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.