Columbus Discovers the New World (1492)
It was on this date, Friday, October 12, 1492, that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in September or October 1451, and was reared a Roman Catholic. He became a Portuguese subject and married a Portuguese noblewoman, but had no success in persuading King John II to finance his scheme of sailing west to reach the riches of the East – and, by the way, to Christianize the unbelieving inhabitants of those strange lands. In fact, it was the Portuguese Bishop of Ceuta who argued against Columbus, citing Church Fathers and Popes, that there could be no inhabitants on the other side of the world (the antipodes) because the Bible said so.
Columbus tried Spain in 1485 and pitched King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella the next year, but they at first turned him down. Between 1486 and 1491 Columbus argued his plan in England and France, and again in Portugal, but was repeatedly rebuffed on theological grounds. Back in Spain, he put together a clever presentation and took it to Ferdinand and Isabella. He had to counter the argument, based on Augustine, of the Spanish theologian Tostatus, that
The apostles were commanded to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature; they did not go to any such part of the world as the antipodes; they did not preach to any creatures there: ergo, no antipodes exist.*
Columbus learned what buttons to press to get the attention of the very Catholic monarchs of Spain, who were busy cleansing the countryside of Jews and Moors. An essay collection called Ymago Mundi published by a French Cardinal, Pierre D'Ailly, who died in 1420 – in which a surviving copy bears the scribblings of the explorer himself – supplied Columbus with solid theology to argue that the ocean passage from west to east could not be as long as previously thought. He was right, but for the wrong reason: there was an undiscovered continent in his path and that happy accident eventually brought wealth to Spain, glory to Columbus (albeit of the posthumous kind) and Western civilization to the New World.
On this date in 1492, Columbus did in fact "discover" the New World, his being the first Western foot to step onto the shore of a Caribbean island. His mission was in part to convert the unbeliever, but only to make them better slaves. As he wrote in his journal,
I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force. ... They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion.**
In some respects Columbus succeeded in the New World: in four voyages he opened up riches and real estate to his Spanish sponsors. But, in other respects, he failed: the inhabitants did not take well to being Christianized, did not make good slaves, and because their germs were not as robust, they succumbed in great numbers to the more virulent diseases of their conquerors. Columbus even failed as a governor: after his third voyage, in 1500 Columbus returned to Spain in chains.
But in spite of the bad spread to the New World: slavery, sickness and superstition, the spread of Western thought: empiricism, science, individualism, while superficially "Eurocentric," contained beneficial values that cut across ethnic and national lines. Columbus attempted to sow Christianity, but eventually reaped Enlightenment skepticism. And that can only be good!
* quoted in Andrew D. White A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1895.
** "Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus," in Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, eds., Original Narratives of Early American History: The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 – edited by J. Franklin Jameson. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906) 110-143.
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.