12

521 Years Ago

It is true she reserves her special and greatest honours for virtues that most signally proclaim a high morality, for these are directly associated with the salvation of souls; but she does not, therefore, despise or lightly estimate virtues of other kinds. On the contrary, she has ever highly favoured and held in honour those who have deserved well of men in civil society, and have thus attained a lasting name among posterity. For God, indeed, is especially wonderful in his Saints – mirabilis in Sanctis suis; but the impress of His Divine virtue also appears in those who shine with excellent power of mind and spirit, since high intellect and greatness of spirit can be the property of men only through their parent and creator, God.

Leo XIII on Christopher Columbus, from the encyclical of Pope Leo XII on the Columbus Quadricentennial
 

Something for the weekend.  The Conquest of Paradise theme from the film Conquest of Paradise (1992).  Today is the 521st anniversary of the sighting of land by Christopher Columbus, when the Old World became aware of the existence of the New.

This is one of those years in which the government decreed Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, does not fall on October 12, the date, under the Julian calendar, when Columbus discovered the New World.  Columbus Day is observed also in Spain as Dia de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional and as the charmingly unpc Dia de la Raza in most Latin American nations.

In this country Columbus Day used to be an uncomplicated celebration, especially for Italian Americans.  Now it has become controversial with Columbus blamed in some quarters for genocide against Indians and being the founder of the American slave trade.  As Dinesh D’Souza pointed out in this article in 1995 in First Things, the condemnation of Columbus today tells us far more about current political battles than it does about the historical record of Columbus.  From a modern standpoint there is indeed much to criticize Columbus for since, in most ways, he was a typical man of his time, as we are, in most ways, typical children of ours.  Among other views inimical to our time,  he saw nothing wrong about establishing colonies and bringing native peoples under the rule of European powers.  He had little respect for the religions of native people and wanted them to be Catholic, as, indeed, he wanted all the world to be Catholic.  (I see nothing wrong in this myself, but rest assured most of our contemporaries in this country would.)

Prior to ascending the pulpit to launch a jeremiad against someone of a prior time however, it might be useful to consider the criticisms that Columbus might have of our time.  The embrace of nihilistic atheism by so many in the West in our time would have appalled him. The easy availability of the most degrading types of pornography would have sickened him.  Our weapons of mass destruction he would have seen as a sign of the reign of the Anti-Christ.  Ecumenicalism he would have viewed as a turning away from the True Faith.  The celebration of abortion as a right would have seemed to him as the ultimate covenant with death.  The Sixties of the last century popularized the term generation gap, describing the difficulty that parents and their teenage offspring had in understanding each other.  Between our time and that of Columbus there is a generations’ chasm and the use of Columbus as a whipping boy in current political disputes only increases our problem of understanding him and his time.

I believe that there are two keys to understanding Columbus:  his Catholic faith and his courage.  Columbus lived in a religious age, but even in his time he was noted for the fervor of his faith.  Masses, penances, pilgrimages, retreats, the reading of the Bible, all the aspects of devotion that the Catholic faith offered, Columbus engaged in all of his life.  Any ship he commanded was scrupulous in religious observances, with the Salve Regina being chanted by the crew each evening at Vespers.  As his son Ferdinand noted:   “He was so strict in matters of religion that for fasting and saying prayers he might have been taken for a member of a religious order.”

Born in 1451, Columbus was two when Constantinople fell to the Turks.  All his life, except in Spain, Islam was on the march and Christendom was under siege.  As a proud Genoese, Columbus grew up sailing in a Mediterranean increasingly dominated by Islamic corsairs and fleets.  The sea routes to the East through the Mediterranean were blocked and the tiny Italian city states had embarked on a grim fight against the odds that would span over a century until Lepanto in 1571.

Throughout his writings Columbus emphasized that the purpose of sailing west across the Atlantic to reach Asia was to outflank the Islamic world and spread Christianity throughout Asia.  Columbus was not insensible to the riches that could be gained with direct trade with Asia, but it was the desire to spread the Catholic faith that is always uppermost in his writings.  This is clear in his Journal of his first voyage to the New World.

Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith; and furthermore directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone…”

Since the foundation of the Franciscan Order, it was the sons of Saint Francis who chiefly undertook the incredibly dangerous task of missions to Islamic lands outside of Spain, and crossing the vast distances of Asia to undertake missionary efforts.  Small surprise then that Columbus was a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and took Franciscan friars with him on his voyages of discovery.

All the faith in the world however is of small use to others if not combined with courage.  There are two types of courage.  There is the courage that comes in hot blood when the adrenaline is flowing.  This courage is to be honored.  A higher type of courage however is one that endures endless obstacles and frustrations over a great span of time and struggles on.  For two decades prior to 1492 Columbus failed to gain any support for his mission. Men of lesser courage would have long before decided that the task was hopeless and moved on to other things in their lives.  Columbus never wavered in his determination, against all odds, to see his dream become a reality.  Critics of Columbus contended that he underestimated the size of the world and that he could not reach Asia across the Atlantic due to the vast distance.  Ironically the critics were completely correct.  If the Americas, and the islands of the West Indies, had not existed, Columbus and his crews would have perished long before any possible landfall.  Against even such accurate criticism Columbus struggled on until finally he and the three ships under his command, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, sailed off into the watery wastes of the Atlantic on September 6, 1492 from the Canary Islands towards the setting sun.

