The Facts of Christopher Columbus: Successful Sailor, Murderous Mariner, Providential Pathfinder?

Christopher Columbus was born on Oct 31, 1451 and died on May 20, 1506 at the age 54.  The famed Italian voyager who stood 6′ tall unwittingly discovered America as he intended to discover a westerly route to India. The mariner in our day bears a split historical personality.  Is he an intrepid explorer or a greedy exploiter? This much we agree upon, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”. But should October 12th be Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day?   Was he a successful sailor or a murderous mariner?

Before we decide, let’s remember the facts of his life. Christopher Columbus was an explorer, navigator, and colonist who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under the flag of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain. He led the first European expeditions to the Caribbean and Central America.  Christopher Columbus began sailing as a teenager and began sailing the Atlantic in 1476. Three years later he married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo with whom he had two sons.

During his first voyage in 1492, for five weeks, the trade winds from the east drove Columbus’s ships to The Bahamas.  The fact is that Columbus didn’t discover the America we now call the United States as he never set foot on the North American Continent. During his four voyages, he reached modern day Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, as well as the Central and South American coasts.  His western route to India was not achieved although he thought he had and consequently the aboriginals of the lands he did discover came to be known as Indians. The vast Pacific Ocean still separated India from the new world he had found.

Yet his explorations and discoveries were nothing less than extraordinary accomplishments. This is clearly so given both the resistance he faced to secure the necessary funding and the vastness of the undulating Atlantic he crossed with his diminutive wooden ships driven by unpredictable winds.   For nearly ten years, Columbus pursued funding to attempt his western route to Asia. In 1484 he tried and failed with King John II of Portugal. In 1487 he failed to convince both King Henry VII of England and King Charles VIII of France. He struck out with the Spanish royalty in 1486, but later persuaded them.

If successful, Columbus had the opportunity to  become wealthy and assume positions of great power as the admiral of the sea as well as viceroy and governor of the lands he discovered. His agreement with the Spanish monarchs stated that he could retain 10 percent of what he took into possession in the newly discovered lands.

It’s here that Columbus’ image begins to lose its luster.  As an example of what one generally encounters these days about Columbus, one writer declares, “Columbus may indeed have had noble intentions when he sailed west, but his agreement with Spain suggests his intentions were far from selfless. He enslaved and mutilated native people…. When Columbus first set foot on Hispaniola, he encountered a population of native people called the Taino. …The natives were soon forced into slavery, and punished with the loss of a limb or death if they did not collect enough gold (a portion of which Columbus was allowed to keep for himself). Between the European’s brutal treatment and their infectious diseases, within decades, the Taino population was decimated.”

Along with this sorry account, it is known that in 1499 Columbus was arrested by the Spanish Government due to mistreatment of the colonists and consequently lost his title as governor.  Thus, in Columbus we have an image of an intrepid explorer, an exploiter of natives and a failed leader of colonists. There is an element of truth in each. However one views Columbus whether good or evil, he was the European who discovered the pathway that links the old and new worlds.  

So, when the day arrives set to honor Columbus, or a statue in his honor is seen reminding us of his exploits, we should remember all the facts of Columbus.  As with all great leaders, the life of Columbus brought both good and bad that yielded both blessings and difficulties.

The fact is, Columbus’ voyages linking the Western and Eastern Hemispheres brought a new age of discovery that shaped history and transformed nations.  In spite of contemporary moral ambivalence concerning Columbus, we ought not to overlook the fact that divine providence overrules human sin for God’s glory.  As Columbus noted: “…it was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) to sail to the Indies.”

So, when we hear debates over Columbus arguing whether he was a successful sailor or a murderous mariner, let us not forget that ultimately, he was a providential pathfinder who opened the world to the advance of western civilization that has been so deeply impacted by the Bible.  In fact, it was the Bible that inspired Columbus in the first place. The providential pathfinder explained his determination to pursue his voyage this way, “All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures.”  And it is a comfort for us today to know that due to divine providence, both good and bad will ultimately accomplish the good purposes of the Greatest One of all.

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