Carol Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, Free Press, 2012, 319 pp. $17.00 (softcover)
What sort of man was Christopher Columbus? Why did he cross the Atlantic and what did he do in the New World? The fashion is to despise him as a greedy, genocidal racist and slave driver, but Prof. Carol Delaney of Brown University refutes these charges. His motives were almost entirely — even fanatically — Christian, and he was kind to Indians. She is mystified by the evil reputation he has acquired.
As Prof. Delaney explains, it is impossible to understand Columbus without understanding what committed Catholics thought in the 15th century. Most believed Christianity was the one true faith and that unbelievers went to hell. Evangelism was a duty. Many Christians were millenarians and believed that the End Times and the return of Christ — as described in Revelation — were coming soon. A series of catastrophes intensified this belief and prompted Christians to action.
According to Revelation, Christ could not return until Jerusalem was in Christian hands. The Crusader conquest of the Holy Land in 1099 was a gigantic step forward, but its loss to Saladin in 1187 shocked all Christendom. Then in 1347, the Black Plague killed an estimated 25 million Europeans and up to three-quarters of the people in parts of Italy and Spain. Another sign of the coming End Times was the Great Schism of 1378 to 1417, during which there were two competing Popes, but even worse was the fall of the Constantinople — the Eastern capital of Christianity — to the Turks in 1453. That year, Columbus was two years old; he grew up at a time when Catholics were desperately trying to understand how God could have permitted these horrors — loss of Jerusalem, plague, schism, fall of Constantinople — and were determined to win back lost ground. Columbus’ most fervent wish his entire life was to recapture the holy city of Jerusalem.
Prof. Delaney explains that Columbus was convinced he could help retake the Holy Land by sailing to China across the Atlantic. First, he would bring back gold, which was supposed to be plentiful in China, and this would finance a new crusade. Second, he could avoid the Silk Road land route to China, which was blocked after the fall of Constantinople. Third, he would meet the Chinese ruler, the Great Khan, convert him to Christianity, and persuade the Christian Chinese to attack from the East and help liberate Jerusalem. Fantastic as it now sounds, the idea of enlisting the Chinese to help bring on the Second Coming dated back to the time of Marco Polo and the publication of his Travels in 1300. Columbus owned a copy of the Travels and made many notes in the margins.
It was unusual for lay people to read the Bible, but Columbus read it diligently. His contemporaries wrote of his passionate Christianity, and he was strongly influenced by the Franciscans, who thought Christians should not wait passively for the End Times but work to bring them on. Columbus also took very seriously the duty to convert heathen peoples and save their souls.
Before the voyage
Columbus was an Italian who grew up in Genoa. He was nine years old when ships sailed from Genoa on a failed crusade, a sight that must have made a deep impression. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to the sea, and he got his first taste of the Atlantic on a voyage to England in 1476 when he was 25. In 1481 or ’82, he sailed to what is now Ghana, and stopped in the Canary Islands. He was a gifted navigator, with a widely admired talent for dead reckoning (navigation without instruments).
Columbus didn’t care which Christian sovereign financed his voyage to China. He met with King João II of Portugal, but the Portuguese were exploring the route around Africa, and were not interested. Columbus approached the British and the French, but it was the Spanish under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand who showed the most interest. Still, it took 13 years from Columbus’ first audience with the queen until his first voyage in 1492. She put him off until the Moors were finally driven out of Spain, but even after the Reconquista, she hesitated. Ferdinand always doubted Columbus, and Isabella’s advisors tried to dissuade her, but she finally agreed to pay for three small ships and a crew of 90.
Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel, a replica of the Nina that crossed the Atlantic in 1492 with Christopher Columbus. (Credit: ©/Santa Cruz Sentinal/ZUMA Press)
Columbus kept a detailed dairy of which only abridged versions survive, but they still tell us a great deal. After 31 days of sailing, so many of the crew insisted on turning back that Columbus promised that if they didn’t sight land in three days, he would give up and return to Spain. Two days later, the ships made landfall on what is now Watling Island in the Bahamas. There, Columbus found naked people, whom he thought handsome and intelligent. He gave them trade trinkets “in which they took so much pleasure and became so much our friends that it was a marvel.” Columbus believed he was in the Indies, so he called the Arawaks Indios, or Indians.
The Arawaks did not appear to have any kind of religion, and since they would not have to unlearn a pagan faith, Columbus thought they could be easily converted to Christianity. He wrote to his patrons: “They should be treated courteously because they are the best and most gentle people in the world, and especially, because I have much hope in Our Lord that Your Highnesses will make all of them Christian.”
Columbus had much more trouble with his own men. As the ships sailed from island to island, the natives were always gentle, but some ran away, and Columbus had to restrain his men from looting. In his diary, he wrote of his dissatisfaction with his men, especially compared to the natives: “I believe that in the world there are no better people or a better land. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest speech in the world and they are gentle and always laughing.” Columbus was entranced by the beauty of the islands, the vegetation, the birds and fishes. The natives slept in hammocks, which were then unknown in Europe, and soon all European sailors were sleeping in hammocks rather than on deck.
“First Tribute to Christopher Columbus” José Garnelo, 1892. Credit: Album / Oronoz
One of his captains, Martin Pinzon, disappeared for six weeks, looking for gold. When he rejoined the fleet, Columbus learned his crew had captured men and women; he ordered them freed and returned. Columbus kept hoping to find someone who could lead him to the Great Khan so he could present letters of greeting from Ferdinand and Isabella and teach him Christianity. Columbus persuaded six Arawaks to go back to Spain with him; they would prove he had reached India, and he wanted them to learn Spanish and Christianity so they could come back as missionaries.
