By Patrick B. McGuigan
The sailors — from Spain and other nations — grew restless after a month of sailing to the west. They only continued the voyage because they could see for themselves what the Italian captain kept pointing out: there were birds in the sky, and bits of wood floating on the surface of the sea. At last – at about 2 a.m. on Friday, October 12, 1492 — they saw land.
The world changed.
His motivations were as complex as those of any seafarer of that day. Described as a well-built man who was taller than most, he had blue eyes and reddish hair. He went to sea as a boy, even surviving one shipwreck. Certainly, he had a desire for personal fortune, a more comfortable place in life for himself and his kin.
Christopher Columbus could be unfair or capricious in a given moment, yet friends and family found him forgiving and open-hearted the next. A better man than most, he was profoundly committed to the Roman Catholic faith, and felt compelled to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the unconverted. He did that, in the course of exploring uncharted oceans and lands.
Columbus and his men landed on what he would name San Salvador (Holy Savior), claiming it for his Spanish sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Yes, the course of human history had changed.
Did it change for the better? Real men and women do not fit the caricatures we make of them, good or bad. For a long time, Columbus got largely uncritical press and the praise of historians. Then, in the years before the 500th anniversary of his epic voyage, a negative re-interpretation of history accelerated.
With an often anachronistic and misplaced sense of moral superiority, modern critics look back through a distorted lens at the adventurer who led three ships across the Atlantic 521 years ago. They assign to a courageous, daring sailor responsibility for what they deem the deficiencies of Western society and Christian culture.
Some now denigrate his life’s work as bringing only misery and exploitation to “the New World,” as the Europeans called it. There’s no doubt that colonial administration — both his and that of those who followed — fell well short of standards the Carpenter of Nazareth had set 15 centuries before. But the malevolent and vicious figure portrayed in many modern renderings is a work of a fiction, virtually unrecognizable as the noble man of grit and honor — Christopher, the “Christ-bearer” — known to his contemporaries.
To be sure, he was as human as any one of us. No plaster saint, he was a brilliant navigator who in later trips cut the time of his Atlantic crossing to 20 days. Columbus was, arguably, a lousy colonial administrator. Perhaps to his credit, he was an even worse politician, rarely able to counter his enemies in royal court or Spanish colonial intrigue.
Some forget the context of the military actions he faced, or guided. A friend to Guacanagari, chief of the peaceful natives he first encountered, Columbus responded with force when the Caribs, considered cannibals by other tribes in the region, attacked his men. He could not prevent the start of centuries of violence between Europeans and those who lived in the regions he explored.
After Isabella’s death, he suffered isolation and ridicule in the nation he had served. After that, his health collapsed, and he retired to Valladolid in Spain.
As his final hours approached in 1506, only his brothers, two sons and a few friends were in attendance. His decline in power and political influence, and his death in poverty and temporal disgrace, serve to remind us of an ancient Roman warning often recalled by the late Gen. George S. Patton: “All glory is fleeting.”
In an unforgettable moment of historical drama, at the end Christopher Columbus insisted that the chains once slapped upon him by an imperial administrator be buried with him. He died as he had lived, praying for grace and strength.
In the life of Columbus, we see a cycle of abject poverty and hard work, glorious success and shocking failure, clarity of purpose and collapse of vision. For this and more, it is Columbus, not his critics, whose place in history is assured.
Christopher Columbus set out to achieve great things, but had no idea how much his life’s work would transform the earth.
He is a model — not necessarily of saintliness, but of a moral and personal courage that is not only missed in the modern age, but actively opposed and denigrated. Long after the death of the Admiral of the Ocean Blue, Sir J. Stevens observed: “Every man has in himself a continent of undiscovered character. Happy is he who acts the Columbus to his own soul.”
He strove mightily, succeeded greatly and failed miserably — all in one heroic lifetime. He struggled with the same emotions and problems and temptations faced by political and military leaders even in this day. He did his best for his beliefs, his patrons and himself. His life brought more human transformation, and triggered more religious conversions to the Prince of Peace, than all the carping of all those critics will bring in 1,000 lifetimes.
Christopher Columbus, a human being like us, became the man who made the world one. “In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.” On that morning long ago, the shout of “Land Ho!” echoed from ship to ship. This day, and every day, his name evokes — and deserves — honor for one of the greatest men who ever lived.
NOTE: Portions of this essay have appeared previously in other publications, including The Oklahoman, CapitolBeatOK and The Knight Times.