Christopher Columbus – American Hero and Man of God
From 1844 to 1958 there was a large marble sculpture group depicting Christopher Columbus at the east façade of the US Capitol building. It was made by Luigi Persico and called “Discovery of America.” Columbus is the dominant figure in the statue as an Indian woman gazes up at him with a combination of both awe and fear. Columbus represented, through allegory, the duty of Americans to spread civilization and more specifically, Christianity, to the savage natives.
During the Senate debates about the erecting of the sculpture, Pennsylvania’s Senator James Buchanan, the later President of the USA, described the statue and Columbus in this way:
It represents the great discoverer when he first bounded with ecstasy upon the shore; all his toils and perils past, presenting a hemisphere to the astonished world, with the name America inscribed upon it. Whilst he is thus standing upon the shore, a female savage, with awe and wonder depicted in her countenance, is gazing upon him.
The best account of the character of Columbus has come down to us from his son Fernando Columbus. This younger son of Columbus was born in 1488, and though still very young, accompanied his father on his fourth expedition in 1502-1504. Fernando received great praise from his father for the fortitude with which he bore the hardships of the trip. The biography of his father is the most important work of Fernando Columbus.
The name of Columbus foretold his future fame, that he was truly Columbus or dove, because he carried the grace of the Holy Ghost to the New World, showing its people Him Who was God’s beloved Son, as the Holy Ghost did in the figure of a dove when St. John baptized Christ; and because over the waters of the ocean, like the dove of Noah’s ark, Columbus bore the olive branch and oil of baptism to signify that those people who had been shut up in darkness and confusion were to enjoy peace and union with the Church. And just like St. Christopher is said to have gotten that name because he carried Christ over deep waters with great danger to himself, so did Columbus, asking Christ’s help and protection in that dangerous journey, crossed over the ocean so that the nations of the New World might become inhabitants with Christ in Heaven.
Columbus was very moderate and modest in eating and drinking, and in adorning himself. He was very gentle character, though also possessed certain gravity. He was so strict in matters of religion that in fasting and saying prayers he might have been taken for a member of a religious order. He was so great enemy of swearing and blasphemy that he never uttered any other power-words than “by St. Ferdinand!” Whenever he wrote anything, he always began by writing words “JESUS cum MARIA sit nobis in via.” (May Jesus with Mary be with us on the way).
Columbus studied geographers in the University of Pavia, and also astronomy and geometry. He then became a sailor, and travelled far and wide and saw many nations and peoples. Once when he was sailing between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, his fleet started the battle with some Portuguese galleys. The men crossed from boat to boat, killing and wounding each other without mercy, using anything they could get hold of, like fire pots and other utensils. After the fight had lasted the whole day, with many dead and wounded on both sides, fire spread from Columbus’ ship to the enemy galley, and the men had to jump overboard, for they preferred drowning over the torture of fire. But Columbus, who was an excellent swimmer, seized an oar and with its help managed to reach the shore. He found himself near Lisbon, and since he knew there were lots of his Genoese countrymen in that city, he went and remained there. He received such a warm welcome that he made his home in Lisbon and married there.
In Lisbon Columbus used to go to Mass at the Convent of the Saints (Convento dos Santos), which belonged to the military knights of Santiago. It became a fashionable boarding school for the daughters of the Portuguese aristocracy. Its superior was a lady named Dona Filipa Moniz Perestrelo of noble birth. Since Columbus was very honorable and handsome, he attracted her attention; and after many conversations and friendship, she became his wife. They lived with her mother Isabel Moniz, who, after noticing Columbus’ great interest in geography, told him that her late husband Bartholomew Perestrelo had been a great seafarer. Columbus heard from his mother-in-law how Don Perestrelo and two other captains had gone with the license from the King of Portugal to discover new lands. They had discovered the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, which latter fell as the share of Don Perestrelo who governed it until his death. Seeing that Columbus was fascinated by the stories of these voyages, Dona Perestrelo gave him the writings and sea-charts of her husband. After studying these, he spoke with the men who had accompanied him to Mina and Guinea, and Columbus started to speculate that if the Portuguese could sail so far south, it should be possible to sail as far westward, and that it was logical to expect to find land in that direction.
In due time Columbus, convinced of the soundness of his plan, proposed to put it into effect and sail over the Western Ocean in search of new lands. But he knew that his enterprise required the cooperation and assistance of some prince, and since he resided in Portugal, he decided to offer it to the king of that country. Although John II, who was King in years 1481-1495, listened Columbus attentively, he appeared cool toward the project, because the discovery and conquest of the west coast of Africa, called Guinea, had put the King to great expense and trouble without the least return. At that time the Portuguese had not yet sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope, because it marked the end of those fine hopes of conquest and discovery; others claim it got that name because it gave promise of the discovery of richer lands and of more prosperous voyages.
