This Columbus Day is likely to bring a flood of comments over social media and news media about the evil nature of Columbus. As has been the case for the past few decades, pundits will use Columbus Day as an opportunity to revile its namesake, portraying him as a greedy, vain, arrogant, and evil man bent on enslaving and murdering the inhabitants of the New World. He will be singled out as personally responsible for the genocide of Native Americans and the destruction of the pristine environment of the Americas. And there will be endless commentaries that his claim of “discovery” was an insult to earlier inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere and ignorance of earlier explorers.
Was Christopher Columbus actually one of the most evil men of recorded history? If the accusations this Columbus Day are similar to those of past years, he will be compared to Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, and those three will be made to look like innocents compared to this 15th century despot.
How things have changed over the past century! During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, Columbus enjoyed widespread popularity, lending his name to the nation’s capital (the District of Columbia), two state capitals (Columbus, Ohio and Columbia, South Carolina), and a prestigious university. He was even proposed for sainthood in the Catholic Church (once in 1866 and again in 1909). And lest we forget, a national holiday still carries his name (though if modern advocates of political correctness have their way, as they already have in many states and cities, that is likely to change).
There is no doubt that the year 1492 opened an era of destruction for the inhabitants of the Americas. Their contact with Western Europe resulted in their nearly total destruction – complete destruction in the case of some tribes. The events which followed Columbus’s historic voyage are unprecedented in modern history in terms of scope, if not in their nature. But is it accurate to hold Columbus personally responsible for all that went wrong in the New World? Or for that matter, for all that went wrong in the modern age (which really began in 1492)? We don’t, for example, revile Albert Einstein or Enrico Fermi, holding them responsible for the deaths of thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or for the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Yet without their pioneering efforts none of those disasters would have happened, and the threat of nuclear war would be unheard of. Just as we separate Einstein and Fermi personally from the aftermath of their discoveries, perhaps we should be a little less passionate and more analytical about separating Columbus from the aftermath of his discovery.
This essay attempts to look at Columbus, the man by looking at his writings and the writings of his contemporaries. Was he the sinner portrayed in the current news, or the saint portrayed a century ago?
Like almost everyone, he was neither perfect nor perfectly evil. The vast diversity of opinions regarding Columbus over the past five centuries 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 in 1506, he Renaissance was well under way. Columbus lived with one foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages and the other in the modern world. He was a man of both the Old World and the New World in space, time, and thought.
Some of his decisions and actions – particularly those for which he is criticized today – were rooted in medieval culture, custom and law. For example, while he never owned slaves, it is true that on three occasions he authorized sending captured Indians back to Spain to be sold as slaves. This was in keeping with the standard European practice of enslaving those who fought against an army (and lost). When the city of Malaga fell to the Christian armies of Isabella, the queen enslaved the defenders of the city and sent several slaves to the Pope as a gift. This was Columbus’s world.
Columbus was also criticized by his contemporaries for his poor administration of the Spanish New World. It is a fair criticism. While there is ample evidence that Columbus tried to restrain the greed and cruelty of the early Europeans in Hispaniola – “their Highnesses desire more the salvation of this people by making them Christians,” he instructed the early adventurers, “than all the riches that can be obtained from them” – his efforts were spectacularly unsuccessful. It was a task at which his successors failed even more spectacularly (if they tried at all). The contemporary historian, Bartholomew de Las Casas, opined that even “the Archangel Gabriel would have been hard pressed to govern people as greedy, selfish, and egotistical as the early settles of Hispaniola.”
Columbus was not without his faults, but he was also not without redeeming qualities.
“A GIFTED SAILOR”
If there is any one thing about Columbus on which historians agree, it is that “he was an exceptionally gifted sailor.” 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 again, when his pilots and fellow captains disagreed with his navigation, Columbus 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 European who was willing and capable of sailing purposefully with no sight of the coastline or a predetermined landfall. He was, by all accounts, the greatest mariner of his age. It was his gift.A STUDENT AND LIFE-LONG LEARNER
Columbus was a voracious reader and a remarkable student. He had a knack for learning, and he took full advantage of the opportunity to acquire and read books, an opportunity that appeared in his lifetime. “Mine is a calling,” he wrote, “that inclines those who pursue it to desire to understand the world’s secrets. Such has been my interest for forty years.” He acquired a sizeable library; nine volumes owned by him are still extant, and those nine volumes contain 2500 margin notes. He was conversant with Ptolemy, Aristotle, Seneca, Plato, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and scores of other classical authors. He was a dedicated student of the Bible.
He read, but he also learned by observation and analysis. He decoded the Atlantic trade winds – a discovery that became the most disruptive technology of the age. He recorded detailed descriptions of flora and fauna. He had a remarkable ability to grasp complex ideas and to develop reasoned explanations for unfamiliar phenomena. As historians Delno West and August Kling observed, “He was an unlettered man with superior intellect.” Paolo Taviani put it more succinctly: “The man was a genius.”
A DEVOUT CHRISTIAN
His son, Ferdinand, said of Columbus, “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 never heard him utter any other oath than, ‘By San Fernando!'” Contemporary historian Bartholomew de Las Casas, who knew Columbus personally, said, “He observed the fasts of the Church most faithfully . . . [he] hated blasphemy and profane swearing.” Columbus expressed one of his great concerns in a letter written while marooned on Jamaica with no hope of rescue: “Here in the Indies I am cut off form 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.”
And his Christianity was not just an outward demonstration. Las Casas 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 recognized their errors, and that the delinquents be reconciled with him.”
AN UNSHAKABLE SENSE OF MISSION
His tenacity was legendary. Even though, as he said, “all who found out about my project denounced it with laughter and ridiculed me,” he was undeterred. His proposal to sail west to find the East was rejected by the king of Portugal, and continuously rejected by the Court of Castile for seven years. While lobbying Castile, he sent his brother to England and France to seek royal backing and permission to sail. When his men mutinied in the Atlantic, he pressed on, telling the crew 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.” He was a man with a mission, unshakable and unstoppable.
A MAN OF FAITH
What emerges from Columbus’s own words in his letters, journals, and other writings, is a man of deep and abiding faith in God. That faith was clearly the driving force and foundation of his life, and it sustained him through disappointment, rejection and deep discouragement. He was, as Las Casas noted, “longsuffering in the challenges and adversity that always beset him, which were incredible and infinite, always with great faith in the divine Providence.” He prayed with faith and received answers through faith: “I prayed to the most merciful Lord concerning my desire,” he wrote, “and He gave me the spirit and intelligence for it.” Alone and sick off the coast of Panama, 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 faith.”
Columbus was a man who was far from perfect, but in the end, his achievements and 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. . . No one should be afraid to undertake any project in the name of our Savior, if it is a just cause and if he has the pure intention of his holy service.” Columbus’s faith remained sufficiently firm to enable him, like Peter, to step our upon the water.
Based on excerpts from Christopher Columbus: A Man Among the Gentiles, Deseret Book, 2014.