COLUMBUS, THE MAN

“The chief concern of Christopher Columbus was not what men would think of him but what God would think of him.”

– Delno West[1]

La Rábida-RUTA COLOMBINA06On Columbus Day 2013, it may be well to reflect on who this man really was. There is little unanimity regarding the nature and character of the man Columbus. Over the course of five centuries, he has been reviled by some and proposed for sainthood by others.[2] The vast diversity of opinions regarding the man is evidence of his complexity. He was a man of contradiction and paradox – devout in his religious duties but heretical in his ideas, a brilliant navigator who had trouble making an accurate reading of the north star, an uneducated man who spoke four languages and wrote extensively in two of them.

The inability to categorize Columbus into a neat, consistent portrait, results in part from the age in which he lived. He was born into a world that was still dominated by medieval thought and institutions. But it was a world that was changing, and he would become one of the primary agents of change. By the time of his death, the Renaissance was well under way. Columbus lived his life with one foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages and the other in the modern world. Much of his thinking and learning was medieval in nature, but he layered onto that medieval knowledge base a lifetime of observation and experience in a genuinely modern way. He was a man of both the Old World and the New World in space, time and thought.

Two events which took place shortly after Columbus’s birth had a significant impact on his life, his accomplishments, and his legacy. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 resulted in a closing of the traditional trade routes that supplied Europe with highly desired oriental spices, and spurred the search for new trade routes. Without the loss of Constantinople, it is doubtful that Columbus would have found support for his enterprise of the Indies. The fall of Constantinople also resulted in an exodus of Greek scholars from the former Byzantine capital. Many of those scholars settled in Italy, and brought with them knowledge and ideas that would stimulate new thinking in Europe.

Three or four years after Columbus’s birth, Johan Gutenberg published his Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible using moveable type. Though not the first book Gutenberg had printed, it was the largest. Fewer than 200 copies were printed, but it demonstrated the feasibility of using the printing technology perfected by Gutenberg. By 1480, there were 110 printing presses in Europe using Gutenberg’s technology, fifty of which were in Italy. By the end of the century, over twenty million volumes had been produced. Columbus owned some of these books and there is evidence he read many others. Perhaps equally important, the success of the printing industry enabled reports of Columbus’s voyages to spread rapidly throughout Europe.

These two seminal events set the medieval world of Southern Europe into commotion, and it was in this world trying to find its new equilibrium that Columbus stepped onto the stage. He was as complex and as contradictory as the age in which he lived. Still, as one reads his words and reviews his actions, a portrait of the man begins to emerge.

If there is any one thing about Columbus on which historians agree, it is that “he was an exceptionally gifted sailor.”[3] Of the great Columbus scholars over the past two centuries, perhaps only Henry Vignaud, an American who emigrated to France during the Civil War, was disparaging in his assessment of Columbus’s skills as a mariner. But as Paulo Taviani wryly noted, Vignaud’s “experiences on a body of water were limited to sight-seeing tours on the river Seine.”[4]

Columbus did what no predecessor had been able to do, something that until it was done, seemed impossible to achieve with the technology of the day. Time and time again, when his pilots and fellow captains disagreed with his navigation, the Admiral was proven to be correct. His confidence in his seafaring abilities enabled him to initiate the era of open sea navigation – he was the first who was willing and capable of sailing purposefully with no sight of the coastline or a pre-determined landfall. He was, by all accounts, the greatest mariner of his age. It was his gift.

Columbus was a voracious reader and a remarkable student. He had a knack for learning, and he took full advantage of the new opportunities to acquire and read books.  Writing to the monarchs late in his life, he noted, “Mine is a calling that inclines those who pursue it to desire to understand the world’s secrets. Such has been my interest for forty years.”[5] He may have learned to read and write basic Latin as a boy in Genoa, but he learned Spanish as an adult, probably while living in Portugal. Spanish became the language which he used in daily life and in which he wrote nearly all of his notes and manuscripts. He was very well versed in the Bible – by today’s standards he would be considered a serious lay Biblical scholar – and he read and studied geography, history, astronomy, geology, and philosophy. He was conversant with Ptolemy, Aristotle, Seneca, Plato, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and scores of other authors. He was also a keen observer of nature. Not only did he decode the Atlantic trade winds, he gave detailed descriptions of the flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the Indies. He had a remarkable ability to grasp complex ideas and to develop reasoned explanations for unfamiliar phenomena. For all this, Columbus referred to himself as “an uneducated man” and an “uniformed sailor” and simply states that God gave him the “spirit of intelligence.”[6] That spirit of intelligence enabled him to become educated. Delno West observed, “he was an unlettered man with superior intellect and genius.”[7] Taviani put it more succinctly: “The man was a genius.”[8]