However, King John did not want to spend money on the expedition, so at the last moment he cancelled already planned voyage suggested by Columbus. So behind his back King John prepared a caravel to attempt what Columbus had offered to do, thinking that if those lands were discovered in this way, he would not have to give Columbus the great rewards he demanded. In secret the King sent the caravel on the pretext of sending provisions and reinforcements to the Cape Verdes, and dispatched it where Columbus had proposed to go. But because the people he sent lacked the knowledge, steadfastness, and ability of Columbus, they wandered about on the sea for many days and returned to the Cape Verdes and thence to Lisbon, making fun of the enterprise and declaring that no land could be found in those waters. When Columbus learned of this, he got so angry that he decided to leave Portugal at the end of year 1484 to Castile, with his little son Diego – his wife had died. Leaving the boy son in a monastery in Palos, called La Rabida, he went to see King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but they said to Columbus that they were preoccupied with other wars and conquests, especially the War of Granada, which they were then bringing to conclusion, and so could not give their attention to a new enterprise.
Once the royal couple had liberated Granada, a friend of Columbus Luis de Santangel went to see the Queen in January 1492, and spoke about the necessity of discovering new realms, which would give glory both to the true Catholic Church and to the Spanish kingdom. Having received the commission, Columbus went to Palos, the port where he would sail, on May 12, 1492, and received from the King and Queen two caravels. The flagship, in which Columbus himself sailed, was Santa Maria, and the two caravels were named Pinta and Nina. He set sails for the Canaries on August 3rd, having on board ninety men.
As this was the first voyage of that kind for all the men in the fleet, they eventually grew frightened at finding themselves so far from land without any hope of help. Seeing nothing but water and sky all about, they paid the closest attention to everything they observed. Because the hard wind was always at their backs, the crew was complaining and afraid that they would never get back to Spain. Columbus wrote that he was in need of God’s help, such as Moses had when he was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and they dared not lay violent hands upon him on account of God’s miracles. And soon it did arouse a strong wind from another direction and also a rough sea which would smooth their travel.
But soon men grew restless again, got together, and decided that they had tempted fortune enough and wanted to return to Spain. Besides, they were running low on food supplies, and the ships already had so many leaks and faults that even now it was uncertain if they would make it back. If Columbus would refuse, they would throw him overboard and report in Spain that he had fallen accidentally while observing the stars. With his eloquence and gentleness, Columbus persuaded them to keep sailing, but knew that he would need to find land fast for the sake of his expedition, and his own life. He reminded the crew of his power to punish rebels, reminded them of the signs of life they had seen, like birds and sea creatures, and of also the great reward the Catholic majesties had promised to the first man who would sight land.
At daybreak of the Sunday, October 7th, they saw what appeared to be land lying westward, but since it was indistinct, none wished to claim having made the discovery, not for fear of being shamed if proved wrong but for fear of losing the 10,000 maravedis reward. In order to prevent men from crying “land, land!” at every moment and causing unjustified feelings of joy, Columbus had ordered that one who claimed to have seen land and did not make good his claim in the space of three days would lose the reward even if afterwards he should actually see it. Being warned of this, none of the people on the Columbus’ ship dared cry out “land, land!” But Nina, which was a better sailer and so ranged ahead, fired a gun and broke out flags as a sign that she had sighted land. But the farther they sailed, the more their spirits fell, until at last that illusion of land faded clean away. But they did spot many large flocks of birds, more varied in kind than those they had seen before, and others of small land birds which were flying from the west to the southwest in search of food. Being now a great distance from Spain, and convinced that such small birds would not fly far from land, Columbus changed course from west to southwest, because he knew that the Portuguese had made most of their discoveries by attending to the flights of birds. He did this especially because the birds they saw were flying in almost the very same direction where he always expected land to be found.
