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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus, Italian: Cristoforo Colombo; Spanish: Cristóbal Colón, (born between August 26 and October 31?, 1451, Genoa [Italy]—died May 20, 1506, Valladolid, Spain), master navigator who discovered the western hemisphere through four transatlantic voyages (1492–93, 1493–96, 1498–1500, and 1502–04) which opened the way for European exploration, Christian expansion, and colonization of the Americas.

The revisionist portrait of Christopher Columbus is that of a greedy, ignorant, egotistical criminal who brought disease, genocide, and slavery to the peaceful natives of the Americas. Left wing radicals brought up on this biased, lop-sided history are so angry with him that they are today beheading, destroying, and defacing statues of him across the country.

What’s the real story? Was his discovery, “The greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it” (according to Francisco Lopez de Gomera writing in 1552),[1] or the greatest disaster in world history? Is Columbus a saint, or he is a sinner responsible for mass genocide and decades of human suffering?  Spoiler alert – he’s a little bit of both.

Pprtrait of Columbus

Portrait of Columbus

Believe it or not, Christopher Columbus’ ultimate life-goal, and the purpose behind this entire enterprise, was his lifelong obsession with Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ!

In his diary entry for 26 December 1492, he says he wanted to find enough gold and spices “in such quantity that the sovereigns… will undertake and prepare to go conquer the Holy Sepulchre; for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.”[2] His writings spanning his adult life reiterate over and over that he wanted to launch a new Crusade to take back the Holy Land from the infidels (the Muslims). This desire was not merely to finish the work of the Crusades that began in 1095, but to fulfill biblical prophecy.[3]

As Columbus and many of his contemporaries read the Book of Revelation, they saw two preconditions for the return of Christ — the conversion of all peoples to Christianity and Christian ownership of Jerusalem.  Columbus believed not only that Christ’s return was imminent but also that he had a providential role to play in the preparations for it.

Like many Christians today, he interpreted the events of his day through the lens of the Second Coming.  The Granada War ended in 1491 thus ending all Islamic rule on the Iberian peninsula.  At this time, the Jews in Spain were also forced to convert to Christianity or be exiled.  Columbus viewed these developments as indicative of conditions improving, thus paving the way for the Lord’s return.

Other clues led him to believe that he could play a major role in the further hastening of the Lord’s return.  In his writings, he reminds the King and Queen of Spain of the many times the Great Khan (of China) had, “…sent to Rome to ask for men learned in our Holy Faith in order that they might instruct him in it and how the Holy Father had never provided them; and thus so many peoples were lost…and Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes, lovers and promoters of the Holy Christian Faith, and enemies of the false doctrine of Mohammed and of all idolatries and heresies, you thought of sending me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India to see the said princes and the peoples and the lands, and the characteristics of the lands and of everything, and to see how their conversion to our Holy Faith might be undertaken. And you commanded that I should not go to the East by land, by which way it is customary to go, but by the route to the West, by which route we do not know for certain that anyone previously has passed.”[4]

In other words, there were pagans in China and Japan just itching to worship Jesus Christ, but Europe had failed to send the missionaries they requested.  Once they were made disciples, the world would be that much closer to the conversion of all peoples to Christianity. How did Columbus know of this request? He had read Marco Polo’s book of travels and knew that the Great Khan had requested emissaries from the Pope but had not received them. Kublai Khan also asked for them.  This request had gone unfulfilled because Marco Polo’s route to China had become perilous for Christians due to Muslim conquest of the regions between Europe and the Far East.

Columbus knew that to reach them and their riches would require a new approach.  Portugal rejected his proposition of sailing west to meet the East so he took his idea to Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain.

These themes of liberating Jerusalem and global salvation occupied his energy all his life.  This was no temporary, emotional lark.  Almost ten years after the first voyage, he is still dwelling on the theme. A letter written in February 1502, to Pope Alexander VI stated, “This enterprise was undertaken with the purpose of expending what was invested in aiding the holy temple and the holy Church.”[5]

On 19 May 1506, the day before he died, Columbus ratified his will, stipulating that a fund be set up for the purpose of liberating Jerusalem.

