This has not been a good season for Christopher Columbus. The 500th anniversary of his discovery of America has been marked by more condemnation than commendation, especially in the popular press. There is ample reason, however, to recognize Columbus’s courage, persistence, and unshakable convictions.
Most people living one hundred years ago and celebrating the quadricentenary of Columbus’s first voyage honored Columbus as a hero who almost singlehandedly battered down the walls of medieval ignorance. This heroic image was perpetuated partly due to his accomplishments and partly due to the myth-making of several nineteenth-century authors.
This view extended far and wide. For many, Columbus had become a world hero, slaying the dragons of dogmatism, superstition, and prejudice while carrying the banner of nineteenth-century nationalism. Writers in many countries have tried to claim Columbus as their own native son. In the past one hundred years he has been presented as Armenian, Castilian, Catalan, Corsican, English, French, German, Greek, Majorcan, Norwegian, Portuguese, even Russian. At one time, there seemed no limit to the fantasies of Columbian mythology.
Many of these myths have been debunked over the years, including the notion that Columbus was the only person of his day to believe the earth was round and that Queen Isabel pawned her jewels to finance the first voyage. These and other legends die slowly. Many still resist any attempt to show Columbus as a human being, with vices as well as virtues.1
Some of the debunkers, however, have become overenthusiastic, even slanderous, in their attempts to demythologize Columbus. Their approach often serves to bolster a political cause rather than promote a search for truth. Such activity is counterproductive, not because it tears down the heroic myth, but because it merely sets another myth in its place—the equally false myth of Columbus as a villain.
What, then, do we know of the real Columbus? What were his motives in pursuing his world-changing enterprise? Perhaps the greatest motivating feature of his life was his faith. His writings and the records kept by his contemporaries indicate that Columbus had unshakable faith that he was an instrument in God’s hands.
And, indeed, the Book of Mormon affirms that he was. In vision, Nephi “looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it … wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1 Ne. 13:12.)
Columbus’s understanding of that design may well have been limited, but his conviction of being a part of it gave him a self-assurance, even stubbornness, that both amazed and exasperated his contemporaries.
Born in or near Genoa in the fall of 1451, Columbus was the son of a master wool weaver who also became warden of one of the city gates.
But young Christopher’s first love was the sea, and as an adult, he became an experienced mariner and a practical businessman.
We learn from his son Ferdinand that Columbus “was well-built, of more than average stature, the face long, the cheeks somewhat high, his body neither fat nor lean. He had an aquiline nose and light-colored eyes; his complexion too was light and tending to bright red. In youth his hair was blonde, but when he reached the age of thirty, it all turned white. In eating and drinking, and in the adornment of his person, he was very moderate and modest. He was affable in conversation with strangers and very pleasant to members of his household, though with a certain gravity.”2 His contemporary biographer, Bartolomé de Las Casas, adds that he was a “tall, imposing, good-natured, kind, daring, courageous, and pious man. … He observed the fasts of the church most faithfully, confessed and took the Sacrament often, read the canonical offices like a member of a religious order and hated blasphemy and profane swearing.”3
Fernández de Oviedo called him “a man of honest life, … fair in speech, tactful and of a great creative talent; a good Latinist and most learned cosmographer; gracious when he wished to be, irascible when annoyed.”4
There is no doubt that Columbus wanted to climb socially, but he thought it necessary in order to realize his goals. He also revealed an exasperating stubbornness and had a strong tendency not only to exaggerate but to reorder reality in his mind to make it fit his preconceptions.
Columbus had little formal education, but he became highly competent in languages, cosmography, and nautical science, attributing all his skills to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “For the execution of the enterprise of the Indies, I made use of neither reason nor mathematics, nor world maps,” he wrote.5
Perhaps nothing irked his contemporaries more than Columbus’s frank assertion that he was divinely chosen. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah,” Columbus wrote to a friend and confidant of the queen, “and he showed me where to find it.”6
Columbus was convinced that the key to his enterprise was the spiritual gifts given him by the Lord: “He bestowed the arts of seamanship upon me in abundance, and has given me what was necessary from [astronomy], geometry, and arithmetic; and has given me adequate inventiveness in my soul.” Columbus was certain that God provided these gifts to be used in His service, “encouraging me to go forward, and without ceasing they inflame me with a sense of great urgency.”7
We have no way of knowing how or when “the Spirit of God … wrought upon the man.” Perhaps it came in his youth in Genoa, or during his early voyages in the Mediterranean. Maybe his enthusiasm developed after he came to the busy port of Lisbon as a young man of twenty-five and met his future wife, the noble Portuguese lady Dona Felipa Perestrelo. Perhaps inspiration came while he and his bride lived in the Madeira Islands, some four hundred miles out in the Atlantic. Or it might even have been while on trading expeditions, north as far as Iceland and south along the Guinea coast of Africa. We only know that by the time he presented his project to the king of Portugal in 1484 he was obsessed with the idea of finding a western route across the Atlantic to the Indies.
