“De-Mystifying” Columbus

For the past few months I have been living in the 15th century. Or at least my mind and thoughts have been in the 15th century; my body is still in the 21st century where I have access to electricity, automobiles, the Internet, and microwave ovens, for all of which I am very thankful. But I spend a major portion of my day reading, thinking, and writing about Christopher Columbus. What follows is a draft of the introduction to my particular telling of the story of the man who made the greatest discovery in history.

“History has all the world’s best stories, and the life of the weaver’s son who discovered America could hardly be matched even by the most inventive imagination.”

– Felipe Fernandez-Armesto 

Reproducción de la Carabela "La Pinta&quo...

Reproducción de la Carabela “La Pinta” en el Muelle de las Carabelas del Paraje de La Rábida, en Palos de la Frontera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At noon on the Ides of March, 1493, a small wooden ship rode the rising tide up the Río Tinto and into the harbor of Palos, Spain, where she dropped anchor. She wasn’t much of a ship – the deck was about 55 feet long –she was weathered but solidly built and appeared to be newly caulked. The villagers onshore recognized her as a caravel owned by Juan Niño of Moguer, the neighboring town just upriver. She was named the Santa Clara, but was usually called the Niña after her owner, and had last been seen in Palos on 3 August 1492, sailing down the ebb tide with two other ships, the Santa María and the Pinta, the beginning of an attempt to reach the Orient by sailing west across the uncharted Ocean Sea. News of the appearance of the Niña back in the harbor spread through the town, and a crowd quickly gathered to meet the crew as they rowed to shore in a small boat.

Later that afternoon the Pinta rode the same tide into the harbor. The Santa María had not survived the trip – she had run aground on a coral reef at a small island on the other side of the world and remained there, along with 39 of men who had left Palos the previous summer. The most momentous sea voyage in history ended where it began, at a small village on the Atlantic coast of Spain. The town of Palos de la Frontera (as it is called today) remains relatively unknown, but the name of the Genoese captain who was rowed to shore just past noon on 15 March 1493 is one of the most widely recognized names in history: Christopher Columbus.

Over 500 years have passed since Columbus arrived back in Palos from his historic Voyage of Discovery. Today his name is known to schoolchildren on every continent and in virtually every corner of the globe. No explorer before or since has achieved anywhere near the degree of fame and recognition as that of the discoverer of America. He died in 1506, and the first history of his life and discoveries was published just five years later. Over the centuries, both the man and his works have been the subject of countless books and academic publications. For five centuries scholars have analyzed his life, his achievements, and his character. Is another biography really needed? What more can be said or written?

Christoper Columbus arrives in America

Christoper Columbus arrives in America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are fair questions. My interest in Columbus began when I was still a teenager and read Samuel Elliot Morison’s short biography, Christopher Columbus, Mariner. That small volume is an abridgment of Morison’s landmark, two-volume biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, published in 1942.  A single-volume edition (which eliminates the extensive footnotes) of Admiral of the Ocean Sea was republished as recently as 2009. It remains the most complete and authoritative biography of the Discover available in English.

My interest in Columbus was heightened during three years that I lived in Barcelona. It was while living there that I discovered that Columbus reported on the First Voyage to the Ferdinand and Isabella in the old Palau Reial, which still stands next to the Barcelona Cathedral. And it was in Barcelona that I began to discover some of Columbus’s own writings in which he firmly declares that he was compelled by the Holy Ghost to make his voyage, and that he considered it a necessary event to usher in the last days.

As I began to study more about Columbus, I discovered that many historians – and much of the general public – view Columbus as a man wrapped in mystery. At first this struck me as odd. The archives in Seville, Madrid, and elsewhere contain over 80 letters and miscellaneous documents, including those describing his Third and Fourth Voyages, his journal of the First Voyage (abstracted by Bartholomew de Las Casas, who preserved many of Columbus’s own words), a Will and Testament, a Book of Privileges, over 2500 postils (handwritten margin notes) in books he owned, and a lengthy document to which he gave the lengthy title, Notebook of Authorities, statements, opinions and prophecies on the subject of the recovery of God’s holy city and mountain of Zion and on the discovery and evangelization of the islands of the Indies and of all other peoples and nations (historians generally refer to it by a shorter title, the Libro de prophecias, or Book of Prophecies). “We are extremely well informed about Columbus. No contemporary of humble origins or maritime vocation has left so many traces in the records, or so much writing of his own.” (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. ix)  We know far more about Columbus than we do about his contemporaries Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Vespucci, Cabot or Cook, yet none of them carry the air of mystery that seems to pervade so much of the popular literature about Columbus. Salvador de Madariaga, a Spanish diplomat and historian, wrote:

