Columbus, the Rest of the Story

Posted on January 1, 2011


On Tuesday it will be Columbus Day, although we celebrate it tomorrow, the second Monday of every October in this country. Much has been written about Christopher Columbus over the past five hundred years.

He has been extolled and vilified in the extreme by partisans (the Italians really like him) and critics (descendants of American Indians) so much so that the “real” Columbus will forever be veiled by his contradictory nature, and contrary interpreters.

No one doubts that his discovery of the Americas set in motion the beginnings of a new civilization, born of European, American, and African roots and races. Later on an Asian stream was added to the mix, so we Americans—in the larger sense of all the Americas—were “globalized” ethnically and racially long before the term became trendy to describe today’s world.

We in the Western Hemisphere may argue and fight over much, but we all claim a common denominator, Columbus, for better or worse, who set the whole thing in motion.

Recently while reviewing some lectures on Columbus for a course I teach on the exploration, discovery, conquest and settlement of the New World, I was reminded of a dimension of Columbus that has long been subordinated or ignored by those who dwell on him and his era.

It seemed to be an embarrassing reminder that he was some sort of religious fanatic, given to mystical visions, a bit flighty really, thinking the providential hand of God had much to do in the making of his life. It reveals in fact why he did what he did, which is at least as important as what he did.

He was first and foremost an explorer of course. He was a master mariner, a navigator, a student of the ocean’s currents and winds, a “seat of your pants” sailor who seemed to have a sixth sense of the seas and its mysterious ways.

He dreamed of finding a seaborne way to the East, to the emporiums of Asia, bypassing the Muslim empire of the Turks rising in Constantinople, by sailing directly west from Spain across the great Ocean Sea, the Atlantic. This “Enterprise of the Indies” was finally realized in 1492 when 518 years ago, his sailors shouted “Tierra, Tierra” [Land, Land] and Columbus took a handful ashore to claim the island of San Salvador for God, for Spain, and for the sovereigns who sponsored his voyage, Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand.

And therein lies part of the full story, seldom told. It’s not that Columbus didn’t tell it. He has been accused of many things; being shy was not one of them.

He composed a Book of Prophecies in 1501 although it was not published in a critical edition for the first time until 1894, nor translated and published in English until 1991. Truth be told, it was kind of embarrassing for his admirers, too remote and mystical for his detractors, a piece of the whole puzzle only revealed honestly in the past half century.

In the Book of Prophecies Columbus pulled together—in eighty four manuscript pages—scores of Biblical passages which pointed to him as inaugurating the completion of the Great Commission that appears in Matthew 28:19: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Columbus had discovered the way to the rest of the world, still pagan, that had never heard of Jesus Christ, let alone of Christianity. Once these people were evangelized and brought into the Christian fold, the apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ could begin, the Great Commission having been accomplished. The Millennial Kingdom of God was at hand, and the handmaiden was Christopher Columbus.

He truly believed the hand of God was on him, endowing him with the drive, the focus, the perseverance, the knowledge, and everything else he needed to make that First Voyage.

When he returned to Barcelona, Spain in the spring of 1493, he excitedly told the sovereigns that not only the way to the East had been opened, but also the glory and riches to be accrued could then be applied to the final Crusade, the recapture of Jerusalem from the Muslims.

The fabled Temple of Solomon, the city where Jesus died and was resurrected, would once again be in the hands of Christians, and a few Jews presumably, to help fulfill prophecies of restoration, redemption, and victory at the end of time.

If all this sounds a bit mystical, spiritual, and resembles books in the Bible such as Daniel and Revelations, replete with apocalyptic and eschatological visions of the End Times, you are right. Columbus the mariner, the explorer, the conquistador of Indians, the greatest sailor perhaps of all times, the broker of a new world, the vector of everything that went wrong with western civilization from importing diseases to the New World to the environmental wasting of the planet he initiated (you have to read the literature to really appreciate how much he has been held accountable for over the years) was also Columbus the visionary.

Part of his signature, or rubric, is coded and impossible to decipher, the rest of it, a mixture of Greek and Latin, meant “Christ Bearer.”

It was not a cynical bow to the Christian mission, but an expression of a deeply felt calling which he shared with his Queen, Isabella. She didn’t agree with everything he did—enslaving the simple Indians of the Caribbean islands for example—but she saw the world through the same lens of a Church militant.

And so there is the rest of the story. Columbus was—among his many faces—a Christian warrior, the “Christ Bearer,” the author of the Book of Prophecies where he described his mission in detail. It’s not a page turner, but if you want to know what really moved the man, it becomes a fascinating window into his soul.

Published as: The Whole Story Surrounding Columbus Day is Often Forgotten by The Tuscaloosa News, Oct. 3, 2010..

Posted in: History