Columbus the Hero: Understanding the Man and His Mission
The eyes of Christopher Columbus were on the horizon. Standing aboard his flagship, the Santa Maria, Columbus stared out into the dark of night, setting his sights on a faint light flickering like a candle on the horizon. Was it land at last? The Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea certainly hoped so. For 10 weeks, Columbus and his 90 sailors had been at sea, navigating the uncharted waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It had not been an easy journey. In fact, the dangerous, anxiety-filled voyage had left Columbus’s men on the verge of mutiny. With his unflagging belief in his mission, however, the Admiral had convinced his men to persevere. Now, on the night of October 11, 1492, Columbus called one of his sailors over and asked if he could also see the light. The man confirmed that he could. After midnight, a cry rang out from another ship that had sailed ahead. “Tierra, tierra,” shouted a lookout from aboard the Pinta. Following years of trials and tribulations, the quest that had driven Columbus to this point was about to hit a massive milestone. Unbeknown to the Admiral, though, his herculean efforts had not taken him where he intended to go. As it turned out, Columbus and his crew were on the edge of a New World.
Who was Christopher Columbus and what brought him to this New World? To properly understand the man and his mission, one must first understand his times.
Born in 1451 in the seaport city of Genoa, Italy, Cristoforo Colombo lived in a time when many 15th century Christians viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens. In other words, Columbus and other Christians believed that the end of the world was nigh. It is easy to see why. As Stanford professor emerita Carol Delaney puts it, “Turbulent events experienced over several centuries-wars, famines, pestilences, schisms in the church, earthquakes … were seen as signs that the end time was fast approaching." Chief among these catastrophic events were the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, the Great Pestilence that struck Europe between 1347 and 1348, which killed between 25 and 50 million people, and the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453.
As a devout Catholic, faith was the central pillar of Columbus’s life. If the end time was at hand, he understood that Jerusalem was the key to everything. It was the place where Jesus Christ had laid down his life on the cross in the year 33 AD, and as Delaney adds, “where he would return to usher in the Last Days as portrayed in the book of Revelation or Apocalypse, the last book of the Christian Bible.” With the end approaching, there was much work to be done to pave the way for Christ’s return. These included that “all peoples had to be evangelized and hopefully converted so they could be saved from eternal damnation; Jerusalem had to be in Christian hands in order that the Temple could be rebuilt, for that was to be Christ’s throne as he sat in judgment.” (Destroyed by the Roman legions of Titus in the year 70, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was the most sacred house of worship for Jews. Jesus himself prayed there and considered the Temple “the dwelling of his Father,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
In the grand Christian drama that seemed destined to play out, Columbus felt he had a special part to play. He was a man on a mission, and that mission was the quest to return Jerusalem into Christian hands. For Columbus, the road to the liberation of Jerusalem started in the Orient.
Christopher Columbus, the Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Although we have descriptions of how Columbus appeared from his contemporaries, no known portraits of him were painted during his lifetime. (Photo Credit: The Mariners' Museum and Park)
Despite being born to no rank and receiving no education, Columbus, as author and commentator Michael Knowles notes, committed himself to “extensive self-instruction into which he would channel his sizable genius.” Across his studies, Columbus became familiar with the adventures of the great Italian explorer before him, Marco Polo. Among his chronicles, Polo described his travels to Asia in the 13th century, where he spent time in the service of Kublai Khan, the Grand Khan of the Mongol Empire. According to Polo, the Grand Khan’s realm was filled with gold, precious gems, spices, exotic animals, and more. In one example of this wealth, he wrote that the island of Cipango, what we know today as Japan, had “gold in the greatest abundance, its sources being inexhaustible." In addition to the great riches in these lands, Polo also noted that the Grand Khan had been eager to learn of the Christian faith. He even lamented that “if the pope had sent out persons duly qualified to preach the gospel, the Great Khan would have embraced Christianity, for which it is certainly known, he had a strong predilection.”
For his mission to become fully realized, Columbus believed he had to find the ruling Grand Khan of his own time. Once in the realm of the current Grand Khan, Columbus intended to make allies with him and his people. By initiating trade with these newfound friends, enough gold could be collected to finance and launch a new crusade to retake Jerusalem.
Columbus knew where he wanted to go, but getting there was no simple task. In Columbus’s time, direct travel to reach Asia from Europe by land was improbable due to the length of the trek and additional dangers along the way. Although other explorers had found that sailing east and rounding Africa was the best way to reach the Orient, Columbus was firmly convinced there was a better way. Based on his own extensive experiences as a sailor and his ensuing periods of study and reflection, “Columbus was convinced that the Asian landmass was so vast that the ocean between Europe and Asia was quite narrow,” according to Delaney. He thus believed that by sailing west across the uncharted Atlantic, he would have a faster and more direct route to reach his destination.