Mystery surrounds him. Pride stiffens him up. A sense of mission entrusted to him from on high drives and illumines him. No one knows who he is, where he comes from, what he actually wishes to do. No one can browbeat him, pin him down, make him accept one inch less that the whole of what he demands. No one can fail to feel that he is possessed of an idea, bent on action, bearer of a message, entrusted with a mission. (Salvador de Madriaga, Christopher Columbus (London: Hollis and Carter, 1949), p. 16. Quoted in Hugh Nibley, Collected Works, 8:50)

The “mystery” surrounding Columbus stems, in part, from the lack of information we have about his youth and the years prior to the First Voyage. Historians want to know who he was, where he came from, where he got the idea to “buscar el Levante por el Poniente” – find the East by sailing West – how and when the plan developed, and how it ultimately received the backing of the monarchs of Castile and Aragon. Yet, with the exception of some of the postils in his library, nearly everything that survives of Columbus’s writings were penned after he boarded the Santa María in 1492.

The first forty years of Columbus’s life can only be sketched by relying on statements made by Columbus and others years after the events occurred, and contemporary documents such as the records in Genoa which mention Columbus and his family and enable historians to verify his presence there. The documented facts create a few dots on a broad canvas but leave most of the picture blank. The result is that nearly every biographer of Columbus includes a substantial amount of “creative non-fiction” (the phrase is from Foster Provost) writing about Columbus’s life prior to the first voyage. Many of the episodes that are today considered factual events in the early life of Columbus are based on circumstantial evidence and lack documented verification – they may have happed as described in the popular biographies, they could have happened, but we don’t really know if they actually happened.

In addition, the popular story of Columbus has been so enshrouded by myth over the centuries that many of the facts known to scholars are unknown to the larger population. Contrary to popular notions, no one in Columbus’s age believed the world was flat. Most of the discussion around Columbus’s proposal regarded the width of the ocean, and in this both Columbus and his critics were wrong – Columbus vastly underestimated the circumference of the earth while overestimating the land mass of Asia, and no one imagined there was a new continent between Europe and Asia.  The fear of sailors was not that they would fall off the edge of the earth, but that they would be unable to return safely if they sailed too far out to sea. That fear had driven earlier attempts to sail west in the Atlantic to more northerly latitudes against the prevailing western winds. Those winds gave some assurance that a return voyage would be possible, but they also meant sailing west against the wind, making progress difficult.

Latter-day Saints have created or adopted a body of mythology around Columbus, little of which has any factual basis. For example, I have heard presentations claiming that Columbus locked himself in his cabin during the final three days of the first Atlantic crossing with instructions that he not be disturbed – ostensibly to give him time to fast and pray. But Columbus’s own journal makes it clear that he was actively engaged in captaining the ship and coordinating the movement of his fleet without interruption.

Both the popular and scholarly perception of Columbus has become so infused with speculation and myth that Foster Provost, writing in 1986, concluded “that in the absence of much more documentary evidence, a large proportion of what passes for Columbus biography is simply fiction.”

In recent years, there has been an effort by historians to cut through the myths that have built up around Columbus over a half a millennium. Miles H. Davidson, an independent scholar, made a concerted effort to document what is known and what is not known with his very helpful Columbus, Then and Now, published in 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press. He focuses particularly on some of the assumptions made by Morison and perpetuated in subsequent biographies. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto made a useful contribution with the publication of Columbus in 1991, in which he attempted to include only information that could be verified, or at least reasonably inferred, by reliable contemporary sources. While there remains much disagreement surrounding various episodes of Columbus’s life, both of these publications have helped scholars and readers separate fact from speculation.

Additional research by a host of scholars over the past 25 years has done much to shed light on both what we know about Columbus and what we don’t know. All of this work has helped, at least within the academic community, to reduce some of the mystery around Columbus.