Death of Columbus

Death of Columbus

Columbus may have been mistaken in his post-millennial views, and egotistical to believe that he had a divinely-appointed part to play in the events leading up to Christ’s return, but his deep faith is undeniable.  Bartolome´ de las Casas, the great historian of the Indies, harsh critic of Columbus, and defender of the Indians said of Columbus: “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, was most devoted to Our Lady and to the seraphic father St. Francis; seemed very grateful to God for benefits received from the divine hand… And he was especially affected and devoted to the idea that God should deem him worthy of aiding somewhat in recovering the Holy Sepulchre.”[6]

His devotion to God is also evident in the names he gave to the islands he discovered.  For example, San Salvador (for their salvation), Trinidad (for the Trinity), Santa Maria (for the Virgin Mary), Isla de la Ascuncion (for the Assumption).

During the first voyage, he also altered his signature to emphasize the meaning of his name, “Christopher,” as “Christ-bearer.” He believed he was carrying Christianity across the sea as his namesake, St. Christopher, carried Christ across the waters.[7]

His faith and passion for God not only increased his piety and inspired his life’s work, but it also informed his plan for fulfilling this life goal.

He became obsessed with finding the great supplies of gold that Solomon had found 2,500 years earlier in order to pay for the troops and equipment needed to fund his Crusade to Jerusalem.  “Solomon’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram; once every three years the ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, peacocks, and apes” (2 Chronicles 9: 21). Columbus assumed “three years” was the time it took for the round trip, therefore “the Asian land mass must be so vast as to require more than a year’s travel between Jerusalem and its eastern edge.”

He combined that data point with a passage in the Apocrypha says that six-sevenths of the world is dry and only one-seventh covered by water (2 Esdras 6: 42) to develop the theory that Asia is large and the ocean between us and it must be small. The best known of the medieval world maps of his day rested on the belief that only three continents existed, one for each of the three sons of Noah: Japheth = Europe, Shem = Asia, and Ham = Africa).

Contrary to the popular Gershwin song (“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round”), Columbus and many of his contemporaries knew that the earth was round. The primary issue in the disputes between Columbus and the scientists and theologians who disagreed with him was not about whether the earth was flat or round, but about his calculations which they thought were wrong. According to his calculations Columbus believed that the ocean was much narrower than did the learned scientists and theologians.

Columbus compiled what he called his “Book of Prophesies,” which was a collection of Bible verses, observations, and wisdom from sources outside the Bible that reinforced his beliefs or provided instruction for carrying out his plans.  Some of these prophecies focus on islands, for example, “Give ear, ye islands, and hearken, ye people from afar” (Isaiah 51:5). “And I will set a sign among them … to the islands afar off, to them that have not heard of me and have not seen my glory” (Isaiah 66:19).  When he landed in the islands off the coast of the New World, he interpreted his discovery as the fulfillment of these prophecies and so, he saw it as his duty to evangelize the primitive people of these lands.

He told the king and queen that God had given him the ability to acquire the skills necessary for maritime exploration but not only that. God had also “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.”

So what we see here is a flawed man with visions of grandeur and a deep devotion to God formulating a plan based on the Word of God (as he understood it) that had the honorable goal of hastening the salvation of the world, the rightful return of Jerusalem to Christian hands, and the Second Coming of the Prince of Peace.

The Journey

So Columbus set sail from Spain on August 3, 1492 in the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.  Two months later, on October 12, 1492, he made landfall in the Bahamas.  He thought he had hit remote islands, the West Indies as he called them, just off the coast of India, near China and Japan.  When the local natives, the Taino, gathered on the shores of San Salvador Island to welcome this strange party of foreign sailors, they laid down their weapons willingly and brought the sailors tokens of friendship: parrots, bits of cotton thread, and other presents. Columbus later wrote that the Taino “remained so much our friends that it was a marvel.”

