What You Should Know About Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus was a man with a Catholic faith that embraced eternity, and a man very much limited by his times and circumstance.

John Vanderlyn, “The Landing of Columbus,” 1847
John Vanderlyn, “The Landing of Columbus,” 1847 (photo: Public Domain)

I was taught in kindergarten that a certain man was a great hero. An episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks had even left me with the impression, for several years afterward, that he’d proven that the Earth is round. Some years later, while at the University of Michigan, I was told that that same man was a harbinger of death and destruction. The truth about him is probably something far more familiar to us all: that he was a man with very heroic qualities, as well as very real shortcomings. 

He was born the son of a weaver in the city-state of Genoa in 1451, and largely self-educated. During his youth he’d demonstrated aptitude and ambition, including skills as a promising navigator. The threat of Islamic conquest was a fact of life during his lifetime. Christendom’s borders had been receding for more than 800 years by the time he was born. Constantinople fell under Ottoman control when he was very young, thus closing the Silk Road to Christian traders. The flourishing of Christendom became the great cause for which Christopher Columbus would dedicate his ambition. 


The Voyage: Piety, Courage, and Ambition

It remains somewhat obscure whether Columbus grew up in a pious household (one of his brothers did become a priest), or whether faith became a priority later in his life. But pious he was. He frequently prayed the Divine Office, sang the Salve Regina, and read the Gospel of John. Most all of his written letters began with the words, “May Jesus and Mary be with us on the way.” 

Father Bartolomé de las Casas, the great Dominican priest who’d earned the title “Protector of the Indians,” wrote of Columbus: “He observed the fasts of the church most faithfully, confessed and made communion often, read the Divine Office like a churchman, hated blasphemy and profane swearing, and was most devoted to Our Lady and to the seraphic father St. Francis…”

Columbus was a Third Order Franciscan, as plenty of other historical figures were. In St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “If we imagine passing us in the street a pageant of the Third Order of St. Francis, the famous figures would surprise us more than the strange ones. For us it would be like the unmasking of some mighty secret society.”

I’m rather surprised that Dan Brown, in his eagerness to write novels about the “conspiring” societies within our Church, hasn’t jumped on this one yet. 

Brother Christopher’s close ties with the Franciscans, and his marriage to the daughter of a Portuguese noble (from 1479 until her early death), did much to secure contacts for him in the royal court. He had a plan to forgo the Silk Road and reopen the spice trade to Europe. He likewise knew better than to approach the Portuguese Crown with his plan. Doing so would have likely meant ceding leadership to a Portuguese navigator. Instead, he approached the Spanish Crown with his daring idea: to travel to the East by sailing west.  

The piety of Brother Christopher left a very strong impression upon Servant of God Queen Isabella I. He’d expressed his desire for the wealth gained to be used to fund a new Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim rule,. The year 1500 was fast approaching, after all, and he believed that the Holy Land needed to be in Christian hands before the “End Times.”

The Spanish Crown agreed to sponsor his voyage. Still, he had to wait several years. The closing years of Spain’s centuries-long reconquest were underway. The Siege of Granada finally ended Jan. 2, 1492, expelling the last outpost of Moorish rule from the Iberian Peninsula.  

The Crown’s treasury was also, of course, depleted after the centuries of warfare to retake Catholic Spain from Muslim rule. Luis de Santángel, the royal treasurer, reached out to various crusading societies, as well as other backers, to make it happen. Second-rate vessels were all that could be secured for the voyage.

The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María set sail Aug. 3, 1492. The men aboard these ships needed tremendous courage to continue traveling westward (by sailing south, that is) across those uncharted seas. Their spirits were sustained by singing the Salve Regina at sunset every day, led by their captain. 

Brother Christopher believed that Providence had sent him on a mission. He likewise understood that ships could not sail on indefinitely. He’d promised the men to turn back if land was not spotted by the Feast of Our Lady of Pillar, the patroness of Spain, and he intended to keep his promise. Brother Christopher, having vastly underestimated Earth’s size, was nowhere close to Asia by that time.

In the very early hours of Oct. 12, 1492, on the Feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, one of the crewmen looking westward finally shouted: “Tierra! Tierra!” 

This voyage was the beginning of permanent contact between Europe and the Americas. The great agricultural, technological and cultural exchange that followed permanently transformed our world. Every country in the Americas, including our very own, owes its current existence to this very event as a stepping stone. Christendom’s borders, after having receded for more than 800 years, had expanded as never before. 


The Early Settling: Times, Circumstances and Shortcomings

People bring their humanity with them wherever they go. A man brings his ignorance along with knowledge, the evil in his heart along with the goodness.

Smallpox and measles took a tragic toll on the peoples of the Americas, who’d had no previous exposure to such diseases. Germ theory and immunization were several centuries away from being developed and proven.

Fortune hunters flock to wherever the prospects of vast fortunes exist. There were indeed men with great capacities for brutality who’d volunteered themselves to be among those early colonists.

