Over Columbus' Legacy
In light of my post below on Columbus Day, I thought this might be an interesting look at how some religious groups still hold strong to the notion that Christopher Columbus (a murdering, control freak, religious fanatic) was an inspired man of God.
If we look at the historiography of Columbus and his journey, we can see that it is only in recent years that his story has been judged with a more critical eye. In 1892 (the 400th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" the historical record is saturated with glowing praise for the man and his God-given mission to the New World. In addition, Columbus essentially became an "adopted" American citizen, whose voyage became synonymous with American patriotism.
In the past 20 years, however, the study of Columbus and his voyage has taken a turn towards skepticism and critical analysis. As a result, the man and his mission have been examined through the dark lens of mass murder, religious fanaticism and navigational ineptitude, as opposed to some mission of divine intervention.
Yet despite this new trend there are still those who hold to the "traditional" interpretation of Columbus. Usually these supporters are religious conservatives who, despite the record of murder, rape and violence, still credit Columbus with having performed God's holy errand. In 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery) Dr. De Lamar Jensen of Brigham Young University wrote the following article in the October issue of the Ensign a monthly Mormon magazine that is produced for the general membership of the church. In the article, Jensen passionately defends both Columbus and his divine mission to discover the New World:
This has not been a good season for Christopher Columbus. The 500th anniversary of his discovery of America has been marked by more condemnation than commendation, especially in the popular press. There is ample reason, however, to recognize Columbus’s courage, persistence, and unshakable convictions.Yes, a unique interpretation of Columbus' voyage and mission to say the least, yet did you also notice the author's omission of the murderous atrocities committed by Columbus in the New World? How about mentioning the REASONS why Columbus was put in chains? And what about the fact that the Spanish Crown eventually condemned Columbus' acts of violence towards those Indians he was trying to convert?
Most people living one hundred years ago and celebrating the quadricentenary of Columbus’s first voyage honored Columbus as a hero who almost singlehandedly battered down the walls of medieval ignorance. This heroic image was perpetuated partly due to his accomplishments and partly due to the myth-making of several nineteenth-century authors.
This view extended far and wide. For many, Columbus had become a world hero, slaying the dragons of dogmatism, superstition, and prejudice while carrying the banner of nineteenth-century nationalism. Writers in many countries have tried to claim Columbus as their own native son. In the past one hundred years he has been presented as Armenian, Castilian, Catalan, Corsican, English, French, German, Greek, Majorcan, Norwegian, Portuguese, even Russian. At one time, there seemed no limit to the fantasies of Columbian mythology.
Many of these myths have been debunked over the years, including the notion that Columbus was the only person of his day to believe the earth was round and that Queen Isabel pawned her jewels to finance the first voyage. These and other legends die slowly. Many still resist any attempt to show Columbus as a human being, with vices as well as virtues.
Some of the debunkers, however, have become overenthusiastic, even slanderous, in their attempts to demythologize Columbus. Their approach often serves to bolster a political cause rather than promote a search for truth. Such activity is counterproductive, not because it tears down the heroic myth, but because it merely sets another myth in its place—the equally false myth of Columbus as a villain.
What, then, do we know of the real Columbus? What were his motives in pursuing his world-changing enterprise? Perhaps the greatest motivating feature of his life was his faith. His writings and the records kept by his contemporaries indicate that Columbus had unshakable faith that he was an instrument in God’s hands.
And, indeed, the Book of Mormon affirms that he was. In vision, Nephi “looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it … wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1 Ne. 13:12.)
Columbus’s understanding of that design may well have been limited, but his conviction of being a part of it gave him a self-assurance, even stubbornness, that both amazed and exasperated his contemporaries.
Columbus had little formal education, but he became highly competent in languages, cosmography, and nautical science, attributing all his skills to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “For the execution of the enterprise of the Indies, I made use of neither reason nor mathematics, nor world maps,” he wrote.
Perhaps nothing irked his contemporaries more than Columbus’s frank assertion that he was divinely chosen. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah,” Columbus wrote to a friend and confidant of the queen, “and he showed me where to find it.”
Columbus was convinced that the key to his enterprise was the spiritual gifts given him by the Lord: “He bestowed the arts of seamanship upon me in abundance, and has given me what was necessary from [astronomy], geometry, and arithmetic; and has given me adequate inventiveness in my soul.” Columbus was certain that God provided these gifts to be used in His service, “encouraging me to go forward, and without ceasing they inflame me with a sense of great urgency.”
We have no way of knowing how or when “the Spirit of God … wrought upon the man.” Perhaps it came in his youth in Genoa, or during his early voyages in the Mediterranean. Maybe his enthusiasm developed after he came to the busy port of Lisbon as a young man of twenty-five and met his future wife, the noble Portuguese lady Dona Felipa Perestrelo. Perhaps inspiration came while he and his bride lived in the Madeira Islands, some four hundred miles out in the Atlantic. Or it might even have been while on trading expeditions, north as far as Iceland and south along the Guinea coast of Africa. We only know that by the time he presented his project to the king of Portugal in 1484 he was obsessed with the idea of finding a western route across the Atlantic to the Indies.
