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Christopher Columbus: Champion of Faith, Father of the New World, and Hero Beyond Boundaries

Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahaní, West Indies (1846), by John Vanderlyn.


Christopher Columbus, aboard the Santa Maria, gazed out into the vast darkness of the Atlantic Ocean. In the hushed stillness of the night, a distant glimmer of light appeared on the horizon, igniting hope that this might finally be the elusive eastern land they had tirelessly sought. Columbus, hailed as the Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea, clung to this newfound optimism. Accompanied by a weary crew of ninety sailors who had endured a grueling ten-week voyage through uncharted waters, Columbus found himself on the brink of mutiny. However, his unwavering faith in their mission prevailed. On the pivotal night of October 11, 1492, Columbus conferred with one of his sailors, confirming the shared observation of the distant light. Around 2 o'clock in the morning, Rodrigo de Triana, a crew member aboard the Pinta, exclaimed, "Tierra, tierra!" Columbus recorded in his diary that the light resembled "a little wax candle rising and falling" four hours earlier, though he hesitated to definitively declare it as land. After years of relentless trials and tribulations, Columbus stood on the cusp of a historic accomplishment, unaware that he had led his men to the unforeseen discovery of the shores of a New World.

To fully grasp the significance of Christopher Columbus, his journey, and what compelled him to explore the New World, it is imperative to delve deeper into the historical context of his time.

Why Columbus?

Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, during a period when many Christians believed that the world stood on the precipice of an apocalypse. This widespread conviction was fueled by a tumultuous history rife with wars, famines, plagues, schisms, and natural disasters - all interpreted as ominous signs heralding the end of days. Events such as the capture of Jerusalem by Muslim forces in 1187, the devastating Great Pestilence that swept through Europe in 1347-1348, and the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 left an indelible impact on Columbus and his contemporaries, shaping their worldview and perceptions of the world around them.

Despite his humble origins and lack of formal education, Columbus possessed an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He pursued self-education relentlessly, adhering to a rigorous regimen of self-improvement. Columbus stumbled upon the captivating accounts of the renowned Italian explorer, Marco Polo, who meticulously chronicled his extensive travels through 13th-century Asia, serving under the illustrious Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Empire. Polo's narratives painted a vivid picture of the opulence within the Khan's dominion - boundless reserves of gold, precious gemstones, exotic spices, and an array of rare and exotic fauna. Of particular intrigue was Polo's mention of Cipango, now known as Japan, a land believed to be a fount of inexhaustible gold. Additionally, Polo noted the Khan's keen interest in the Christian faith and his disappointment at the absence of properly designated missionaries dispatched by the Pope to propagate the faith within the Khan's realm.

Christopher Columbus was a man propelled by an unwavering sense of purpose, resolute in his mission to locate the Grand Khan of his era, establish friendly bonds with him and his people, and forge trade alliances. In his vision of Christian history, he believed that the fortunes accrued from these enterprises would fund a crusade to reclaim Jerusalem, a momentous historical objective. Columbus saw himself as a chosen instrument of divine providence, burdened with a sacred obligation to return Jerusalem to the Christian fold, with the point of departure for this monumental mission lying in the Far East. However, he faced daunting challenges during his era, as navigating overland from Europe to Asia was a formidable task. While other explorers had already demonstrated the possibility of circumnavigating Africa to reach Asia by sea, Columbus posited that Asia was not as expansive as commonly believed, and the ocean separating Europe from Asia was narrower than commonly thought. He maintained that a westward voyage across the uncharted Atlantic would unveil a more expeditious path to his intended destination.

The "Columbus map", depicting only the Old World, was drawn c. 1490 in the workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus in Lisbon.

Securing the essential support for his expedition proved to be a Herculean endeavor. Despite numerous rejections from potential benefactors, he persevered through seven fruitless appeals to various committees, monarchs, and prospective patrons. It was only after an eight-year crusade of unwavering persuasion that he finally secured the financial backing of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, with Columbus pledging to amass the requisite wealth within three years to fund a new crusade aimed at "reconquering the Holy Sepulcher," the sacred church in Jerusalem that commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

To undertake this audacious voyage, Columbus led a cadre of ninety sailors and a fleet of three ships - the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Columbus exemplified the qualities of the burgeoning generation of navigators: unwavering determination, dauntless courage, and an indomitable spirit. Historian Wilfred M. McClay once described Columbus's daring mission as an extraordinary foray into the unknown, requiring boundless courage to confront the capricious forces of nature. Columbus's unwavering faith enabled him to persevere, despite widespread doubts about the feasibility of traversing the Western Ocean. At the heart of his resolve lay an acute awareness of the impending apocalypse and an unwavering conviction that his mission held paramount historical significance.