Columbus was a devout Christian. In the fifteenth century, this meant he was a devout Catholic, since Christianity and Catholicism were one and the same. He faithfully attended to his daily religious duties. Fernando said of his father, “In matters of religion he was so strict that for fasting and saying all the canonical offices he might have been taken for a member of a religious order. And he was so great an enemy to swearing and blasphemy, that I swear I never heard him utter any other oath than ‘By San Fernando!’”[9] Las Casas added, “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.”[10] Indeed, Columbus expressed one of his great concerns in a letter written while marooned on Jamaica: “Here in the Indies I am cut off from the prescribed forms of religion, alone in my troubles, sick, in daily expectation of death . . . and so far from the Holy Sacraments of the Blessed Church that my soul will be forgotten if it leaves my body.”[11]

His Christianity was not just an outward demonstration. As Las Casas also observed, “he was a man of courageous spirit and lofty thoughts . . . patient and long-suffering, a forgiver of injuries, and wished nothing more than that those who offended against him should recognize their errors, and that the delinquents be reconciled with him.”[12] He added that “he was a man of great devotion . . . sober and moderate in food, drink, and dress.”[13]

He had an unshakeable sense of mission. Throughout his writings one sees this consistent theme: that the Lord put into his mind that it would be possible to sail to the Indies and gave him the will and the skill to do it. Even though “all who found out about my project denounced it with laughter and ridiculed me,”[14] he was undeterred. When he was denied by King João II of Portugal, he moved to Castile. When he was denied by Ferdinand and Isabella, he sent his brother to England and France, and then continued to persist in Spain. When his men mutinied in the Atlantic, he pressed on, saying that it was “useless to complain since he had come to find the Indies and thus had to continue the voyage until he found them.”[15]

Such certainty and steadfastness does not always wear well with others, and it was so with Columbus. As Morison observed, “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.”[16] Columbus simply knew, without any doubt, that God had entrusted him with the keys to unlock the Ocean Sea, and although “the leading persons in all the learned arts” concluded that his ambition and objective “was in vain,”[17] he was unmoved. God had made him the messenger of the new heaven and new earth. He was a man with a mission, and was unshakeable and unstoppable.

Finally, what emerges from Columbus’s words as left in his letters, journals, and other documents, is a man of deep and abiding faith. His piety was not a hollow set of daily rituals or outward appearances; his faith in God was the foundation of all he did, it was the driver of his life, and it sustained him through disappointment, rejection, and deep discouragement. He was “longsuffering in the challenges and adversity that always beset him, which were incredible and infinite, always with great faith in the divine Providence.”[18] His faith begat hope that enabled him to do what others deemed impossible. He prayed with faith, and received answers through faith: “I prayed to the most merciful Lord concerning my desire, and he gave me the spirit and the intelligence for it.”[19] Sick and alone at Belen, he received comfort from a Celestial voice assuring him that “mercy is infinite,” that the promises “God gives are fully kept,” and admonishing him, “fear not, have trust.”[20]

His sense of mission was unshakeable because his faith removed all doubt: “Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit?”[21] When all was said and done, everything “turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets.”[22]

Columbus was a man who was far from perfect, and seemed willing to admit it. Perhaps it is why he was so lenient and forgiving of the treachery of Roldán and the mutiny of the Porras brothers. “I am only a most unworthy sinner,” he wrote, “but ever since I have cried out for grace and mercy from the Lord, they have covered me completely. I have found the most delightful comfort in making it my whole aim in life to enjoy his marvelous presence.”[23]

In the end, Columbus’s achievements and his universal fame are a reflection of his personal faith. “Peter stepped out upon the water,” he wrote, “and to the extent that his faith remained firm, he walked upon it. Whoever finds so much faith as a grain of mustard seed will be obeyed by the mountains. Knock and it must be opened unto you. No one should be afraid to undertake any project in the name of our Savior, it if is a just cause and if he has the pure intention of his holy service.[24] Columbus’s faith remained sufficiently firm to enable him, like Peter, to step out upon the water.

© 2013 Clark B. Hinckley


[1] Libro de las profecias, translated with commentary by Delno West and August King, University of Florida Press,  p. 74.

[2] Columbus was first proposed for Sainthood in the Catholic Church in 1866, and again in 1909.

[3] Taviani, Proceedings of the First San Salvador Conference, p. 5

[4] Taviani, Proceedings, p. 5. Taviani’s statement is clever but not entirely accurate. Vignaud was born in New Orleans and captured during the Civil War by Union forces in 1862. He escaped and fled to Paris, where he spent the remainder of his life. He served as First Secretary in the American Legation in Paris for many years.

[5] Libro, p. 105

[6] Libro, p. 104.

[7] Libro, p. 21

[8] Taviani, Proceedings, p. 7

[9] Fernando Colon, Historia del Almirante, p. 49.

[10] Las Casas, Vol. I, p. 44.

[11] Textos, p. 501-02.

[12] Las Casas, Vol. I, p. 45.

[13] Las Casas, Vol. I, p. 44.

[14] Libro, p. 105

[15] Diario, translated by Dunn and Kelley, p. 57

[16] Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, p. 46

[17] Libro, p. 107.

[18] Las Casas, Vol. I, p. 44.

[19] Libro, p. 105

[20] Textos, p. 492.

[21] Libro, p. 105

[22] Libro, p. 107.

[23] Libro, p. 111

[24] Libro, p. 111

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