For a number of reasons, Asia had obsessed Europeans for generations. Europe needed new supplies of minerals and goods to feed its expanding economy, and the promise of mysterious wisdom fascinated the Renaissance mind. The growing demand for Eastern spices gave further impetus to the search for a new route to Asia, which hitherto had been reached only by a long and dangerous overland journey, which had been blocked since the fourteenth century by a combination of Chinese seclusion, Muslim intervention, and the Black Plague.
Columbus’s conviction that Asia (or the Indies, as the Europeans called it) could be reached faster and easier by sailing west did not originate with him. Others believed the possibility of such a voyage, a belief fostered by the writings of Pliny, Strabo, Seneca, Marinus of Tyre, and Claudius Ptolemy. In each of these, Columbus found support for his enterprise. Pliny, for example, taught that India was not far from Spain—an idea echoed by contemporary writers like Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly who, in his Imago mundi, wrote, “Between India and Spain there is little sea.”8
The novelty of Columbus’s idea was not that the earth was round—every major geographer and scholar since the ancient Greeks accepted a spherical earth, as did seamen and educated people of the time. Rather, it was that the earth was not as far around as everyone believed. The most respected geographical authority in Columbus’s time was Ptolemy, who had calculated the circumference of the earth at 21,840 miles (the modern measurement is 25,902 miles). Columbus preferred the estimates of Arab mathematician al-Farghani, who came up with a measurement of about 20,000 miles.
More important for Columbus, however, was the ratio of land to water. Here he made his greatest miscalculations. Marinus of Tyre had suggested that land extended for 225 degrees around the earth, leaving only 135 degrees of water between Portugal and China. But even that was too far for Columbus. Had not Esdras written (in the Apocrypha) that six parts of the globe are habitable land and only one part water? Columbus therefore reduced the width of the ocean by 28 degrees to account for a larger Asia and then another 30 degrees to Japan, because Marco Polo had reported (without seeing it, of course) that the island of Cipango (Japan) lay 1,500 miles off the coast of Cathay (China). Columbus subtracted 9 more degrees when he decided to depart from the Canary Islands.
Thus, he calculated the distance from the Canaries to Japan at about 2,400 miles. He was wrong, of course; the actual airline distance is 10,600 miles. But remarkably, what did lie about 2,400 miles west of the Canaries was an entirely new continent, unknown to anyone in Europe or Asia.
Sometime in 1484, Columbus made the first formal presentation of his “enterprise of the Indies” to King John II of Portugal. João de Barros reports that after conferring with advisers, the king turned down Columbus’s proposal. The Portuguese, who knew the sea better than anyone, obviously rejected Columbus’s “small earth” theory. They correctly argued that he was mistaken in his estimate of the distance that would have to be traveled to reach Asia.
While denouncing Columbus’s proposal as absurd, the king secretly sent out a ship to see if such a voyage might be possible. “But because the people he sent lacked the knowledge, steadfastness, and ability of the Admiral [Columbus],” wrote Columbus’s son, “they wandered about on the sea for many days and returned to Lisbon, making fun of the enterprise.”9
In the meantime, Columbus’s wife had died, leaving him with their five-year-old son, Diego. It must have been with heavy heart that early in 1485 Columbus left Portugal for Spain, where he hoped for better fortune. The next seven years were filled with expectation and disappointment as he tried to win the support of the Spanish monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, for his endeavor. It took almost a year before Columbus obtained his first audience, and then the king and queen, preoccupied with the war against the Moors in Granada, simply referred his petition to an ad hoc commission of scholars.
But Columbus would not be put off. He continued to promote his project so tenaciously that it gave rise to sundry stories and myths to explain his dogmatic certainty. There are so many flaws in these stories that it is amazing anyone ever believed them, much less modern critical scholars. Yet some people are willing to believe almost anything to explain Columbus’s unmovable conviction rather than accept his claim that he was led by God. “I could sense his hand upon me,” wrote Columbus, “so that it became clear to me that it was feasible to navigate from here to the Indies, and he gave me the will to do it.”10
In the end, the Spanish monarchs could see that Columbus’s project had merit, as it promised a fresh supply of gold and provided an unprecedented opportunity to spread the Christian message. Yet Columbus’s demands for titles and privileges were so great that his enterprise was not finally accepted until January 1492.