The Santa Maria grounded and was wrecked on Christmas day. The crew set up a camp called Navidad, and Columbus left behind 40 men with instructions to be kind to the Indians. On the way back, the ships stopped at what is now the Dominican Republic and found a war-like tribe, very different from the Arawaks. In their first skirmish with Indians, his crew wounded several men with swords and crossbows. The Arawaks told Columbus these “Caribs” were cannibals and took slaves.
Columbus’ ships sailed back across the Atlantic and limped into port seven months and 11 days after they had initially set out. Columbus was a hero, and proudly presented his Indians to the queen, along with several gold pieces he had found. He promised her as many slaves as she might want, but only from among the man-eating Caribs. This was in accordance with Papal rules that permitted slavery only of savages who resisted Christianity and practiced vile habits such as sodomy or cannibalism. Isabella never had much interest in slaves; she wanted Indians converted where they were.
The queen financed a much larger second voyage: 17 ships and 1,200 men. They were to build a trading station for business with the Chinese, and Columbus was to receive one tenth of the profits. The queen commanded the settlers to treat the Indians “very well and lovingly.”
When the fleet returned to Navidad, Columbus found everyone dead. Friendly Indians told him the men had defied his orders and gone raping and looting. This angered a neighboring chief who attacked and slaughtered them. Columbus, who had had only good relations with these Indians, believed this account, well aware that the Spaniards could have deserved what they got, but many of the newcomers mistrusted the Indians and wanted revenge. Columbus managed to restrain them, and the fleet found a different site on Hispaniola for a new settlement.
Columbus was a genius at sea, but Prof. Delaney writes that he was a bad administrator. He thought men of different classes could work well together, but the high-ranking hidalgos who had come on the voyage refused to work and expected easy riches. They would not farm, would not eat the local food — which Columbus and others enjoyed — and wrote letters back to Spain complaining about Columbus. When Columbus went on further voyages of discovery looking for gold and the Khan, men he left behind went into the interior to rape and plunder.
Columbus put his brother Bartholomew in charge of the settlement and went back to Spain. He arrived dressed in the coarse, brown habit of a Franciscan, which he wore for the rest of his life. Prof. Delaney suspects this was a reaction to the greed and cruelty of the Spanish. Columbus thought the settlers were bad missionaries. When he saw the queen, he asked for better friars than the ones she had sent on the second voyage. They thought baptism was enough to turn anyone Christian, but Columbus thought Indians should get careful instruction in the faith. For the rest of his life, he stressed the importance of missionaries who could speak Indian languages.
Columbus was in Spain for two years between his second and third voyages, and this time set out with just 330 people, of which 30 were women. Prof. Delaney says it is not clear whether they were wives, servants, or prostitutes who were supposed to keep the Spaniards from raping Indians. When Columbus got back to the settlement, he found that dissidents had up risen up against Bartholomew’s strict government. Columbus did his best to end what was a low-level civil war and restore order. He was furious at continuing reports of Spaniards who had mistreated Indians, and hanged the worst offenders. He never permitted enslavement of Indians but, under pressure, he imposed a tax on Indians to be paid in crops or in gold.
Some hidalgos defied Columbus’ authority, so he wrote to the queen, asking her to send an arbitrator to back up his authority. Prof. Delaney writes that it is now known why Isabella chose Francisco de Bobadilla, whose mind was already poisoned against Columbus by men who had returned to Spain. He sided with the insurgents and sent Columbus back to Spain in chains. The settlers far preferred Bobadilla, who let them exploit and even murder Indians. Isabella freed Columbus after his return, but he kept the chains for the rest of his life as a reminder of his humiliation.
Christopher Columbus chained on his ship, pl. 33, after p. 474 (vol. 2), Credit: Album / quintlox
While in Spain, Columbus wrote what is called the Book of Prophecies, a long theological justification of his life and travels. He saw his discoveries as an important part of a great cosmological drama that was to culminate in the End Times. The book quotes scripture to claim that his voyages were divinely inspired and fulfilled Biblical prophecy. It explains why he was so conscious of the meaning of his first name, Christopher, which means the Christ-bearer. He believed he was carrying Christ to the East.
Prof. Delaney notes that most Columbus scholars are shocked by the Book of Prophecies and try to ignore it. Whatever they think of him, they don’t like to think he was a religious nut, and the book was not translated into English until 1992. It is, however, a clear statement of his motives.
Columbus set out on his last voyage in 1502. He had orders only to explore; the colonies had several thousand inhabitants, and the queen took administration out of his hands. He made more discoveries, especially in Central America, but suffered a series of mishaps that included a shipwreck that left him marooned on Jamaica for a year and five days.
Shortly after his return to Spain, Isabella died. Ferdinand never had much faith in Columbus and financed no more voyages. Columbus did not live in poverty or obscurity but never regained anything like the glory he won after his first voyage.
“The last moments of Christopher Columbus” by Claude Jacquand. Credit: Album / Fine Art Images
Prof. Delaney is baffled by Columbus’ bad reputation. She notes that, by contrast, Bartolomé de Las Casas — who knew and admired Columbus — is now considered a hero because he defended the rights of Indians at the Valladolid debate of 1550–1551. Las Casas insisted that Indians be recognized as free men with the same rights as Spaniards. Prof. Delaney writes: “Las Casas is remembered only for his defense of the Indian; what is forgotten is that he owned slaves and endorsed and operated encomiendas [plantations on which Indians were serfs] while Columbus, who never owned slaves, is reviled and blamed for everything that went wrong in the Indies.”
Academics may consider Las Casas a humanitarian, but the people now pulling down statues of Columbus have probably never heard of him. Nor would they care if someone told them Columbus was kind to Indians and hanged Spaniards who mistreated them. Columbus’ crime is to have come here; he brought white people to the New World. He used to be honored for this, but today, that makes him a villain.