Monday, October 10, 2011

Remembering Columbus

I grew up in a day when celebration of Columbus Day was untainted by guilt. Columbus was a heroic figure, a man who braved the seas and discovered this part of the world, making it possible for us to eventually be born here on this favored free land. So pardon me if I don’t jump on the “Columbus was evil” school of thought often taught today.  

I have my flag out. And I want to say a few things identifying what is praiseworthy about the man remembered for the 1492 voyage across the ocean blue. 

Columbus was a religious man, from his youth on. He had something of a vision as a young man, wherein he thought he heard the voice of the Lord as well as Old Testament prophets. Whether he was inspired about the trip around the world at that moment, I don’t know, but Columbus believed the “Holy Spirit had spoken to him, saying that his name would be proclaimed throughout the world” [West and King, The Book of Prophecies of Christopher Columbus, pp. 53-54). By early adulthood he came to see himself as a man on a mission to find new lands and peoples. And to bring Christ to those pagan people. 

Whatever people may believe now about Europeans bringing disease or other evils, in his heart Columbus intended good—for those who sponsored his voyages, and for those he encountered in his travels. 

He had access to royalty, despite humble beginnings, because of his devoutness. According to his son Ferdinand, he caught the attention of Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, daughter of Portuguese nobles, while attending mass, because Christopher “behaved very honorably and was a man of handsome presence and one who never turned from the path of honesty” [Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, p. 14]. Ferdinand also described him as “pleasant but dignified,” and “was so great an enemy to cursing and swearing [that he] never heard him utter any other oath than by ‘St. Ferdinand!’” [p. 9]. 

There were years when things weren’t going well. The Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, had a long war to fight in Granada (southern Spain) to oust the Moors, and they couldn’t be distracted with attention or money until they succeeded. That happened in the memorable year 1492 (and immediately after the expulsion of Jews from Spain as well).  

When Columbus gathered his crew, he went about it carefully. He normally would have selected from the prisons, offering amnesty in exchange for the life-risking task of manning the voyage. But Columbus believed he would be better off with God-fearing men. He had only four prisoners: a man who had killed someone during a quarrel, along with his three friends who had attempted to rescue him from hanging. The men he took with him, each one, before embarking on the trip home, recommitted himself to Christ. 

Columbus was considered the most skilled seaman of his day. And he hired skilled sailors to man the other two ships. He hired an interpreter, Louis de Torres, a former Jewish Rabbi converted to Christianity, in case the peoples they encountered had languages related to ancient Israel. 

The ships left August 3, 1492, and sailed 660 miles to the Canary Islands, where they made repairs and resupplied provisions. From here they left September 9th and made a course due west, encountering smooth sailing with the trade winds most of the way. On the way he changed course only twice during the entire 33 days. Note that the longest voyage directly away from Europe prior to this had been three weeks, so it took some doing to keep persuading the men to stick with him. The men were fearful—that the wind would never allow them to return to Spain (miraculous calm assured them otherwise), and then that the winds wouldn’t carry them to land (miraculous sea movement took care of this worry), and they would never get there. The change in course, it is believed, brought them to land a day sooner than they would have otherwise, which, when the men were on the verge of mutiny, was crucial. 

Columbus saw the hand of God at every point along the journey. 

Columbus treated the natives well, and was concerned at how open and guileless they were. Such people could be easily enslaved, which he had no intention of allowing. He reminded his men to always be Christ-like, and to be gentle toward the New World people and treat them properly. 

The return trip was rather more dangerous, but he was able to keep his promise to the men that they would return. Columbus believed he had been inspired in choosing the route home. He recorded in his log January 14, 1493, “I have faith in Our Lord that He who brought me here will lead me back in His pity and mercy…no one else was supportive of me except God, because He knew my heart.” 

Future voyages may have been sponsored because of the hope for gold and treasure (which he did indeed provide evidence of). But Columbus had more spiritual desires. In outlining recommendations for colonizing Hispaniola, he suggested “that there be a church and priests or friars [b sent] for the …observance of divine worship and the conversion of the Indians.” And he suggested “that one per cent of all the gold obtained be taken for the building of the churches and…for the maintenance of the priests or friars” [Peter Marshall, The Light and the Glory, p. 101, 105].  

It is likely, maybe inevitable, that at some point someone would eventually cross the ocean. I believe the world is better off because Columbus was that man. His purpose was to follow God’s inspiration and to spread the word of Christ. He did what he could to prevent conquest, enslavement, or other uncivilized behaviors that could (and at some times and places later did) happen as a result of his explorations. I continue to honor him. 

(Note: The books cited above were cited in a chapter of our homeschool text, God’s Hand in the Building of America, Volume 1, from The Center for Educational Restoration.)

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