The practice of slavery, which was even older than writing itself, remained an institution. Slavery was so widespread, and so universal, that it had even been practiced in the Americas long before contact with Europe. 

Columbus was indeed a great explorer. He failed to prove himself as an able governor of Hispaniola (1492-1500). Controlling all that happened in the new colony proved too difficult a task for him. His indulgence, toward both natives and Spaniards, often ran him into difficulties. When situations got out of hand his implementation of harsh measures (during an era in which harsh punishments were far more customary), upon both natives and Spaniards, likewise ran him into difficulties. Long absences, the result of sailing to Spain and back, certainly didn’t help. Some of his men grew even bolder in abusing the natives while he was away.

He indeed took slaves as prisoners of war, or in cases in which violations of natural law, such as cannibalism or human sacrifice or sodomy, had been found. Those were the only grounds that Queen Isabella, herself very much ahead of her time in opposing slavery, allowed for it to happen. 

Columbus brought with him five missionaries, out of roughly 1,000 men, during his Second Voyage (1493-96). Before his third voyage (1498-1500), he had cautioned King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella over who was being allowed to sail to the New World, writing to them that even more missionaries would be necessary to preach the Christian faith to those Spaniards who were abusive.

In 1500 he was deposed as governor, and returned to Spain in chains. Visionary men often fail as administrators. The charges leveled against him, over mismanaging the colony, were quickly dismissed upon his return to Europe.

His successors as governor, including his eldest son Diego, quickly established and entrenched the formal encomienda system in the Americas, despite Queen Isabella’s opposition to it. The transatlantic slave trade began a generation after that. 

The world’s awakening to the evils of slavery was gradual, and still a work in progress during the 15th and 16th centuries, just as our own awakening to the evils of infanticide remain a work in progress in our own day. The colonization of the Americas had likewise paved the way for total abolition of slavery throughout the entire Western Hemisphere in the centuries which followed. 

“What was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery,” economist Thomas Sowell wrote, “but that it later abolished that evil, not only in Western societies but also in other societies subject to Western control or influence.” 

Christopher Columbus was, simultaneously, a man with a faith that embraced eternity and a man very much limited by his times and circumstance. Any practicing Catholic can relate to this.


The Conversion of the Americas: A Miracle Under Scrutiny 

Brother Christopher was often seen wearing a Franciscan habit, particularly while in the presence of nobility, during his final years. Upon his death much of his fortune was bequeathed to two great causes: a new Crusade in the Holy Land and spreading of the Gospel in the New World. The latter cause was a resounding success. 

The astounding speed of conversions to Christ in the Americas rivals even the era of St. Paul himself. 

It’s rather cliché in our own day for men and women, in certain circles, to assume that the conversion of the Americas had been mostly the result of coercion, or to claim that most all was well in the Americas until Europeans crashed the party. 

Such clichés largely depend on the axiom that any one religion is just as good as any other. Yet what we really do know about the demonic religions of the Aztecs and Incas, which were the most highly advanced civilizations in the Americas at that time, certainly isn’t pretty. And for all of this popular talk about the evils brought upon the Americas since 1492, why does so much get left unsaid about the evils that had been purged since then?  

Such clichés largely ignore that men really do sincerely convert themselves to the real Christ. They ignore that a man can be motivated by something much more than simply his greed. 

By maintaining so much focus on the excesses of certain colonists and Conquistadors, which certainly ought to be acknowledged, the labors of so many missionaries quickly get overlooked. Missionaries such as Father Bartolomé de las Casas, Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio and St. Junípero Serra , who were instruments to light the flames of faith in countless hearts, likewise were brought into the New World following the great event of 1492. 

A cliché is conveniently used to recall that, yes, an army led by Hernán Cortés, which actually included up to 200,000 allied natives, had toppled the Aztec Empire in 1521. The cliché just as conveniently ignores the event that followed shortly after, one the greatest miracles of all ages: the millions of sincere conversions that followed the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in 1531. 

The proper question may be: Why has Christianity remained in the Americas for this many years after the era of colonialism?

Those who refuse to humble themselves enough to believe in miracles must resort to parroting clichés. 


How Would We Remember Him?

Brother Christopher was a pious Franciscan who’d dedicated his ambitions to God’s glory. He’d likewise declined to marry Beatriz Enríquez de Arana, his mistress of many years, and the mother of his younger son, Ferdinand, most probably because he didn’t see how her low social status could serve his ambitions. He was neither an angel nor a devil. He was simply a man. But how should we choose to remember any man?

Are we, the beneficiaries of his exploration, going to laud a man for having had conviction, ambition and courage? Or should we blame that man for anything that went wrong afterward, including events far beyond his control, or events that he hadn’t even been there for, without even trying to consider how his times were different from our own?  

I often suspect that what I’d been taught in kindergarten, to look upon a man with childlike benefit of the doubt, is far closer to seeing the truth about him than the cynical judgment that remains so popular in colleges across our country. How we choose to view anyone, including historical figures, reveals at least as much about ourselves as it does of any of them.