On the afternoon of Thursday, October 11th, the flagship’s people saw a green branch pass near the ship, and later, a large green fish of the kind that is found near reefs. Then the Pinta’s crew saw a cane and a stick, and they fished up another stick skillfully carved, a small board, and an abundance of weeds of the kind that grow on the shore. The Nina’s crew saw other signs of the same kind, as well as a thorn branch loaded with red berries that seemed to be freshly cut. These signs, and his own reasoning, convinced Columbus that land must be near. That night, therefore, after they had sung the Hail Mary as sailors were accustomed to do at nightfall, he spoke to the men of the favor that Our Lord had shown them by conducting them so safely and prosperously with fair winds and a clear course, and by comforting them with signs that daily grew more abundant. And he prayed them to be very watchful that night, reminding them that in the first article of the instructions issued to each ship at the Canaries, he had given orders to do no night-sailing after reaching a point seven hundred leagues from those islands, but because of the great desire of all to see land, he had decided to sail on that night. They must make amends for this temerity by keeping a sharp lookout, for he was most confident that land was near, and to him who first sighted land he would give a velvet doublet in addition to the annuity for life of 10,000 maravedis that their Highnesses had promised.
At daybreak of October 12, the fleet finally they saw an island, full of green trees and abounding in springs, with a large lake in the middle, and inhabited by a multitude of people who hastened to the shore, astounded and marveling at the sight of the ships, which they took for animals. These people could hardly wait to see what sort of things the ships were. The Christians were no less eager to know what manner of people they had to do with. As soon as they had cast anchor, Columbus went ashore with an armed boat, displaying the royal standard. The captains of the other two ships did the same in their boats with the banner of the expedition, on which was depicted a green cross with an “F” on one side, and crowns in honor of Ferdinand and Isabella on the other.
After everyone had rendered thanks to Our Lord, kneeling on the ground and kissing it with tears of joy for His great favor to them, Columbus arose and gave this island the name San Salvador. Then, in the presence of the many natives assembled there, he took possession of it in the name of the Catholic Sovereigns with appropriate ceremony and words. The crew proclaimed Columbus as Admiral and viceroy, and swore obedience to him as the representative of their Highnesses, with great show of pleasure and joy as so great a victory deserved. They also begged his forgiveness for the injuries that through fear and little faith they had done him. Many Indians also assembled to watch this celebration and rejoicing, and Admiral Columbus, seeing they were gentle, peaceful, and very simple people, gave them little red caps and glass beads which they hung about their necks, together with other trifles that they cherished as great treasures.
When Columbus returned to his fleet, the Indians followed him, some swimming and others paddling in their canoes. They now brought their own gifts, parrots, fabrics of woven cotton, darts, and other things. They appeared fluent in speech and intelligent, easily repeating words that they had once heard. After San Salvador, Columbus sailed to other island, one of which he named Santa Maria de la Concepción (Rum Cay), and the other one Fernandina (Long Island, Bahamas). By the time he reached Fernandina, the local Indians had already received the word of strange explorers. So the people flocked to see him. Fernandina was the biggest and the most beautiful island Columbus discovered, though the Indian village consisted only of 12 or 15 huts. Not only did the island abound in springs and beautiful meadows and trees, among which were many aloes, but it had mountains and hills which the others lacked, being very level. Charmed by the beauty of this island, Admiral Columbus decided to take possession of it and went ashore at some meadows as lovely and pleasant as those of Spain in April. They heard the song of nightingales and other small birds, a song so sweet that Columbus could not tear himself away.
Before he sailed back Spain, Columbus ordered to take some Indians as captives, for he intended to take some persons from each island to Spain in order that they might give information about their country. So twelve persons were seized, men, women, and children, and they came so peacefully that at sailing time the husband of a woman who had been taken aboard with her two children came up in a canoe and asked by signs to be taken also to Spain that he might not be separated from them. This Columbus granted, and he ordered they should all be treated well.
No Holy Week in Seville ever had such a happy ending as that of 1493. Columbus had returned. Many had forgotten all about him. He entered Seville on Palm Sunday with ten live Indians, red and green parrots, and nuggets of gold. It was hard to say which was the greater attraction, the Indians or the parrots. Among the spectators was Bartolome de Las Casas, who was then a boy of about ten years old. What the ten Indians saw about them was as astonishing to them as they were to Spaniards: a host of bearded men, men on horseback, men with their legs covered with hairless leather or clerical gown, and everyone covered up. Besides horses they saw dogs, pigs, cats, chickens, donkeys, and cows, houses of stone, iron gratings, and smelled the scent of garlic, wine, and sausages. Not a substance or a color did they recognize. They were given bread and onions, olives, chick-pea soup, and the delicious surprise of oranges. They heard such a wealth of words as they had never dreamed of. The sea crossing in the caravels had taught them certain things, but it was nothing compared with the flood of new experiences that impinged on their senses. They were the first American tourists in Europe.