But more challenging to scholars than what we don’t know about Columbus’s life is what we do know. Other contemporary explorers are not enveloped in mystery precisely because we have so little of their own writing. Columbus left us a wealth of material in which he discloses his thoughts, his reasoning, and his motivations. But because so much of this material is deeply religious in content, scholars struggle with how to interpret it. They often see Columbus as a mystic who seems to be out of touch with reality. They accuse him of being a “visionary man” in the way that the prophet Lehi was accused (see 1 Nephi 2:11 and 5:2,4). Or they simply ignore much of what he wrote.

Libro de profecias

Libro de profecias

This tendency to ignore Columbus’s most deeply religious and spiritual writings is evidenced in the history of the Libro de profecías. It was written by Columbus during 1501 and 1502, with some additions as late as 1505. It is his most extensive work, filling 84 pages of handwritten manuscript, in which he explains in great detail the thoughts and beliefs that were the drivers of his life. Yet it is still largely ignored by scholars. It remained unpublished in the Biblioteca Colombiana in Seville for nearly 400 years, until it was included in the 1892-94 edition of the Raccolta di documenti e sutdi pubblicati della R. Commissione Colombiana, the collection of documents published by the Columbus Commission as part of the 400th anniversary of the First Voyage. Only 560 copies of the Raccolta were printed. When Delno West retrieved a copy of the Raccolta from the Firestone Library at Princeton University in 1984, with the purpose of translating the Libro de profecias into English, the pages of the book remained uncut – it had sat unopened on the shelves of the library for ninety years! Another limited edition was published in Spanish in 1984 – the government of Spain commissioned the work and presented one copy to each Spanish American nation. The first English translation and commentary, as well as a new Spanish translation by Kay Brigham, was published in 1992 for the Quincentenary.

Most historians are comfortable writing about Columbus’s skill as a mariner or his weaknesses as an administrator of the new colonies, but are considerably less comfortable writing about his deeply held religious beliefs or his scriptural insights. The result is picture that has emerged over time of a man who was both the greatest mariner of his age and a man steeped in mystery. Morison, who had limited access to the Libro de profecias when he wrote in the 1940s, largely ignores this important document. Himself a sailor, Morison focuses on Columbus’s skills and determination. But he can explain his motivation only in spiritual terms:

He was not, like a Washington, a Cromwell or a Bolivar, an instrument chosen by multitudes to express their wills and lead a cause; Columbus was a Man with a Mission, and such men are apt to be unreasonable and even disagreeable to those who cannot see the mission. … He was a Man alone with God against human stupidity and depravity, against greedy conquistadors, cowardly seamen, even against nature and the sea.

Always with God, though. … For God is with men who for a good cause put their trust in Him. Men may doubt this, but there can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement. It gave him confidence in his destiny, assurance that his performance would be equal to the promise of his name. This conviction that God destined him to be an instrument for spreading the faith was far more potent than the desire to win glory, wealth and worldly honors. (Morison, p. 46-7)

In an effort to be objective, Fernandez-Armesto concedes that Columbus claimed spiritual guidance and even revelation, but views Columbus’s belief as a product of the Admiral’s own making. He concedes that Columbus believed he was “divinely elected to execute a part of God’s plan for mankind, by making the gospel audible in unevangelized parts of the earth.” But then devotes much of his book to demonstrating that this belief of Columbus was a natural result of the environments in which he lived – fifteenth century Genoa, Lisbon, and Andalusia – and his personal circumstances. In the early pages of his book, he lays out his conclusions regarding Columbus: “He claimed to have been divinely inspired – which is a curiously egotistical form of self-effacement” and that the Admiral’s claim to divine guidance was a late addition “to his mental baggage. Spirituality was embraced, as we shall see, as a refuge from adversity.” (Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. x-xi.)

Fernandez-Armesto’s work articulates well two themes found in much of the scholarly writing on Columbus. First, that his achievements were less the work of divine guidance than of skill and environmental influences – he was simply the right man in the right place at the right time. It is the same argument that favors human evolution over divine creation. And second, since much of Columbus’s extensive writings about divine guidance and spiritual experiences were written later in his life, they can accurately be viewed as an attempt to claim the honor, wealth and prestige that he felt was due him by casting himself as God’s emissary.

