“The greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it.”
520 years ago today, on 15 March 1493, the caravel Niña entered the harbor of Palos, Spain after nearly eight months at sea. The little ship and her captain, Christopher Columbus, had been where no European had been before – they had literally found a New World, and the return to Palos marked a turning point in the history of the world.
In the spring of 1493, the world was fragmented and divided in ways that are difficult to comprehend from our modern viewpoint. Plant and animal life had evolved independently – some plants, like sweet potatoes and corn, grew only in the Western Hemisphere, while others were unique to Asia. In fact, it was the presence of unique but highly desirable spices in Asia and their absence in Europe that was one of the drivers of fifteenth century exploration. But in 1492, all this began to change. Columbus’s great achievement was not just that he discovered America, but that he discovered the route there and back, and by so doing launched a process that was irreversible. Others may have preceded him – almost certainly the Vikings and perhaps the Chinese – but no one knew how to replicate and institutionalize the round-trip journey. Part of Columbus’s great genius was his discovery and use of currents and wind patterns that allowed not just him but others to replicate his voyage. Plans for a second voyage began within days of his return, and the route he developed on that voyage was followed by sailing ships until the age of steam. Even today, yachts crossing from Europe to the Caribbean follow his route. He didn’t just stumble across the ocean, he built the highway.
If others did, in fact, reach the Americas before Columbus, they failed to inform the rest of the world. And a discovery that is unknown is no discovery at all. Informing others is an essential element of discovery. While there is solid evidence that at least the Vikings reached the shores of America long before Columbus, their voyages had no impact on history because there was not contemporary record informing the world of their voyages. Any voyage prior to Columbus is relegated to a footnote in history.
Columbus both replicated his voyage and published it to the world so others could replicate it. As a result, the world began to be connected in way not seen since the days of Noah. In our modern age, the same crops and species are found in similar climates on every continent. Even people and races have become mixed in a way never before known. Air travel and electronic communications have been layered onto Columbus’s achievement such that fashions and fads spread with the speed of light around the globe. With his voyage, the millennial long pattern of divergence ended, and a new era of convergence began.
The Western European world into which Columbus was born was, by many measures, a world in decline. Two years after his birth, the great city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, making trade with the Indies difficult and dangerous. Morison observed that “at the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future.” The rise of Islam in the east was shrinking both the territory and influence of the Christian nations. Continued efforts to recover control of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem had failed, and successive calls by the popes for a new crusade were seen as opportunistic devices to raise money.
There was no real country or empire in Europe comparable to the empires of the ancient world. Europe consisted largely of a number of city states vying with each other for power and constantly at war. The Holy Roman Empire was a distant memory. The relatively wealthy city-states of Genoa and Venice competed for the remaining trade in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, capturing each other’s ships and confiscating cargos. Spain did not exist as a nation. Its two largest kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, were theoretically united with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile in 1469, but they were engaged in a long and costly war to regain territory from the Moors. The kingdoms would continue to be ruled separately, with separate laws, finances and bureaucracies for many years.
The Catholic Church was the ostensible source of unity among the factions of Europe, but the decline and corruption of the Church reached what some consider its peak with the ascension to the papacy of Rodrigo Borgia in 1492. A native of Xátiva in Valencia, the new Pope Alexander VI had already fathered at least three illegitimate children during his tenure as a Cardinal, and would father at least four more as Pope.
On other fronts, too, Europe was in decline. No significant advances in science or technology had been made in a century. And university enrollment was in decline across the continent.
But as news of Columbus’s voyage spread across Europe, everything began to change. Within a few years, a united Spain would rule a new empire that extended across the sea to Latin America and the Philippines, a breadth of dominion eclipsing anything in history. France and England, jealous and fearful of Spain’s new wealth, would soon challenge Spain both in the New World and in Europe. An awakening of the human spirit would be felt across Europe and manifest in many ways. In 1517, Martin Luther would write his 95 theses, setting off the Protestant revolution and forcing reforms in the Church. Luther would later translate the Bible into German, a work that would have enormous impact on German culture. This would be followed by William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525, the publication of which would change English history.
For Europeans in 1492, the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia, each settled by one of the sons of Noah. This was often depicted in what is now called a T-O map. The “O” represented the world, which was divided by the “T” into the three parts, separated by bodies of water: the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa, the Nile/Red Sea between Africa and Asia, and the Aegean and Black Seas between Europe and Asia. Jerusalem was at the center where the three land masses joined.
The idea of a fourth continent was unimagined. The Book of Mormon explains “that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord” (Ether 13:2). It was a land that was “preserved” (Ether 2:7) from the days of Noah, and hidden from all except those whom the Lord led there. The existence of a new, fourth continent was so foreign to the engrained thinking of millennia that it would take years for Columbus and his contemporaries to realize the geographic implications of his discovery. When Peter Martyr, in a letter dated November 1, 1493, refers to Colonus ille Novi Orbis repertory – “that famous Columbus the discoverer of a New World,” – it is clear that by “new world” he meant new portions of Asia. Columbus himself uses the term “otro mundo” – another world – when writing about his First Voyage, but, again, it is clear that by this he means simply a new part of Asia. It was not until the Third Voyage that Columbus encountered the coast of the mainland. On 14 or 15 August 1498, he made the following entry in his Journal: “I believe that this is a very great continent, which until today has been unknown.” The existence of an unknown and unimagined continent shattered all previous conceptions of world geography. Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1519 to 1522 would finally cement this new geography in the minds of Europeans.
Columbus completed his fourth and last voyage to America in 1504 and died two years later. But even before his death others began making voyages to the New World and additional settlements were established. When Hernando Cortés was 36 years old he conquered the great Aztec empire, a civilization that was unknown, in a land that was unknown, at his birth. Within 42 years of Columbus´s return from the Voyage of Discovery, men had sailed around the world, the empires of the Aztecs and Incas had been discovered and conquered, and great new cities had been established in Lima and Mexico. Spain had emerged from a war-weary and nearly bankrupt amalgamation of medieval kingdoms into the wealthiest and most powerful empire on earth. Over the span of single generation, the world had been transformed, and events had been set in motion that ultimately shaped the world in which we now live.
Columbus recorded hearing a Heavenly voice that declared to him, “Of the barriers of the Ocean Sea, which were closed with such mighty chains, He [God] gave thee the keys.” Bartholomew Las Casas stated:
Is there anything in the world comparable to the opening of the tightly shut doors of an ocean that no one dared enter before? . . . It is obvious that at that moment God gave this man the keys to the awesome seas, he and no other unlocked the darkness.
It was not just Columbus’s voyage but what it led to that caused Francisco López de Gómarra to proclaim that it was “the greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it.”
Columbus turned the keys given him by the Almighty and opened a new age. Perhaps no other single individual did more to prepare the way for the last dispensation than did Christopher Columbus, Xpo Ferens, the Christ-bearer.© 2013 Clark B. Hinckley