Columbus' Journeys

Columbus’ Four Journeys

Columbus’ critics paint a picture of him landing on the peaceful shores of a primitive, happy people, then infecting most with disease, and enslaving the rest in order to steal their gold. The truth is not so distorted and poisonous, but like all good propaganda, it contains elements of truth.  Did he want to see them saved on enslaved?  Let’s look at his own words, captured at the time in his Diary.

Columbus often speaks of the gentle nature of the natives and how easily they would become Christian if only the king and queen would send missionaries and ministers who would learn their language and instruct them.  He wanted to make a good first impression, and he gave his men strict orders.  He writes that he “recognized that they were a people who would be better freed [from error] and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force.”[8]

He goes on to write a paragraph that has often had a sentence fragment pulled out of context to reinforce the premise that Columbus had slavery in mind from the get-go, “They are all fairly tall, good looking and well proportioned. I saw some who had signs of wounds on their bodies and in sign language I asked them what they were, and they indicated that other people came from other islands nearby and tried to capture them, and they defended themselves. I believed then and still believe that they come here from the mainland to take them as slaves. They ought to make good slaves for they are of quick intelligence since I notice that they are quick to repeat what is said to them, and I believe that they could very easily become Christians, for it seemed to me that they had no religion of their own. God willing, when I come to leave I will bring six of them to Your Highnesses so that they may learn to speak.”[9]

Now, prior to the quote, “they ought to make good slaves,” he could be saying, “I see why the natives on the mainland try to enslave them, they are smart.”  After the quote, he goes on to say “they could easily become Christians,” so perhaps he could have meant servants of Christ.  The word “slave” is also the harshest English translation of the Spanish word which could mean “Servant,” “servant of the crown,” or “worker,” as in “employee.”  It need not refer to the buying/selling and forced labor associated with antebellum slavery in the American South.

On October 16, “I do not think they have any religion and I believe that they would quickly become Christians because they are very intelligent.” Again on Nov. 6, “They are people … completely without evil or aggression, naked every one of them, men and women, as the day they were born… They are very good looking … I hold that once dedicated and religious people knew their language and put it to use, they would all become Christians. And so I hope in Our Lord that Your Highnesses will determine with all speed to bring such great peoples to the Church and convert them, just as you have destroyed those who refused to confess the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost…”

Again, on Nov. 12, “For I have seen and recognize … that these people have no religion, nor are they idolaters, rather they are very gentle and know nothing of evil, nor murder nor theft nor weapons, and so timorous that a hundred of them flee from one of our people even though they may only be teasing them. They are trusting and know that there is a God in heaven, and firmly believe that we have come from heaven, and they are ready to repeat any prayer that we say to them and they make the sign of the cross +. So Your Highnesses must resolve to make them Christians, for I believe that once you begin you will in a short space succeed in converting to our faith a multitude of peoples and acquiring great kingdoms and riches and all their peoples for Spain.”

So his mission and plan did not change, nor was it a sham.  His primary interest, repeated over and over, was their conversion.  In one place, he does understand why other tribes from the mainland would try to enslave them because they do seem like they would be good slaves. So slavery and conquest was already being practiced in this area of the world between tribes from neighboring islands.  He also writes elsewhere that “50 men could subjugate them,” which again sounds like 50 brutal Spaniards with guns could keep a whole island of these gentle creatures in bondage.  That is not what he is saying.  He is saying that there is peace on the island, and the natives are not hostile, and a small force of 50 men could hold the island for Spain while he travels back.

While he was there exploring the islands, the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day 1492, so they used the wood from the ship to build a stockade in what is now the Dominican Republic where a handful of the men could live while Columbus traveled back in the two remaining ships.  While he was gone, the men he left behind did terrible things.

The sailors went against his explicit orders to do no harm to the natives, to respect their leaders, to stay together, and to do treat the women well. Instead, they raped the women and forced the natives to work for them. The natives responded to their brutality by murdering them all.

When Columbus returned on his second voyage, the stockades were destroyed and the men were dead. The Spanish colonists he brought with him on the second voyage assumed they could live a life of ease using the natives as servants. Columbus was terribly disappointed and called them, ‘a greedy lot.’

