Christian Living

wehispanics 10/13/09

A Christian reflection on the Discovery of America

(Click here for Spanish) I think it is important to have a measured, spiritual and well founded perspective on Christopher Columbus.   I have read a great deal of disinformation about this Genovese sailor, who has been the object of much attack, at the very mention of his name.

Historically, Columbus has been admired for having demonstrated that it was possible to reach the east by traveling west, and for having discovered a whole continent unknown to the majority of Europeans.  His voyage demonstrated, not that the Earth was round, but its approximate size.  The persistent myth that Europeans believed that the earth was flat is a literary fantasy of Washington Irving.  Europeans knew that the Earth was round since the III Century before Christ, when Erasthotenes affirmed it and his compatriot Ptolomey ventured an approximate measure for its circumference, one too small, which was the basis of Columbus´ calculations.  What Columbus added was a determination to fulfill the Great Commission and the faith to obey the urgings of the Holy Spirit, as he himself confessed.   

Many today attribute to Columbus all the consequences of the Conquest and the Spanish Colonization.  In fact, Columbus denounced the sexual abuse of the Indian women in various letters, and he repeatedly asked for more priests to reform the bad conduct of the Spaniards.  It was precisely his effort to impose order in the lawless and rebellious colony of Hispaniola, what motivated the false accusations that landed him in chains in Spain.  Not only did Columbus not take advantage of the naked Indian women: he order that a naked girl that was given to him as a “peace offering” by the Indians be dressed up and returned to her parents.   

For Christians, the feat of Columbus means an unparalleled step forward in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.   He insisted to the Catholic Kings that this was his purpose in his first audience with them in Granada, in his Diary of Navigation of the First Voyage and in his Book of Prophecies.   In this last book, the only one left with Columbus’s handwriting, he documents that it was the Holy Spirit who urged him to undertake his famous voyage, so that the Gospel could be preached in the ends of the Earth.  In its 84 pages, Columbus backs his argument copying over 80 biblical passages and makes reference to the Holy Scripture 108 times more.     

Christopher Columbus was undoubtedly a Christian, as it is evidenced many passages of his writings, and the testimony of the Church of his time.  (He died in 1506, eleven years before Luther nailed the 95 Thesis, beginning the Reformation).   His best friends were several friars, and he belonged himself to the Tertiary Franciscan Order, whose vestments he wore to his grave. 

Columbus was not an exemplary Christian in everything.  One of his glaring errors was to live without the benefit of marriage with Doña Beatriz Hernandez, with whom he had a son, Fernando.  This conduct stands in contradiction to Columbus practice of living in convents after he widowed, and should be understood against the Spanish custom of only marrying above one´s social station in order to improve one’s  status. 

Another moral failure of Columbus was to taunt the potential treasure of America as an argument to obtain financing for his last three expeditions.   One of the challenges that plagued Columbus was how to finance his Enterprise of the Indies.  Thus he chose to appeal to the motives of his financiers.  He did not, for instance, hesitate to bring 1,200 Indians to be sold in Europe.  All his ambition brought him no gain. Queen Isabella said: “Who is he, to treat my subjects thustly­?” and ordered that every last Indian should be returned “exactly to the place from where they were taken.”  The Crown never paid him a penny from the portion that was his.  As my childhood history book read:  Columbus died poor and forgotten in Valladolid.”

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