Today is Columbus Day. I recently finished reading a book sourced on Columbus’ own journal entries, and documents of the time, and, I must say, based on what I read, I was surprised by a few things. Note below:
1 – In 1492 literate people did not believe “the world was flat”. Since the days of the Greeks and Romans, and certainly after Marco Polo, there was debate about how large the circumference of the earth was. One reason Columbus undertook his venture: he believed the trip would be short, maybe only a couple of weeks or so, because he believed in a smaller Earth.
2 – The novelty was not that Asia could be reached by going west: The surprise was that there was a continent in between. Columbus, himself, probably never fully understood this, even after four trips he believed the civilizations of the East “had to be around here somewhere.”
3 – If we are to believe his own journals and logs (remembering 1492 is about 20-years before Martin Luther), Columbus was a Christian believer who knew the scriptures. Besides seeking a trade route to Asia, Columbus was focused on the opportunity to peacefully bring the Gospel to people whom he believed had not heard about Jesus. He was thinking about the people of Asia, but part of his fundamental motivation was missions work.
4 – The Crown in Spain issued a decree specifically forbidding mistreatment or enslavement of any native peoples, instead commanding that they should be treated with respect and dignity. Yes, that deteriorated and eventually collapsed into bloodshed and exploitation, but that was due to the frenzy fueled by thoughts of enormous riches, and that unleashed greed: Columbus’ hope of peacefully spreading the Gospel was trampled as well in the stampede.
5 – As Columbus meandered around the Caribbean looking for Asian civilization, he encountered several tribes and groups of people. The Caribe tribe were cannibals, who harassed and victimized other tribes. There were hostilities and conflict among other groups too. All was not Eden.
6 –On his first journey an attempt was made to leave a colony on “Hispanola” (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic). Columbus left a group there while he, himself, returned to Spain to repair, equip and resupply his ships, leaving instructions that there should be peace and respect between the colonists and the native peoples. It was during this absence that “something” went horribly wrong at the colony in the Caribbean. When Columbus returned many had died from disease and starvation (the Europeans did not adapt well to the climate or diet), and hostilities had erupted with the local tribes. One side accused the other of one offence or another: Neither Columbus (who was a brilliant sailor and a lousy administrator) nor the Crown were able to enforce their hopes for peace. This colony was eventually abandoned.
7 – Finally, this culture clash did not turn out all good and well for the Europeans either: A big surprise to me was learning that the disease of Syphilis, and the ravages that brought to Europe, was carried back home by none other than the crew from Columbus’ voyage. It seems there are no recorded instances of Syphilis in Europe until after 1494, or thereabouts.
Columbus was a superb seaman, a good enough leader to hold together a crew who had undergone tremendous suffering and deprivation, and a man who pursued good intentions. Was Columbus naïve and inept as a governor, and as a politician? It seems, yes. Whether it be the Iroquois conquering the Mohawk, or the Vikings plundering the French and English, or the atrocities in Rwanda, or the Mongols racing across the Steppes into Europe, or Muslims invading Spain, or the Aztecs absorbing surrounding tribes, and on and on, history has shown that when cultures and peoples clash the outcome is usually grim. It is the fallen human condition: It is sin: It stinks. Ultimately Jesus, and the Gospel, *are* the only remedy … one heart at a time. At least to some extent, according to these documents, that was what Columbus hoped for too.
- Rev. Joel Davis, Executive Director