Much of what we know about these early expeditions and interactions with the native people comes from a layman who traveled to the New World in 1502 with another Spaniard named Nicholas d’Ovando.  His name is Bartolomé de las Casas and he arrived three months before Columbus’ final voyage.  In his later life, he wrote a number of books including A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias.  Las Casas wrote fifty years after the first voyage of the atrocities that took place in the decades after Columbus.  No one is sure he even met Columbus, but he writes with respect and admiration of him.

Las Casas himself forced the natives to work for him on his land grant before being converted after hearing a 1511 sermon by Antonio de Montesinos.  Five years after Columbus’ death, Las Casas came to Christ and had a change of heart about employing forced labor while managing his colony.  He went from owning natives to defending them, and he fought for the rest of his life to end the slaughter and cruelty against the natives at the hands of greedy, godless, get-rich-quick, Spanish colonists. His story helps us to see that the culture of his day was a huge influence in their actions.  Before you get too excited about this guy, he proposed a better solution than using the natives as forced labor – African slaves! The man who brought Las Casas to the New World, Nicholas d’Ovando, did just that; not Columbus nor his son Diego.  Again, slavery was normal at this time, even among the natives.  There were riches to be had, so like Apple and Nike do today in China and Indonesia, the colonizers of Columbus’ generation enslaved the vulnerable and forced them to work because there were huge profits to be made.

The bulk of the greedy pillaging and genocide did not happen under Columbus’ watch, and was completely at odds with his clearly stated life-long goals of global salvation and retaking Jerusalem.

In fairness, Columbus grew desperate and chose expediency over godliness.  He did not find the stockpiles of gold he expected to find.  He did not reach the Orient as he hoped. He did not do a good job of governing the areas he discovered.  His men acted terribly and their atrocious deeds initiated a cycle of violence that would last for decades.  Now, numerous ships full of greedy Spaniards were flooding the new world, grabbing up land, and establishing colonies of cruelty.

As a result, he got desperate; he felt the need to double-down and find that gold, whatever it took.  He made poor judgements such as shipping back a boatload of natives to Spain, many of whom died in transit. He took a mistress and fathered a child with her.  He was put in prison in Spain for his gross mismanagement and the reports of cruelty to the natives under his watch.

Yes, he needed to find that gold, but he did not seek it for personal gain, but rather to fulfill his spiritual quest.  “Gold is a metal most excellent above all others…and he who has it makes and accomplishes whatever he wishes in the world and finally uses it to send souls into Paradise.”[10]

Consequences of the Journey

Genocide

In 1493 when Columbus built his first town on the island of Hispaniola, the natives numbered at least 60,000 and possibly as many as 8 million, according to some estimates. But by 1548 (55 years later), the native population there had plummeted to less than 500. Lacking immunity to Old World pathogens carried by the Spanish, the natives fell victim to terrible plagues like smallpox, influenza, and other viruses.

As terrible as this is, it was bound to happen.  Eventually the Old World would meet the New, whether through Columbus, or Amerigo Vespucci, or Ponce de Leon, or some other explorer.  The germs, diseases, and distrust of both the Old World and the New would comingle resulting in waves of death.  The people of this day and age did not understand pathogens and viruses nor the transmission of disease.

Epidemics soon became a common consequence of contact across the Americas. In April 1520, (14 years after Columbus’ death) Spanish forces landed in what is now Veracruz, Mexico, unwittingly bringing along an African slave infected with smallpox. Two months later, Spanish troops entered the capital of the Aztec Empire, and by mid-October nearly half of the population was dead.

All that said, spreading disease accidentally is not genocide.  Genocide is an act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, or racial group.  That Columbus and his men killed in battle and for crimes some natives is true, but he did not go on the voyage to wipe out a particular population.  The killing he did was in the name of conquest.  Just as Napoleon killed thousands while trying to conquer Europe, we do not call it genocide.

The danger to the European explorers was just as great if not greater.  They often died of disease, starvation, shipwreck, and attacks by natives.  The pendulum could swing either direction.