With the proper credentials and contracts in hand, Columbus proceeded to the port of Palos, at the mouth of the Río Tinto, where his little fleet would be assembled. Because of an obligation owed to the crown, the city of Palos was required to furnish two equipped caravels, the Pinta and the Niña. Columbus leased a third ship, the Santa María.
Equipping the ships was relatively easy, but manning them was another matter. As experienced as Spanish mariners were, this was not an enterprise that appealed to them. Sea voyages are always uncertain, one sailor observed, but this one was downright foolhardy.11 Nevertheless, thanks to the support of a veteran sea captain from Palos, Martín Alonso Pinzón, and his brothers, enough crewmen were recruited. Before dawn on 3 August 1492, the three small vessels quietly rode the ebb tide down the Río Tinto, past La Rábida monastery, where Columbus had left his son to the care of the Franciscan friars, and into the unknown.
Sailing westward from the Canaries into an uncharted ocean tested the mettle of both Columbus and his crew. Most of the men had nagging doubts about the venture. No one had ever attempted such a voyage and lived to tell about it. Yet there was apparently no hesitation in Columbus’s mind. His faith in divine guidance was as strong as ever. As the land slowly disappeared behind him, Columbus knelt on the afterdeck of his flagship to thank God and seek his help in the great enterprise ahead.
The outward passage was relatively uneventful. The northeast trade winds carried them forward with “breezes as sweet as in April in Seville,”12 wrote Columbus, but it also took them farther and farther into the unknown. After thirty-two days, the men had grown so fearful of the long voyage that they began to murmur, urging Columbus to turn back before it was too late. They had come more than 2,300 miles. How long must they go on in this endless ocean? Columbus reassured them that they would soon arrive.
Two days later, in the early hours of October 12, land was sighted, and after daybreak Columbus and his officers went ashore on a tiny island in the Bahamas called Guanahani by the natives. Columbus named it San Salvador to honor the Savior. Without knowing it, he had fulfilled the prophecy in Nephi’s vision. (See 1 Ne. 13:12.)
Two things now seemed uppermost to Columbus: Now that he had located the Indies, or so he thought, his next task was to locate the riches he had promised the Spanish sovereigns. He must also prepare the natives he encountered to receive Christianity—for Columbus, named after Saint Christopher, the “Christ-bearer,” saw himself as an ambassador of the faith to these lost souls separated from the word of Christ. Repeatedly in his journal and in later letters to the sovereigns, he referred to the readiness of the people to receive Christianity.
For the next two and one-half months Columbus cruised the Caribbean to the south of his first landfall, thinking he would soon reach Japan or even the mainland of China. Instead, he discovered more islands, small and large, including Cuba and Hispaniola (the island shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He failed to find the wealth he expected, but he never lost hope, fully expecting to keep his promise to the monarchs to give them gold, spices, cotton, and “a thousand other things of value.”13 His failure to make good on such promises eventually contributed to his downfall.
Shortly after midnight of December 24, the Santa María struck a coral reef off the northern shore of Hispaniola. The ship had to be abandoned, leaving Columbus with only the tiny Niña, smallest of the three vessels. Martín Alonso Pinzón had deserted with the Pinta a month before, so Columbus decided to plant a colony, using materials salvaged from the wrecked ship to build a small fort. He called it La Navidad because the shipwreck had occurred on Christmas Day. Leaving thirty-nine volunteers to man the settlement, he turned the Niña toward Spain.
After surviving a violent Atlantic storm on the return voyage, Columbus reached Palos only hours before Pinzón’s arrival. Pinzón died within a few days, leaving Columbus to receive sole praise for the discovery. Columbus himself deflected much of that praise to God. In a letter to the monarchs he wrote: “The eternal God our Lord gives to all those who walk in his path victory over things that seem impossible. And this is notably one; for, although men have talked or written of these lands, all has been conjecture. … All Christendom ought to feel delight and make great feasts and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the great exaltation they shall have in the turning of so many people to our holy faith.”14
Nevertheless, disappointment accompanied Columbus’s ensuing voyages. On the second he found that the men he had left at La Navidad had been slain by the natives, and his explorations failed to produce much wealth. On the third voyage, he was unable to control the open rebellion that had broken out in the new colony he had founded on his second voyage. In October 1500, Columbus was arrested and deported to Spain in chains.