After surviving a violent Atlantic storm on the return voyage, Columbus reached Palos only hours before Pinzón’s arrival. Pinzón died within a few days, leaving Columbus to receive sole praise for the discovery. Columbus himself deflected much of that praise to God. In a letter to the monarchs he wrote: “The eternal God our Lord gives to all those who walk in his path victory over things that seem impossible. And this is notably one; for, although men have talked or written of these lands, all has been conjecture. … All Christendom ought to feel delight and make great feasts and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the great exaltation they shall have in the turning of so many people to our holy faith.”
Nevertheless, disappointment accompanied Columbus’s ensuing voyages. On the second he found that the men he had left at La Navidad had been slain by the natives, and his explorations failed to produce much wealth. On the third voyage, he was unable to control the open rebellion that had broken out in the new colony he had founded on his second voyage. In October 1500, Columbus was arrested and deported to Spain in chains.
The humiliation was overwhelming. In a letter to a friend, Columbus wrote, “The only thing that sustains me is my hope in him who created everyone; his support has always been near. On one occasion not long ago, when I was deeply distressed, he raised me with his right arm, saying: ‘O man of little faith, arise, it is I, do not be afraid.’ ”
Later, during his fourth voyage, Columbus received another divine assurance during an extremely perilous moment when he was about to abandon all hope. “Exhausted, I fell asleep, groaning,” he reported to the sovereigns. “I heard a very compassionate voice, saying: ‘O fool and slow to believe and to serve thy God, the God of all! … Thou criest for help, doubting. Answer, who has afflicted thee so greatly and so often, God or the world? … Not one jot of His word fails; all that He promises, He performs with interest; is this the manner of men? I have said that which thy Creator has done for thee and does for all men. Now in part He shows thee the reward for the anguish and danger which thou hast endured in the service of others.’ I heard all of this as if I were in a trance, but I had no answer to give to words so true, but could only weep for my errors. He, whoever he was, who spoke to me, ended saying: ‘Fear not; have trust; all these tribulations are written upon marble and are not without cause.’ ”
Between the third and fourth voyages, Columbus busied himself with the compilation of his Book of Prophecies, in which he hoped to demonstrate the historical and prophetic meaning of his discoveries and his own role as “Christ-bearer.” 17
Most Columbus authorities have either ignored the Book of Prophecies, apologized for it, or else denounced it as the ranting of an unbalanced mind. That is unfortunate, because the book is vital to understanding Columbus’s thought and character. Columbus was a pious man and a diligent student of the Bible. He read it carefully, using the most reputable Bible commentators of his day. He also claimed to receive illumination from the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Prophecies, as compiled by Columbus with the help of his friend, Father Gaspar Gorricio, is a collection of biblical passages and interpretations of God’s plan for the unfolding of world events. Its principal themes are that prophecy was being fulfilled by the discovery of new lands and peoples and that the consummation of God’s work was fast approaching. Columbus suggested that before the final days, the gospel message must be taken to all the world and that Jerusalem must be redeemed and the temple rebuilt.
Columbus believed he was the human instrument called by God to carry out part of that divine plan. “With a hand that could be felt,” he wrote to the king and queen in a prefatory letter, “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 the project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses. … Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures.”
In the book’s first section, Columbus presents a collection of sixty-five psalms that deal with his two major themes: the salvation of the world and the rebuilding of Zion. He calls special attention to several verses in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah that speak of the Gentiles as a people chosen to inherit the Holy Temple, their conversion in the last days, and the gathering to Zion. The inheritance of the Gentiles is further cited from St. Augustine, whose quoting of Ps. 22:27 is paraphrased by Columbus as “All the ends of the earth and all the islands shall be converted to the Lord.” After quoting Matt. 24:14, Columbus comments that the gospel has been preached to three parts of the earth (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and now must be preached to the fourth part.
The second section of the Book of Prophecies concerns prophecies already fulfilled. The theme is the ancient greatness of Jerusalem and its subsequent fall.
In the next section, Columbus deals with prophecies of the present and near future, emphasizing the theme of salvation for all nations. Isaiah is cited frequently. Columbus then furnishes several texts from the New Testament: Matthew 2:1–2; 8:11 [Matt. 2:1–2; Matt. 8:11]; Luke 1:48; and notably John 10:16, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
The final section of the book deals with prophecies of the last days, which Columbus introduces by calling attention to Jeremiah 25 [Jer. 25], where the prophet predicts the restoration of Jerusalem prior to the Final Judgment. Finally, he quotes twenty-six scriptures that refer to the islands of the sea and their part in the last days.
The Book of Prophecies was not the ranting of a sick mind. It was the work of a religious man who was not afraid to put his ideas into action and his own life into jeopardy. Columbus knew the scriptures as well as he knew the sea, and he saw a connection between the two. The central theme of his book was that God had sketched in the Bible His plan for the salvation of all mankind and that he, Columbus, was playing a role assigned to him in that plan.
In our day the maligning has increased in intensity, but our awareness of what Columbus accomplished under God’s direction ought to remind us of our own indebtedness and responsibilities as benefactors of his fortitude. His chief concern, as ours should be, was not what people would think of him, but what God would think of him.
Mundane details I suppose.