Columbus had his plan, but in order to carry it out, he needed powerful support. Finding that support was not easy. As historians Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen write, “Indeed, almost everyone refused to fund Columbus-he made seven presentations to various committees, monarchs, or other parties before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella underwrote his journey.” Even getting that backing from Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain, had been a tremendous test of perseverance for Columbus. He spent eight years lobbying the Spanish sovereigns to fund the voyage. After all that time, the Spanish royals ultimately said no. At the last minute, however, Queen Isabella changed her mind after a confidant urged her to reconsider. Columbus was called back and an agreement for the voyage was reached, culminating in the Capitulations of Santa Fe on April 17, 1492. Within three years’ time, Columbus vowed to Ferdinand and Isabella that he would discover enough riches to fund a new crusade to “conquer the Holy Sepulcher [the church in Jerusalem built on the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ]; for thus, I urged Your Highness to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.”
Columbus at the Spanish Court by Václav Brožík (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
To launch this great adventure, Columbus would be at the head of 90 sailors and a fleet of three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He was well experienced to lead this group. Columbus had been at sea since his youth and developed into a formidable sailor. Among his travels were voyages to the Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Arctic Ocean, and Africa. In the words of Schweikart and Allen, he “embodied the best of the new generation of navigators: resilient, courageous, and confident.” All of those skills would be on full display and surely needed for the journey to come.
As historian Wilfred M. McClay puts it, Columbus's voyage to sail across the ocean and reach the Orient “would be a giant leap into the unknown.” He adds that “a spirit of almost unimaginable daring was required to face the perils of a transatlantic voyage in his time, since it meant placing oneself at the mercy of harsh elements that could crush and drown one’s fragile enterprise at any moment.” The wider world still held many mysteries and there was no guarantee that Columbus and his sailors would ever return home. Most people of the time doubted that the Western Ocean could even be crossed. Despite all the uncertainties and the potential dangers that lay ahead, nothing could deter Columbus. He felt like he was in a race against time before the end of the world. With his fervent faith fueling him, he would go forward and face every hazard head-on.
Columbus and the fleet departed the harbor of Palos de la Frontera in Spain on the morning of August 3, 1492. Across the ensuing journey into the unknown, Knowles writes, “With virtually no navigation tools at his disposal, Columbus relied on dead reckoning to navigate the uncharted Atlantic. He laid down compass courses and estimated distances on a chart.” In 1939, historian Samuel Eliot Morison and a Harvard team tried to trace the route of Columbus’s first voyage using the technology available to him. Morison also went on to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Columbus and proclaimed, “No such dead-reckoning navigators exist today; no man alive, limited to the instruments and means at Columbus’s disposal, could obtain anything near the accuracy of his results.”
Despite Columbus’s sharp navigating, sailing into the unknown still took a toll on the Admiral and his men. After they had gone a month at sea without spotting land, the nerves of Columbus’s sailors were stretched to the breaking point. With his men bordering on mutiny, Columbus exhorted them not to give up. If there was no sight of land within three days, he told his sailors they would turn around and sail back for Spain.
Columbus’s power of perseverance paid off. After midnight on October 12, a sailor aboard the Pinta named Rodrigo de Triana called out, “Tierra, tierra.” Following several false sightings of land over the previous days, this one finally proved to be true. At dawn, Columbus and his men left their cramped ships and set their feet on the sands of Watling Island in the Bahamas. Once on the beach, they dropped down to their knees and kissed the ground, lifting up their hearts to God for seeing them through their journey.
Columbus arriving in the New World on October 12, 1492. (Photo Credit: Angelus News)
As Columbus and his crew gathered ashore, they were greeted by the native Taíno people. Delaney describes the scene as, “A momentous encounter between two peoples neither known to nor imagined by the other….” With the naked natives gathered around him, Columbus named the island “San Salvador,” which means “Holy Savior.” Believing that he was now in "the Indies,” as the Far East was called, Columbus called the people he encountered “Indians.” He described the natives as “very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces,” stressing his hope to convert them “to our Holy Faith by love rather than by force,” and accomplishing this by offering them gifts, “in which they took so much pleasure and became so much our friends that it was a marvel.”
Columbus spent around five months exploring what he thought was the Far East, sailing to the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispanola, which encompasses modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Among his adventures during that time, Columbus befriended a native chief named Guacanagarí. As Robert H. Fuson, a translator of Columbus’s diary, described their relationship, “His affection for the young chief in Haiti [Guacanagarí], and vice versa, is one of the most touching stories of love, trust, and understanding between men of different races and cultures to come out of this period in history.”
Bad luck struck on Christmas Day 1492. The Santa Maria had hit a rock and was wrecked. Columbus thus prepared to sail home with only two of the original ships he had set out with. Approximately 39 of his men were left behind to build a settlement on the island of Hispaniola. Making the return journey with Columbus were six Indians, one of who became his “godson,” Don Diego Colon, a name he shared with Columbus’s younger brother and eldest son. According to Columbus, even more natives than the six he took wanted to join him for the voyage back to Spain.
On March 15, 1493, Columbus returned to Spain. As word of his exploits quickly spread, his discovery was recognized as “the greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it.” Over the next 11 years, he would embark on three more round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas, exploring more of the Caribbean islands, the South American mainland, and Panama, reaching within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean. Throughout all these adventures, Columbus's desire to find the Grand Khan and fulfill his mission to liberate Jerusalem never wavered. He always believed that the lands he visited during these voyages were part of Asia. McClay takes note of this irony, writing, “He had made one of the most important discoveries in human history, and yet he didn’t quite realize it.”
