Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Why did Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) 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 voyages?
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 history.
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.
Respect for Natives
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 sovereigns.
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.
Failure or Success?
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.”