Master Mariner that he was, Columbus had somehow learned the secret of the Trade Winds.  Utilizing them, Columbus made the Atlantic passage in five weeks, a very swift voyage.

Five weeks out of sight of land was an unprecedented voyage for the time.  As the days passed the temptation to turn back and abandon the effort must have been almost irresistable.  This poem by the colorful  Cincinnatus Miller a/k/a Joaquin Miller, which all American schoolchildren once read, illustrates the situation well:

     Behind him lay the gray Azores,

                         Behind, the Gates of Hercules;

             Before him not the ghost of shores;

Before him only shoreless seas.

             The good mate said: “Now must we pray,

For lo! the very stars are gone.

             Brave Adm’r’l, speak: what shall I say?”

                         “Why say: ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”

 

             “My men grow mutinous day by day;

                         My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”

             The stout mate thought of home; a spray

                         Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.

             “What shall I say, brave Adm’r’l, say

                         If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”

             “Why, you shall say at break of day:

                         ‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”

 

             They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,

                         Until at last the blanched mate said:

             “Why, now not even God would know

                         Should I and all my men fall dead.

             These very winds forget their way;

                         For God from these dread seas is gone.

             Now speak, brave Adm’r’l; speak and say—”

                         He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”

 

             They sailed: they sailed.  Then spake the mate:

                         “This mad sea shows his teeth tonight;

             He curls his lip, he lies in wait,

                         With lifted teeth, as if to bite!

             Brave Adm’r’l, say but one good word:

                         What shall we do when hope is gone?”             

The words leapt like a leaping sword:                         

“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”

            Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,

                         And peered through darkness.  Ah, that night

             Of all dark nights!  And then a speck—

                         A light! a light! a light! a light!

             It grew; a starlit flag unfurled!

                         It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.

             He gained a world; he gave that world

                         Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”

 

On Columbus Day I honor a faithful Catholic who had a dream to spread the faith of Christ throughout the globe and the courage to make that dream a reality.  Historians and critics will argue about Columbus until the final trump, but what he accomplished is a reality that will withstand all analysis and criticism.  Let us give the Admiral of the Ocean Sea the last word. “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

12 Comments

  1. Sorry, Donald, I think Columbus deserves most of the knocks he’s getting these days. The “man of his time” argument only goes so far — I’m not going to forgive Cromwell his depredations in Ireland because he thought his cause was just.

    We can’t blame him or subsequent Europeans for smallpox. But Columbus documents in his logs the kidnapping and rape of native girls & the torture of natives to find out “where the gold is” without disapproval. And on his return voyage he brought Indian slaves to present to their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella.
    All of the evils condemned by “revisionists” were also condemned at the time. Various Popes condemned race-based slavery as soon as the Portuguese started kidnapping and selling blacks. Likewise Pope after Pope issued encyclicals demanding humane treatment of Indians. These were, to say the least, honored in the breach.

    I just finished Orson Scott Card’s “Pastwatch: the Redemtion of Christopher Columbus”, a very interesting alternate history. For plot summary see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastwatch:_The_Redemption_of_Christopher_Columbus

  2. We will have to agree to disagree Thomas. Columbus was an astoundingly great man as Pope Leo XIII noted in his encyclical on him. The critics of Columbus today throw brickbats at him not for the purposes of historical truth, and the truth is that he was a great mariner but a poor governor, but rather to engage in current culture war battles. Columbus, against great odds, accomplished the task of opening the New World to the Old, and I view that as not only a very great deed, but also a very good one. Pope Leo in the below quote speaks for me:

    “Now that four centuries have sped since a Ligurian first, under God’s guidance, touched shores unknown beyond the Atlantic, the whole world is eager to celebrate the memory of the event, and glorify its author. Nor could a worthier reason be found where through zeal should be kindled. For the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity. By his toil another world emerged from the unsearched bosom of the ocean: hundreds of thousands of mortals have, from a state of blindness, been raised to the common level of the human race, reclaimed from savagery to gentleness and humanity; and, greatest of all, by the acquisition of those blessings of which Jesus Christ is the author, they have been recalled from destruction to eternal life. Europe, indeed, overpowered at the time by the novelty and strangeness of the discovery, presently came to recognize what was due to Columbus, when, through the numerous colonies shipped to America, through the constant intercourse and interchange of business and the ocean-trade, an incredible addition was made to our knowledge of nature, and to the commonwealth; whilst at the same time the prestige of the European name was marvelously increased. Therefore, amidst so lavish a display of honor, so unanimous a tribute of congratulations, it is fitting that the Church should not be altogether silent; since she, by custom and precedent, willingly approves and endeavors to forward whatsoever she see, and wherever she see it, that is honorable and praiseworthy.”

    A balanced view of Columbus, warts and all is given by the late Warren Carroll at the link below:

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/homelibr/columbus.htm

  3. As a counter point to Thomas Collins, Columbus would turn is his grave at the depradations and depravities that are occurring now in the New World.