On the morning of August 3, 1492, Columbus and his fleet set sail from Spain's harbor in Palos de la Frontera. As they braved the unpredictable ocean, Columbus's unwavering faith kept them going, even as a month and then two passed with no land in sight and his crew verged on mutiny. Columbus struck a deal with his men: if land remained unseen after three days, they would turn back to Spain. Columbus's belief in divine guidance sustained them, and in the early hours of October 12, the cry of "Land, land!" echoed from the Pinta. In the darkness, Columbus and his crew landed on the pristine shores of Watling Island in the Bahamas, overwhelmed with gratitude for the providence that had carried them through.

Christopher Columbus and his crew embarked on their historic journey into the New World, where they encountered the native Taíno people, marking a significant moment in history when two previously unfamiliar groups came together. Columbus, surrounded by the naked and technologically undeveloped natives, named the land "San Salvador," imbuing it with religious significance as the "Holy Savior." Under the misconception that they had reached the distant "Indies," Columbus famously referred to the indigenous inhabitants as "Indians" and aimed to spread Christianity through peaceful means, offering gestures of goodwill and mutual respect.

In the ensuing five months, Columbus explored various Caribbean islands, deepening his interactions with the indigenous populations. His relationship with the local chief, Guacanagarí, blossomed into one characterized by genuine affection, mutual trust, and profound understanding, exemplifying a rare moment of harmony between individuals from different races and cultures. However, Columbus faced adversity when the Santa Maria wrecked due to treacherous underwater terrain, leaving him with only two ships for his return to Spain. Approximately thirty-nine members of his expeditionary crew remained on Hispaniola, tasked with establishing a new settlement.

During his homeward voyage to Spain, Columbus was accompanied by six indigenous companions. On March 15, 1493, Columbus returned to Spain and was celebrated as a hero. Over the next decade, he undertook three more journeys to the Americas, exploring the Caribbean islands, South America, and the isthmus of Panama.

The Hated Columbus of Today

Christopher Columbus's historical significance is undeniable, yet in recent times, efforts have been made to cast a shadow over his legacy, portraying him as a controversial, if not entirely detestable figure. Most notably among modern protests against the Catholic explorer are accusations of his involvement in slavery and genocide toward indigenous populations in the New World.

When Columbus embarked on his historic journey in 1492, his primary objective was not territorial conquest or personal enrichment. His mission was to reach the dominions of the Grand Khan in Asia, establish alliances with newly converted Christians, and forge trade partnerships, the proceeds from which would support an impending crusade to liberate Jerusalem.

When Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World, he genuinely believed he had reached Asia, driven by his religious mission to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity. Remarkably, he undertook this mission with a commitment to love and persuasion, avoiding the use of force. Columbus built relationships based on mutual respect and goodwill, even offering gifts to the indigenous people. Throughout this period, he consistently emphasized the importance of treating the native population with honor and respect.

However, it is unfortunate that not all of Columbus's directives were heeded by his men. A clear example of this transpired during his second voyage in 1493 when he returned to Hispaniola to find his settlement in ruins and his men dead. Rather than seeking retribution, Columbus chose to gather information and understand the circumstances. He discovered that those left in charge had allowed mistreatment and theft of the native population, resulting in the tragedy. Columbus expressed profound sorrow and assumed responsibility for the incident, attributing it to his men's failure to adhere to his instructions. Contrary to the misconceptions propagated by some critics, he did not seek vengeance but rather displayed wisdom and patience by seeking truth and conveying his disappointment at the unfortunate turn of events.

Columbus's status and experience propelled him into the position of governor, a role that extended beyond mere geographical discovery, encompassing diplomacy and governance of an emerging domestic territory. In this challenging role, Columbus found himself surrounded by opportunistic and morally questionable individuals. Amidst these difficulties, Columbus made his share of mistakes, but one particularly noteworthy decision was his reluctant acceptance of Francisco Roldán's proposal, permitting the use of native labor to quell a violent uprising. This concession, driven by a desperate desire for peace, also underscored his commitment to treating the native population with fairness. In response to rebellion and mistreatment of indigenous peoples, he took resolute actions, including the execution of two Spaniards. These executions served both as a warning to other colonists and a demonstration of his dedication to upholding the rule of law, even when applied to his own men.

Amid an uprising and the ensuing chaos, Christopher Columbus implored Queen Isabella to dispatch an official investigator to Hispaniola. Her choice fell on Knight Commander Francisco de Bobadilla, a figure known for his stern disposition and a history of legal disputes arising from allegations of misconduct in the regions under his governance. Bobadilla's actions in the New World mirrored his harsh reputation. Upon encountering the two executed Spaniards hanging from the gallows, Bobadilla reacted with outrage. Without providing any justification or affording Columbus an opportunity to present his side of the story, Bobadilla promptly arrested Columbus and sent him back to Spain in shackles. Eventually, the Spanish monarchs absolved Columbus of all charges.

