
written by Peggy, October 14, 2013
Charles C. Mann wrote "1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created", a hefty book that addresses the globalization resulting from Columbus' discovery (uhh, encounter). John Batchelor did a fine interview with the authors some months ago. Quite an interesting subject.
written by Adeodatus, October 14, 2013
There's much more to this story that I wish Royal could address. Many historians cite Columbus's atrocities during his time as governor as evidence of his unfriendly intentions. Perhaps I'm consulting the wrong histories, which modern historians have altered to discredit Columbus as a tyrant. I know many have done this in their narratives of the Crusades. If so, someone please speak up and let me know. As far as I can tell, Columbus achieved something amazing with his discoveries, but he effectively tarnished that accomplishment with the cruelties he exercised as a leader.
written by Robert Royal, October 14, 2013
Adeodatus, I'd suggest reading Samuel Eliot Morrison and some of the other older historians who wrote before the anti-Western ideology kicked in. For reasons I mentioned in this column, more recent historians are often hemmed in by campus ideology, though J. H. Elliott is always very good. I've written myself on the specific acts, which are not many, where Columbus is said to have transgressed. Given the different world he operated in, he cannot simply be conflated with, say, Cortez, much less a bad hat like Pizarro. I wrote an article called "Columbus and the Beginning of the World," which you can find online, I quote Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican missionary and still much praised "Defender of the Indians," who notes,

" the 'sweetness and benignity' of the admiral’s character and, even while condemning what actually occurred, remarks, 'Truly I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions, for I knew him well and I know his intentions were good.' Las Casas attributes Columbus’ shortcomings not to malign intent but to ignorance concerning how to handle an unprecedented situation."

That, by a good and holy man who cared about the native peoples and actually knew both conditions in the New World and the Admiral, is a good standard by which to measure modern historians, both those who deny the real errors and those who want to use Columbus to make ideological points.
written by Seanachie, October 14, 2013
Informative piece, Robert. Let de las Casas' first-party view of Columbus be his eternal epitaph not the jaded interpretations of reinventionist historians.
written by Dave, October 14, 2013
"Columbus Day" is actually the Feast of Our Lady of the Pillar -- who appeared to St. James at Saragossa in order to encourage him to persist in his evangelization of the Spaniards. What is really at the heart of "Columbus Day" is the bringing of the Catholic Faith to the New World: that is what makes the landfall at Hispaniola different than the landfalls by the Vikings far to the North many centuries earlier, or than the Chinese encounters with Meso-Americans. "Columbus Day" becomes, in my view, an attempt to desacralize the feast and turn it into an ethnic celebration (for Italo-Americans in North America and for Spaniards, who celebrate as "The Day of the Race." Just as Our Lady appeared to St. James, she also appeared to Bl. Juan Diego as Our Lady of Guadalupe, the results of which were the massive conversions of Meso-americans to the Catholic Faith. She is the one who is really at the heart of the day -- as she is at the heart of the month of October. Just some musings...
written by Bedarz Iliaci, October 14, 2013
"Columbus believed that the Church urgently needed to travel to and evangelize all nations so that Christ could return in triumph."
I would welcome more details to support this point.
Were the voyages of Vasco de Gama in the same spirit?

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