[Addendum to original blog below: In the same year that Columbus sailed to the new world, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, at the insistence of the churchman Torquemada head of the Spanish Inquisition, insisted that all Jews be expelled from Spain. And he purposely chose Tisha B'Av, the date of the two previous destructions of the Jerusalem Temple, as the date for this. Torquemada was enraged that many Jews were pretending to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to gain social advancement, yet secretly continuing as practicing Jews. Torquemada maintained that once Jews were baptized as Catholic, regardless of their motives, they then became property of the Church and could therefore be punished for heresy. There is credible speculation that Columbus was one of these "conversos", which the clergy also called "marranos" ("swine"). More about this in the next blog.]
Columbus landed in the New World on October 12th, 1492. (1) Every grade school student knows that he sailed west because he wanted to find an easier trade route to the Indies. After all, weren't we all taught that? (2) Yet, according to the obscure and recently translated Voyages of Christopher Columbus, written by Bartolome de Las Casas, Columbus sailed west in 1492 primarily out of missionary zeal, and not because of economic considerations. De Las Casas, who accompanied Admiral Columbus to the New World, quotes a driven and deeply religious man who felt isolated from the society of his time.(3)
"It was the Lord who put into my mind ... the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. For the execution of the journey ... I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps. It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied. All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me ..."
Indeed, for eight years prior to his voyage, the mapmaker Columbus was a laughingstock and a byword among the crowned heads of Europe.The man's scheme was itself more than enough for any monarch to bear, and Columbus' personality didn't make his ideas any more palatable. He was often overbearing, insistent and altogether too proud, even in the presence of kings.
With his idea ever in his mouth, and with a detailed balance sheet of the costs and requirements of such a voyage , Columbus in 1484 approached King John II of Portugal, seeking sponsorship for the voyage. A commission of the King's scholars studied his idea at length and made their recommendation: The scheme was outrageous and impossible. Columbus then sent his brother to the court of England to make the same request; and Henry VII replied in turn, and after a much briefer deliberation, that Columbus was insane.
Even Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain turned him down, though they admired the mapmaker's religious fervor. After four and a half years of deliberation, Columbus was told that his scheme "rested on weak foundations," that its success was "uncertain and impossible to any educated person." Columbus was nearly devastated. He was especially counting on Their Spanish Majesties, because all Europe regarded them as staunch defenders of the Christian faith.
In the spring of the fateful year 1492, as Columbus was preparing to present himself to the King of France in yet another attempt at sponsorship, he happened to stop by La Rabida, a Franciscan monastery where his son was staying. Here he spoke to Father Juan Perez, the prior of the monastery. Fr. Perez was a man of insight and compassion. He was also the former confessor to Queen Isabella and the man who changed Columbus' life. Though we have no record of the conversation that passed between these two, we do know the outcome. Fr. Perez became convinced that Columbus had divine guidance. He immediately sent a messenger to the Queen herself, urging her to reconsider the mapmaker's proposal. Just as immediately came the reply: Columbus was to return to the Spanish court to have an audience with Ferdinand and Isabella. With the letter of reply came a gift of money.
Never could Fr. Perez's messenger have arrived at a more fortuitous time. The Moslem army occupying Grenada was about to surrender. The forces of Islam were being swept from Catholic Spain once and for all, and the court of Their Spanish Majesties was ready to grant almost any favor that a religious visionary could have asked. But in the presence of the King and Queen, and flushed with his own victory, Columbus forgot himself. Proudly, foolishly, the mapmaker stipulated the following demands: a tenth of the riches found in any new lands he might discover, the positions of governor and viceroy of those lands, and the unheard-of title: "Admiral of the Ocean Sea". At this, Isabella became very grave. Who was this man who dared dictate terms to her? But hastily, Luis de Santangel, a member of the Spanish court and also a friend of Columbus, intervened. Skilled diplomat that he was, de Santangel managed to apologize for his friend and reassure Isabella. Columbus,who had been dismissed from the court for his impudence, was called back and granted all that he had asked, along with the Queen's own offer of her personal jewelry as collateral for the expense of the voyage!
Outfitted with three small ships and a crew of 90, Columbus set sail on the morning of August 3rd, 1492 with fair weather and promising winds. Sailing at first south by southwest to catch the northeasterly tailwinds blowing from the tropics, the journey could not have gone more smoothly -- if the sea and the weather were the only considerations. A following sea, and day upon day of clear skies graced the way of the three small sailing ships.
But with increasing distance came the crews increasing discontent with the length of the voyage. None of the men, nor any mariner in Europe had been more than 300 miles from land. (4) Rumors of sea monsters and bottomless chasms in the midst of the ocean fueled the fear that gripped the tiny vessels. Despite the Admiral's encouragements and promises of reward, the crew began to murmur against him. Finally, Martin and Vincent Pinzon, captains of the Nina and the Pinta, demanded an emergency meeting with the Admiral on the Santa Maria. The crew, Columbus was informed, wanted no more promises. If the Admiral did not turn the ships around, there would be mutiny. In a grim session with his captains that was purposely omitted from the ship's log, Columbus agreed to turn back and give up ... in three more days ... unless land was sighted. Now the crew members began to openly challenge the Admiral. In one such confrontation, Columbus, according to de Las Casas:
"... reassured them as best he could, holding out to them bright hopes of the gains they would make, and adding that it was useless to complain, since he was going to the Indies and must pursue his course until, with the help of the Lord, he found them."
In those last days Columbus stood alone against practically the entire crew.
Scrawled in his diary is his own name it etymological divisions: "Christo-ferrens", which literally means "Christ-bearer". Included also is this passage from Isaiah the Prophet:
"Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you people from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name ... I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Now we have a more complete picture of the man. And, just as we were all taught, land was sighted on the 12th of October, the day before the day he had agreed with his crew that he'd turn back. So began the endless convoys of galleon and conquistador, of missionary and mercenary, of the good and the evil, and of every facet of the Old World in quest of the New.
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(1) This article was originally written by me and published in 1986 by Catholic Twin Circle magazine.
(2) His featured portrait is by Sebastiano del Plombo (1519) but with the background map added to the original painting later.
(3) The reader is encouraged to view Liz Wheeler's video on Columbus. She debunks "politically correct" revisionist history about his supposed role in the deaths and abuse of the indigenous peoples of the New World.
(4) This excludes the much earlier Vikings. The news of their journeys was kept obscure for hundreds of years.