If you want to talk genocide, over 60 million unborn children have been killed in the US alone by liberal white racists who support Planned Parenthood abortion mills in low-income mostly black neighborhoods in cities across America. This is clearly racial genocide, and it’s right at our back door, yet it’s immune from liberal scrutiny because it serves a political purpose, and it’s being done by other liberals.

To hold Columbus accountable for large scale death due to lack of immunity is unfair. And to be angry at Columbus for genocide while embracing liberal Democrat genocide is patently hypocritical.

Slavery

The Spaniards exploited the forms of human bondage that already existed on the islands. The Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, a more aggressive tribe, regularly raided the Taínos, allegedly eating the men but keeping the women and children as hostages. Discrimination based on age and gender would prevail throughout the next four centuries of Indian-on-Indian servitude.

Did Columbus institutionalize slavery?  We already discussed this when talking about his landing and writings about the Taino natives.  What began as a continuation of Spanish caste system – nobles are given land grants and allowed to impress the peasants (the natives) into forced labor – eventually deteriorated into harsh treatment, human rights abuses, and slavery, years after Columbus’ death.

Columbus’s original plan was to work with the local chiefs who were placed in charge of delivering gold on a loose per capita basis. Some historians say that after he left, his brother Bartholomew Columbus replaced that policy with a system of direct exploitation.  Even if that is true, it’s important to remember that conquest and slavery were common practices and always had been.  Stronger, more advanced civilizations wipe out weaker, more primitive ones.  I’m not saying it’s right, but it happens all the time.

The Celts overtook the native tribes of Europe, and then they were conquered and overtaken by the Goths, and the Goths by the Huns, and so on and so on. In America, Indian tribes fought against other Indian tribes.  Chiefs wanted to expand their territory and their people and they did so through conquest.  They conquered another tribe, killed their warriors and took their women.  This was a general pattern of human behavior.  Slavery was not a racist concept – that’s an 18th-19th century characteristic.  From as far back as recorded history, powerful people took less powerful people in as slaves.  The Romans made slaves of the Greeks – there was no racial component to this enslavement.

To put it in our contexts: who thinks forced labor is a good thing?  Who thinks sweatshops in under-developed or communist countries is a good thing? No one.  Yet, in March of 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report listing 83 corporations who are benefiting from forced labor in communist China, and the list included Nike, Apple, Adidas, Amazon, and many others.  Why aren’t liberal activists as angry at them as they are at Christopher Columbus?  Because of selective moral outrage, and the modern-day offenders can’t be used for political advantage so they need not be discussed.

One final point on this topic: Columbus is lately accused of being a child sex trafficker, too.  Among his writings is a quote that says, “there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from [ages] nine to ten are now in demand…”  The classic liberal leftist tactic of lifting a quote out of context so that they can re-interpret it to mean the exact opposite is what’s happening here.  Columbus was not saying, “isn’t this great?”  His words are from a letter he wrote complaining that Spaniards were robbing the natives and engaging them in sexual slavery.  He was reporting this as a crime committed by others!

So was Columbus a good guy or a bad guy?  Was he a devout Christian with honorable intentions who made mistakes and committed atrocities because of the urgency and pressure he felt, or was he a greedy, cruel, racist, immoral charlatan hiding behind religious window-dressing to legitimize his treacherous mission?

You be the judge, but any person who risks everything on a ground-breaking voyage across unchartered waters and discovers a new continent ought to be honored for this “The greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it.”

[1] Gomera’s Historia General de las Indias

[2] Columbus, Diario 1492. See the 1989 edition, The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America 1492–1493 (Dunn and Kelley 1989).

[3] See John 12:32, Romans 11:25-26, Rev. 19-20

[4] Columbus, Diario 1492.

[5] Columbus, Letter 1502.

[6] Las Casas’s Historia de las Indias

[7] Much of this information comes from Carol Delaney, Columbus’ Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem at https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/columbus.pdf

[8] Columbus, Diario 11 Oct. 1492

[9] Columbus, Diario 11 Oct. 1492

[10] Columbus, Lettera 3 July 1503.