While Columbus might not have fully realized what he had found, history took notice. Embodying true grit, courage, and determination, Columbus had undertaken the most ambitious voyage ever attempted when he set sail in 1492. Guided by his unwavering faith, he did what few thought was possible, crossing a vast uncharted ocean and ultimately connecting two worlds that had previously been unknown to each other. His efforts established enduring contact between the peoples of the European and American continents, unleashing a series of trade, cultural exchange, and paving the way for further discoveries that opened up and changed the world forever. In short, his discovery was the spark that ignited the modern age.
Christopher Columbus by Carl Theodor von Piloty. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For his indispensable contributions to the development of the world, Columbus has long been celebrated as one of the greatest heroes of history. Today, however, modern attacks against the Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea aim to paint him as one of history’s greatest villains. These attacks have clouded his legacy so much that the general public of our day has a portrait of the man that is contrary to who he really was, what his motivations were, and how he conducted himself.
The most serious of the charges leveled against Columbus are that he engaged in cruel, genocidal behavior in a quest to enslave and plunder gold from the native peoples he encountered in the New World. In addition to what has already been written, it is important to emphasize again and further explain why these charges are completely inconsistent with the historical record.
Columbus did not set sail in 1492 with the hope of conquering new lands and stuffing his pockets with gold. He sought the realm of the Grand Khan in Asia, where he hoped to convert new allies to Christ and establish a trade that would finance a new crusade to liberate Jerusalem before the end of the world.
Although Columbus thought he had reached Asia, when he set foot in the New World on October 12, 1492, he stayed true to his faith and mission. He expressed his desire to convert the natives he encountered “to our Holy Faith by love rather than by force,” and demonstrated his goodwill even more clearly by fostering a friendship grounded on mutual respect with the chief Guacanagarí. Columbus also repeatedly ordered that his men treat the natives honorably. His words and actions showed who he really was at heart. In fact, Columbus thought so highly of the native people when he met them that he viewed them as natural Christians. As he wrote, “I believe that in the world there are no better people or a better land. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest speech in the world; and [they are] gentle and are always laughing.”
Despite Columbus’s repeated orders for his men to treat the native peoples well, sadly, they did not always listen. For example, after setting out from Spain on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, the Admiral returned to Hispaniola and found every man he had left behind killed and their settlement destroyed. Instead of thirsting for revenge against the natives, as many among his party wanted, Columbus waited to gather the facts. He already had his suspicions about what had happened, and his gut proved to be correct. After consultation with Guacanagarí and other investigations, Columbus learned that the three men left in charge had not been able to prevent the others from robbing and brutalizing the natives. It was because of this barbaric behavior that Columbus’s men had lost their lives. Columbus wrote that the affair brought him “great pain,” and although it had happened through his men’s “own fault,” it still made him “sad” and he considered it “a punishment greater than any experienced by their relatives….” If only his men had “governed themselves according to my instructions as they pledged to do.” If Columbus was what his critics charge him to be, this situation would have ended in bloody retaliation. However, since the Admiral was a man of honor, he exercised wise judgment, not rushing to exact mass vengeance against the natives, but instead gathering the facts and admitting his dismay when he learned the full story.
Columbus was a sailor at heart, but the nature of his discovery also made him an administrator over this new domain in his role as Governor of the West Indies. As Michael Knowles writes, “Columbus had to pioneer not merely a geographic expedition but also a first-ever matter of international diplomacy and domestic politics.” With greedy, un-honorable men all around him, these duties made life a nightmare for Columbus. He made his share of mistakes in this position. Perhaps the greatest instance of this is when Columbus granted concessions to the rebellious Francisco Roldán, allowing him to exploit the natives for labor in order to end a bloody revolt. Even though Columbus reluctantly made that decision under desperation in order to restore peace, he still demonstrated his commitment to treating the natives justly and fairly. As a punishment for participating in the revolt and abusing the natives, he sent two Spaniards to the gallows. As Delaney comments, “Columbus intended their deaths to serve as an example not only to the rest of the colonists, but also to show the Indians that the rule of law also applied to his own men.”
Because of the revolt and the turmoil it brought, Columbus requested that Queen Isabella send someone to investigate the situation in Hispanola. Her choice was Knight Commander Francisco de Bobadilla, who according to one source, “already had a reputation for being harsh and had been sued for malfeasance by citizens of the towns” he commanded. Bobadilla lived up to that reputation when he reached the New World. He was enraged when he found two Spaniards hanging from the gallows. These were the same men Columbus had punished for participating in the rebellion and their brutality against the natives. Without explaining himself or taking the time to learn Columbus’s side of the story, Bobadilla had him arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. The Spanish sovereigns eventually acquitted Columbus of all charges, but Bobadilla’s slanderous words about him continue to haunt the Admiral’s legacy to this day.