Similar arguments can – and have – been made about Joseph Smith. What may be considered the most significant spiritual manifestation of the Prophet’s life, the First Vision, was not recorded by him until 1832, twelve years after the event, and an account of the vision was not published until 1840. One might easily argue that the story of the First Vision was a belated attempt to add credibility to subsequent events in his life.

And there have been no dearth of arguments that Joseph Smith’s body of work was in large measure the product of his environment – a boy whose father and grandfather both claimed heavenly visions, a youth in the “burned over” district of religious revivals, and his early association with Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon.

To compare Christopher Columbus with Joseph Smith may seem to be an overreach. But it is interesting to note that Lehi and Nephi, in their extensive views of the latter-day Restoration, identify only two specific individuals: Christopher Columbus and Joseph Smith. Both began on a course early in life that would bear great fruit. Both suffered persecution and extreme discouragement, and both left behind a world irreversibly changed. The voyage of Columbus is the first event mentioned by Nephi which leads to the Restoration. And a study of history makes it clear why the work of Columbus was so important – it was one of the great turning points in history and set in motion a series of events that would culminate with the work of Joseph Smith. In a sense, these two men stand as bookends to the Restoration  – one at the beginning and one at the end.

Hugh Nibley recognized the similarity between Joseph Smith and Columbus:

No man knows [Columbus’s] history, though his is one of the most richly documented careers on record. Why should this be? The parallel case of Joseph Smith at once springs to mind, and the explanation of the mystery may well be the same. For as Madariaga points out, most of what is mysterious and contradictory in the story of Columbus comes from the refusal of the experts to believe what he tells them. They say he was an outrageous liar when he was actually telling the truth! (Collected Works, 8:50.)

Carol Delaney of Stanford and Brown Universities made extensive use of the Libro de prophecies in her book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, published in 2009. Delaney was trained as a social anthropologist, not a historian, and she attempts to place Columbus squarely in his times and environment. This, of necessity, requires a recognition of Columbus’s religious environment and personal spirituality, and Delaney attempts to erase much of the “mystery” surrounding Columbus by recognizing his deep religiosity as a common and integral part of fifteenth century Europe. Delaney accurately notes that Columbus was very focused on finding wealth that could be used to finance a new crusade, retake Jerusalem, and rebuild the temple, events which were essential for the Second Coming. She largely ignores, however, Columbus’s other motivation, which he mentions repeatedly in his writings: the need to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people before the end.

If one does not accept the reality of revelation and a divine plan of history, then it is difficult to make sense of the writings and actions of either Joseph Smith or Christopher Columbus. And in the case of Columbus, there is no modern scholarly treatment of his life written by an author that accepts the notion of a divine plan and the reality of divine revelation to individuals to empower them to carry out that plan.For Delaney, as for many other historians, Columbus’s religiosity and even spirituality were natural consequences of the time in which he lived.

One of my objectives in writing this book is to help replace unfounded myths with verifiable facts. My observation in general, and specifically with the history of Columbus, is that the facts are far more compelling than any of the myths. My second objective is to tell the story of Columbus beginning with the premise that he had a divinely inspired role in history. That divine role is confirmed clearly and succinctly by the prophet Nephi:

And I 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 came down and 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 Nephi 13:12, emphasis added)

When the student of Columbus’s life accepts as factual the vision of Nephi, the statement of Columbus made later in his life, is clear, straightforward, and incontrovertible:

La Rábida-RUTA COLOMBINA06With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project… This was the fire that burned within me… Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit…urging me to press forward? (West, Libro de profecias, p. 105)

Columbus did not have access to the prophecy of Nephi. His understanding of his mission came through diligent personal study of the Bible (unusual for a layman), the fire of the Holy Ghost and, on a few occasions, direct revelation. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the life of this remarkable man is the degree to which he understood his mission and his place in history.

© 2013 Clark B. Hinckley

Your comments are appreciated.

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One Response to “De-Mystifying” Columbus

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Presidente. I had never considered the similarity in the stories of Columbus and Joseph Smith and how others received their revelations!
    I vividly remember the day I arrived in Barcelona and, overlooking the city from Montjuïc, heard you first speak of Columbus. He was much more than a sailor who happened to discover the Americas. Looking forward to the book!

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