Columbus returning to Spain in chains. Library of Congress.

Those who had rebelled against Columbus and mistreated the native population discovered in Bobadilla a figure whose integrity was just as suspect as their own. Rather than conducting a fair investigation into the actions of the rebels, Bobadilla sympathetically listened to their grievances, meticulously recording their "testimonies" against Columbus. This collection of "testimonies" serves as the foundation for many modern criticisms of Columbus. Columbus scholars like Carol Delaney approach these allegations with skepticism, noting their unreliability being gathered from dissatisfied individuals, in Columbus's absence and without the ability to refute them. Delaney contends that it is more plausible that the rebels themselves committed many of the wrongdoings they accused Columbus of, with Bobadilla's "testimony" serving as a sophisticated cover-up to absolve them. In stark contrast to Columbus, Bobadilla proceeded to support and participate in atrocities against the natives.

Throughout recorded human history, slavery has persisted as an enduring and widespread institution, spanning every known society, including the New World during Columbus's era. Columbus keenly observed power struggles among indigenous tribes, evident from the visible injuries on the native people he encountered, while the indigenous inhabitants themselves explicitly warned of the aggressive, cannibalistic Caribs. A chilling encounter on Guadalupe Island uncovered disturbing evidence within Carib settlements, including human remains. Columbus and his crew encountered enslaved individuals, including mutilated boys apparently castrated, ostensibly for consumption. Columbus responded decisively, rescuing captives and transporting them aboard his ships, eventually capturing many Caribs themselves. Notably, prevailing papal policies of the time permitted enslavement for those who engaged in hostilities against Christians or practiced cannibalism. Columbus believed that relocating the Caribs to Spain and attempting to reform their behavior would be more humane than other forms of slavery. Unfortunately, the line between different native groups occasionally blurred, resulting in the enslavement of non-Carib individuals in Spain.

Furthermore, it is worth acknowledging that part of modernity's skepticism and critique of Columbus may also stem from his fundamental mission to evangelize. In an era where secularism and skepticism have gained prominence, the very idea of religious conversion and proselytization has become increasingly contentious. Columbus's fervent commitment to spreading Christianity to the indigenous populations he encountered, though rooted in his sincere religious convictions, can be viewed through a modern lens as a source of discomfort and controversy. Some may argue that Columbus's pursuit of evangelization, irrespective of his methods, has come to be seen as emblematic of the historical intersection of religious zealotry and colonialism, leading to a reevaluation of his legacy in the context of contemporary values.

Christopher Columbus offering the New World to the Catholic Kings (c. 1760s), by Antonio Gonzalez Velasquez.


To judge historical figures by today's ethical standards is inappropriate; instead, we should consider their actions within the context of their times. Condemning Columbus today for his participation in a practice accepted during his era while disregarding his extraordinary achievements oversimplifies a complex historical narrative. Encounters between different civilizations throughout history have been multifaceted, and while native populations in the Americas suffered during European exploration and colonization, wholly blaming Columbus neglects the intricate dynamics at play, including presuming the guilt of Columbus and the innocence of the natives. Evaluating Columbus from a modern standpoint and assigning blame for unintended consequences is an unjust approach to assessing history. Comprehensive research underscores Columbus's genuine concern for the indigenous population. When we factor in his imperfections, the formidable challenges he confronted, and his overall achievements, Columbus emerges as a significant and noteworthy figure in history, deserving of our respect and recognition.

Undoubtedly, Christopher Columbus stands as a figure of profound historical import. His audacious voyage of 1492 epitomized unyielding determination, unwavering courage, and relentless resolve—qualities that animated one of history's most ambitious endeavors. Driven by an unshakable faith, Columbus achieved what most deemed unachievable: bridging two hitherto unexplored hemispheres, transcending an uncharted expanse. His pioneering feats engendered enduring connections between Europe and the Americas, instigating momentous exchanges in trade and culture and catalyzing future discoveries that would reshape the world. In essence, Columbus's voyage constituted the pivotal prologue to the modern age. In conclusion, Christopher Columbus's life and legacy present a multifaceted narrative that transcends any type of categorization. Recognizing Columbus's unwavering faith and evangelization, dedication to exploration, and efforts to foster peaceful relationships with native populations is essential for a balanced appraisal of his historical significance. Frankly, Columbus is a hero not just for Catholics, or modern intrepid explorers, or just those that call the New World home today. He is a hero for everyone that has felt the benevolent touch of Western civilization in their lives in any way.

In honor of Columbus and his profound impact on our present lives, I invite you to reflect on this quote from him: No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His holy service.”


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