The humiliation was overwhelming. In a letter to a friend, Columbus wrote, “The only thing that sustains me is my hope in him who created everyone; his support has always been near. On one occasion not long ago, when I was deeply distressed, he raised me with his right arm, saying: ‘O man of little faith, arise, it is I, do not be afraid.’”15
Later, during his fourth voyage, Columbus received another divine assurance during an extremely perilous moment when he was about to abandon all hope. “Exhausted, I fell asleep, groaning,” he reported to the sovereigns. “I heard a very compassionate voice, saying: ‘O fool and slow to believe and to serve thy God, the God of all! … Thou criest for help, doubting. Answer, who has afflicted thee so greatly and so often, God or the world? … Not one jot of His word fails; all that He promises, He performs with interest; is this the manner of men? I have said that which thy Creator has done for thee and does for all men. Now in part He shows thee the reward for the anguish and danger which thou hast endured in the service of others.’ I heard all of this as if I were in a trance, but I had no answer to give to words so true, but could only weep for my errors. He, whoever he was, who spoke to me, ended saying: ‘Fear not; have trust; all these tribulations are written upon marble and are not without cause.’”16
Between the third and fourth voyages, Columbus busied himself with the compilation of his Book of Prophecies, in which he hoped to demonstrate the historical and prophetic meaning of his discoveries and his own role as “Christ-bearer.”17
Most Columbus authorities have either ignored the Book of Prophecies, apologized for it, or else denounced it as the ranting of an unbalanced mind. That is unfortunate, because the book is vital to understanding Columbus’s thought and character. Columbus was a pious man and a diligent student of the Bible. He read it carefully, using the most reputable Bible commentators of his day. He also claimed to receive illumination from the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Prophecies, as compiled by Columbus with the help of his friend, Father Gaspar Gorricio, is a collection of biblical passages and interpretations of God’s plan for the unfolding of world events. Its principal themes are that prophecy was being fulfilled by the discovery of new lands and peoples and that the consummation of God’s work was fast approaching. Columbus suggested that before the final days, the gospel message must be taken to all the world and that Jerusalem must be redeemed and the temple rebuilt.
Columbus believed he was the human instrument called by God to carry out part of that divine plan. “With a hand that could be felt,” he wrote to the king and queen in a prefatory letter, “the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses. … Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures.”18
In the book’s first section, Columbus presents a collection of sixty-five psalms that deal with his two major themes: the salvation of the world and the rebuilding of Zion. He calls special attention to several verses in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah that speak of the Gentiles as a people chosen to inherit the Holy Temple, their conversion in the last days, and the gathering to Zion. The inheritance of the Gentiles is further cited from St. Augustine, whose quoting of Ps. 22:27 is paraphrased by Columbus as “All the ends of the earth and all the islands shall be converted to the Lord.” After quoting Matt. 24:14, Columbus comments that the gospel has been preached to three parts of the earth (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and now must be preached to the fourth part.
The second section of the Book of Prophecies concerns prophecies already fulfilled. The theme is the ancient greatness of Jerusalem and its subsequent fall.
In the next section, Columbus deals with prophecies of the present and near future, emphasizing the theme of salvation for all nations. Isaiah is cited frequently. Columbus then furnishes several texts from the New Testament: Matthew 2:1–2; 8:11 [Matt. 2:1–2; Matt. 8:11]; Luke 1:48; and notably John 10:16, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
The final section of the book deals with prophecies of the last days, which Columbus introduces by calling attention to Jeremiah 25 [Jer. 25], where the prophet predicts the restoration of Jerusalem prior to the Final Judgment. Finally, he quotes twenty-six scriptures that refer to the islands of the sea and their part in the last days.
The Book of Prophecies was not the ranting of a sick mind. It was the work of a religious man who was not afraid to put his ideas into action and his own life into jeopardy. Columbus knew the scriptures as well as he knew the sea, and he saw a connection between the two. The central theme of his book was that God had sketched in the Bible His plan for the salvation of all mankind and that he, Columbus, was playing a role assigned to him in that plan.
The conclusion of Delno West’s excellent introduction to the English translation of the Book of Prophecies clearly summarizes the Admiral’s character and motives: “Christopher Columbus looked upon himself as a man of destiny who had been given a charismatic gift to understand Scripture, navigation, maps, winds, tides, astronomy, cosmography, mathematics and related sciences. His understanding of his mission, or enterprise, was drawn from the Bible or proved by the Bible, and he knew that he was opening up new lands rich with gold and other valuables. He believed himself a chosen person working for the good of all Christendom in opening up the rest of the world to the gospel message. He knew that he would be misunderstood and maligned, but he accepted that as the lot of a divinely chosen person.”19
In our day the maligning has increased in intensity, but our awareness of what Columbus accomplished under God’s direction ought to remind us of our own indebtedness and responsibilities as benefactors of his fortitude. His chief concern, as ours should be, was not what people would think of him, but what God would think of him.