- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
It would be foolish to conjure up Columbus as a dashing, brilliant seaman or even as a bold and enlightened explorer. He certainly was a great sailor, and his successful crossing of the Ocean Sea was an unparalleled feat of navigation. Yet very little comes through from the scant information we have on Columbus the man, or from his own writings, to suggest that he was the swashbuckling, decisive, and gallant Renaissance figure often portrayed in schoolbooks.
He was, rather, contained, inflexible, and high-minded. He was also capable of ruthlessness and extreme cruelty. That he was imaginative and intrepid there can be no doubt. And although he proved a weak and fumbling administrator, we do gain the sense of a magnetic personality: he was able to wed a woman who was by far his social superior, and he won the compassionate support of Queen Isabella for an enterprise that was decidedly risky. Like all those held up to heroic stature, he had that admirable mix of courage, single-mindedness, and zeal that saw him through overwhelming obstacles.
But if there was a single key to his character, it was his intense religiosity. Columbus had a fundamental belief in the Bible and a sense of destiny that was clearly messianic.
When he invoked mystical cosmology, the Bible, ancient legends, and empirical fact to authenticate his ideas, he gave no more weight to science than to prophecy. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John … and he showed me the spot where to find it,” he wrote, after having taken his little fleet across a forbidding sea on that first epochal voyage. Such a statement helps us understand the Genoese explorer as a figure in transition from the medieval world, with its roots in the real and the unreal, to that of the boldly questioning Renaissance.
The voyages of discovery by Columbus and his followers provoked predictable excitement, yet for decades there was little understanding of the magnitude of what had transpired. Renaissance Europe had been guided by maps on which North America and South America were nonexistent; they did not suddenly jump into place. Scholars, merchants, and ecclesiastics found it inconceivable that the small islands first sighted by Columbus were not disconnected, negligible interruptions on the way to the Orient but part of a new land mass. Geographers worried that the astonishing disclosure of an undetected hemisphere would discredit traditional cosmography, built as it was on the precepts of classical antiquity and closely tied to biblical beliefs. That general bafflement prevailed is evident in the prelude to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia , in which the author remarks with a palpable sigh: “Nowadays countries are always being discovered which were never mentioned in the old geography books.” The process by which the Old World adjusted was slow, erratic, and frequently brutal. Acquisitiveness was stirred by the apparent sudden availability of silver and gold and the possibilities for territorial expansion; further, the New World’s populations were viewed as the opportunity for mass conversions to Christianity. There was as much caution as curiosity, but the desire to know and the desire to convert were passionate forces in the Renaissance, and they ensured that the ultimate response of Christendom to what was once the dark side of the earth would be vigorous and decisive. Indeed, Europe could accept the New World only by imposing its dominion over it.