Posted on October 16, 2011


Columbus Day for most of us, the holiday, has come and gone. But for us purists, today [October 12, 2011] is Columbus Day.

Christopher Columbus, a Genoese mariner in the service of the Queen of Castile, Isabel, and the King of Aragon, Ferdinand, set out from the small Atlantic coast port of Palos on August 3, 1492 to reach India “to see the said princes and the lands…and to see how their conversion to the Holy Faith might be undertaken.”

There you have it, in Columbus’s own words, from the letter he wrote the Catholic Sovereigns upon his return from this first voyage in early 1493.

He was on the way to India to spread the Faith.

That he fetched up, about 3000 miles from Spain, upon some islands where there were no Indians, no Christians, no Muslims and nothing much resembling what he reasonably expected to find somewhere in Asia, surprised him indeed.

Historians like “documentary evidence,” so let’s follow Columbus on this voyage. Documents are original pieces of writing, produced at the time and they have an immediacy and pungency that no historian or novelist can reproduce writing long after the fact.

Towards the end of the voyage the crew started to grumble.

“Here the men could no longer stand it,” Columbus recorded on Wednesday October 10. “They complained of the long voyage…but the Admiral [Columbus] encouraged them as best he could,” adding, “that it was useless to complain since he had come to find the Indies, and thus had to continue the voyage until he found them, with the help of Our Lord.”

So there crew. Besides, they were picking up sticks, some cane and “other vegetation originating on land, and a small plank.” They must be near land.
On the night of the eleventh, soon after nightfall, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana saw a small flicker of light on the dark horizon.

It was land.

The light was “like a small wax candle that rose and lifted up” and towards midnight the Admiral saw it too.

After midnight, the Admiral asked the crew to recite the Salve [Regina] “which sailors in their own way are accustomed to recite and sing…and the Admiral entreated and admonished them to keep a good lookout on the forecastle and to watch carefully for land.” For sure no one was sleeping.

“At two hours after midnight,” in a transcendent moment that changed the course of history, “the land appeared, from which they were about two leagues [six miles] distant.”

So as not to run ashore on a strange land, “they hauled down all the sails…and jogged of and off, passing time until daylight Friday, when they reached an islet of the Lucayas [Bahamas], which was called Guanahani in the language of the Indians.”

“Soon they saw naked people; and the Admiral went ashore in the armed launch,” the royal banner was unfurled, and then they did something that launched five hundred years of European imperialism which the world is still recovering from.

Columbus called his captains, and Rodrigo Descobedo, “the escrivano [scribe; notary public] of the whole fleet…and said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords.”

No one asked the natives of Guanahani (later renamed San Salvador Island by the Spanish; known as Watlings Island by English speakers) if they minded their home being transferred ownership, or, later, becoming subjects of the King and Queen of Spain.

Columbus also remembered his commission to convert and “because I recognized that they were people who would be better freed [from error] and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force—to some of them I gave red caps, and glass beads which they put on their chests, and many other things of small value, in which they too so much pleasure and became so much our friends that it was a marvel.”

And so the missionary method was established. Bring presents and do good things, and then preach the Word of God.

Since it appeared that “they had no religion,” the Admiral decided to “take six of them from here to Your Highnesses in order that they may learn to speak [Castilian, or Spanish].”

While the Admiral was interested in souls to save, he was also a good Renaissance man, interested in the things of the world as well, especially gold.
On the second day after landfall, “I was attentive and labored to find out if there was any gold; and I saw that some of them wore a little piece hung in a hole that they have in their noses.” Columbus later discovered many with tattoos. Very fashionable people.

The natives seem to have sensed another side to these strangers. Columbus wrote that “by signs I was able to understand that, going to the south or rounding the island to the south, there was a king who had large vessels of it and have very much gold.”

It became a standard strategy of American Indians when confronted with nosy Spaniards. “Ah, there is much gold, pearls, other things you seek beyond the next island, across the wide river, over the mountains….”

Some of these simple-minded folk even apparently thought Columbus and his crew might be gods.

“Come see the men who came from the heavens. Bring them something to eat and drink,” one old man said when saw the Spanish two days later, on Sunday October 14. How Columbus understood them after two days of contact is not in his diary or log, as transcribed by the friar Bartolomé de las Casas many years later. The original diary is lost.

Lamentably, the putative gods did not behave like gods, or good gods at any rate.

Columbus wrote his sovereigns that “these people are very naive about weapons, as Your Highnesses will see from seven that I caused to be taken in order to carry them away to you and to learn our language and to return them.”

And the Admiral added, “whenever Your Highnesses may command, all of them can be taken to Castile or held captive in this same island, because with 50 men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish.”

Columbus proved eerily prophetic. The discovery, exploration, and conquest of the “New” World was kicked off the man who today is still extolled by Spaniards, Italians and Italian-American nationalists, but vilified by the descendants of American Indians.

He was far more complex than simple historical stereotypes manipulated for political or cultural advantages. He was the same as you and I, but vastly different for his fortune was cast on the world’s stage.

He was pious and profane, high-minded and crassly materialistic, sacrificing and self-serving, a man worth recalling as a mirror of humankind itself.

Posted in: History