by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Why did Columbus want to sail and explore? What motivated
the Italian explorer, celebrated as the discoverer of America, to lead a crew
of ninety men across the uncharted Atlantic Ocean more than five centuries ago?
In our times his motivation is being questioned again. Some have tried to demean his name and
character, making Columbus a figure of controversy and raising doubts about his
integrity. Now we are faced with
conflicting opinions about his legacy.
What do we know for certain about the religious motivations for his
In the past Christopher Columbus was an example of the
understanding that there is no contradiction in being a Catholic and an
American. For that reason Father Michael
McGivney chose him as the namesake of the Knights of Columbus.
Intrigued by this question and Columbus’ motivation, Carol
Delaney decided to delve into the background with scholarly aplomb. A cultural anthropologist and longtime professor
at Stanford University, Delaney devoted the entire summer of 2003 to
researching Columbus at Brown University.
Two years later she resigned from Stanford to concentrate on this
research. The results of her thorough
study have been published in book form: Columbus
and the Quest for Jerusalem
(Free Press, 2011).
Upon release of her book she discussed some of the
highlights of her findings about the purpose of Columbus’ voyages. Thanks to the exacting research of Carol
Delaney, we have a truer and fuller appreciation of this genuine hero of
Dr. Delaney explains that it is common knowledge that
Columbus was hoping to find gold, but his reason was not understood. Columbus
wanted to help finance a crusade to free Jerusalem from the Muslims
before the end of the world. In his time
many thought the apocalypse was imminent because of various signs: the plague,
famine, earthquakes, and similar occurrences.
It was a popular belief that
before the end of time
Jerusalem must be returned to the Christians so
that Christ could come
in judgment. Columbus had actually
calculated the number of years left before the end of the world. He considered his plan as a mission.
Columbus was also very interested in evangelization. He kept extensive notes and wrote many
letters, and in these writings indicated that the peoples of the new lands could
not be quickly baptized and automatically become Christian. They needed to be
instructed clearly about the faith before being converted. To this end he wrote to the pope requesting
that priests be sent to the newly discovered peoples for their
instruction. He even left money in his
will to be used for this.
Recall that Columbus believed he was sailing to Asia, and
he wanted to convince the Grand Khan of China, who had expressed interest in
Christianity, to convert. He thought the
Grand Khan might join the crusade to re-take Jerusalem by marching from the
east, while the Europeans closed in from the west. This is quite an interesting concept.
Unfortunately many do not recognize and understand
Columbus’ intentions. The evidence had
not been widely studied, nor was it readily accessible. Scholars had written about Columbus’
religious motivations, but their findings were published in arcane journals.
In the 19th
and early in the 20th
centuries historians described Columbus as one of the first to use science and
reason as an explorer. But that was not
the basis of his motivation. He was a
medieval man in a religious context.
Columbus was closely associated with the Franciscans, who had assisted
him and who were noted for their missionary activity.
It is a grossly incorrect and unfair assessment on the part
of some to say that Columbus was responsible for a variety of atrocities
against the native peoples. Erroneously,
especially in the 20th
century, the brunt of all that went wrong was
attributed to Columbus. But the
falsehood of such accusations is evident from his own writings and the records of
his contemporaries. Those records show
that his relations with the natives were benign and respectful. He described
them as “natural Christians” because they had no other faith and were open to
become Christians after proper instruction.
Columbus sternly warned his crew not to maraud, rape, or
otherwise abuse the native people. His
writings offer many examples of instruction to this effect. Most of the times when injustices occurred,
he was not even there. And it is absurd to blame him for diseases communicated
to the natives by the Europeans.
Columbus’ notes record that many crewmembers did not like
the restrictions and rebelled, that they assumed they could have slaves, pick
gold from the trees, and need not work.
Columbus never had slaves, nor did he intend to obtain
slaves from the lands he visited. Of
course this would never have happened with the Grand Khan and his people in
China. Columbus wanted the natives he met to become subjects of the Spanish
After the second voyage when they had encountered a
different group of natives whom they thought were cannibals, Columbus’ brother
sent some of them to Europe. At that
time in history it was considered morally acceptable to enslave people who
acted against human nature because the captors hoped this would help them
become good Christians. While slavery
was then common, some mistakenly think Columbus instituted slavery.
Carol Delaney read and studied all the extant writings of
Christopher Columbus. Although his
original diary no longer exists, two reliable copies survive; these were in the
possession of Bartolome Las Casas, an admirer of Columbus, and Columbus’ son,
Ferdinand. Consistently his writings
express respect for the native people and concern for his crew. Also evident is his devotion to his sons and
his care for the women in his life.
While many are unaware that Columbus wrote anything, Dr. Delaney says
she liked the tone of his letters and notes, and this advanced her admiration for
him. In addition to his faith, she was
also impressed with his patience.
Columbus planned and waited more than ten years before
embarking on his first voyage. When his petitions failed with the Portuguese,
he turned to the Spaniards. The
authorities rejected his proposal three
time, yet he persisted. He firmly
believed he could do it. Then he
exhibited tremendous courage in crossing the ocean in small wooden ships with
nothing more than a compass to guide him.
Dr. Delaney expressed the opinion that Columbus died
thinking that he had not accomplished what he set out to do. He was disappointed that King Ferdinand did
not pursue the crusade, and he realized that some serious crimes had been
committed. From this point of view, he
felt his quest was a failure. But in
reality, Delaney declares it was a major accomplishment. Columbus crossed the ocean four times in
small sailing craft and without the benefit of modern navigational
instruments. He discovered the New World,
even though he thought he found only the periphery of Asia.
No wonder, then, that in the late nineteenth century
Venerable Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, chose the
intrepid admiral and evangelizing explorer as model for the fraternal order of
Catholic gentlemen. His admiration is
expressed on page one
of the May 25, 1878,
edition of the Connecticut Catholic
“As American Catholics, we do not know of anyone who more deserves our grateful
remembrance than this great and noble man – the pious, zealous, and faithful
Catholic – the enterprising navigator, and the large-hearted sailor,
Christopher Columbus – ‘the Christ-bearing dove’ as his name signifies.”