  4. New Advent has a good balanced article on Bishop Las Casas, often cited by critics of Columbus.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03397a.htm

    Las Casas ironically was an admirer of Columbus, who was a friend of his father, although he condemned him for enslaving Indians. Of course in the Mediterranean world that Columbus lived in slavery was not uncommon, so long as they were Islamic slaves, part of the constant warfare between Christianity and slavery, where Christians were frequently enslaved by Muslim raiders and corsairs. What was controversial about the enslavement of the Indians was not the enslavement but that they were not Muslims. Hence the eventual ending of the practice and its substitution by black slavery. The same prohibition should have applied to black slaves but did not, for fairly complicated reasons that I will address in a future post.

  5. I was an adult when I came across the story of Columbus that school doesn’t teach. Isabelle and Ferdinand knew Columbus was refused the funds for his voyage from every royal court he solicited. Finally convinced by their priest to speak to Columbus again after refusing him, they understand that the “gift” to God of the a Cathedral they would build for bringing Spain back to the true faith was not in a building but funding Columbus’ expedition to spread the Catholic faith. To me this is the wonderful part of the story, it puts the intent in a way that can’t be argued. True the worst thing that happened was the discovery of gold, but because of the King and Queen’s original reasoning I have since come to a different appreciation of 1492.

  6. Christopher Columbus, like Moses, was threatened with death for leading his men into what they considered their death. As captain of the fleet, it was Columbus’ duty to keep a log of all the happenings, including the killing and torture of the savages, whom they considered less than human. It was only after slaves were considered fully human as persons, were the natives of any country considered persons with civil rights.
    Dred Scott, a Negro slave, (there were Chinese slaves and others as well kidnapped and forced into slavery) sued for his freedom. In 1857, the Supreme Court for the United States pronounced Scott to be only three-quarters sovereign person and without the right to have freedom. It is only the Catholic Church who considered every human being, made in the image of “their Creator” a sovereign person. Forcing Catholicism on the native would be forcing the natives to see themselves and their neighbors as sovereign persons, the image of God. Considering that human sacrifice (your human sacrifice, not theirs) was their mode of prayer, Catholicism was for the common good.
    It is highly unlikely that Columbus’ men concerned themselves with the sovereignty and personhood of the natives who were trying to kill them. The natives brought to Spain were treated as celebrities.

  7. As we all know, Columbus was searching for a direct passage to India and the Orient. Portugal refused him because the Portugese knew that his calculations for the circumference of the earth were, shall we say, way off. Portugal continued to search for an all-sea passage to India around Africa.

    A converso named Luis Santangelo loaned the money to the Spanish Crown to fund the voyage of Columbus.

    Columbus was a poor administrator, to say the least, but he was an extraordinary navigator. We know now that other Europeans had reached the Western Hemisphere – the Vikings and perhaps Irish monks, but it was due to Columbus that the New World was explored and colonized.

    What is amazing to this day is that the Western Hemisphere was explored and two thirds of it was successful mission territory of the Spanish, Portugese and French Franciscans and Jesuits.

    Much of the so-called horrors that have been exaggerated by the Black Legend – the English propaganda that did everything to make Spain look bloodthirsty and cruel – came from de la Casa’s book. Of course, England did what she accused Spain of doing.

    As Carrol points out in his book, Columbus’ discovery led to the creation of the greatest nation on earth – which fought to end two world wars and won the cold War against Soviet communism. Then Americans proceeded to elect idiots who would do what no foreign power would do – wreck the country.

  8. I listened to a book review about Christopher Columbus on the John Batchelor Show several months ago. I cannot find the book’s title or author on unline.
    The author was a female prof or PhD candidate from Stanford (?) who had done extensive research on the subject at the Brown University Archives. The materials she used were manuscripts from that period, among them writings by Columbus’ son. Her take on Columbus was that he has been maligned through the centuries and his motivation for the voyage was primarily religious:
    As stated Columbus was a devout Catholic who believed that the Second Coming would happen in his lifetime, but would only take place after the Holy Land was again in Christian hands. He believed that a crusade could only be victorious if the occupying Muslim armies were approached from both the east and the west. Columbus had reason to believe that the Chinese emperor was interested in Christianity and that there was a chance that he and his people could be converted. If converted the Emperor could be convinced to help free the Holy Land. Since the land routes to China were controlled by Muslims, Columbus would have to sail there.

  9. It is an error to criticize Columbus based on modern standards or to assign a vicarious liability on the man for the sins of others on his watch. Is Dwight Eisenhower responsible for every sin committed by our soldiers during the war? It is also an error to paint the Indians as noble innocents. Some were peaceful and agreeable but others, such as the Caribe, were cannibals. The Aztecs maintained a society of monumental evil wherein human life had little value. Bear in mind that our society countenances far more human sacrifice by abortion than the mere thousands sacrificed by the awful Aztecs. I should like to be as good a Catholic as Columbus and it gives me some pleasure to think of him as a one time neighbor of the Genovese Ligurians in the lineage on my mother’s side of our family.

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