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In Defense of Christopher Columbus the Catholic
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There are few great men in history who do not have both their ardent admirers and their virulent traducers. Christopher Columbus is no exception. But there is one main difference in the case of Columbus. We can identify his critics by their religious affiliation or ideology.
The discoverer of America was a zealous, even militant, Roman Catholic. He lived in the very generation when six whole nations in Europe broke with the Catholic Church to create what we have come to know as Protestantism. The Spain from which Columbus sailed to discover the New World had just succeeded in delivering its people from seven hundred years of Moslem domination. In Islam, Christians are idolaters who dare to give divine honors to Jesus, the Son of Mary, because they believe that He is the Son of the living God. Finally, on the eve of Columbus' historic voyage, the Moriscoes were allowed to leave Spain to protect them from the animosity of the people. In the eyes of the Spaniards, the Moriscoes were pseudo-converts from Judaism who were a threat to the stability of the Spanish nation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Christopher Columbus' adversaries go back to the early sixteenth century. Added to those who opposed him on principle were those who were hostile because of his phenomenal achievement and consequent fame. No one envies a failure! Columbus' achievement ranks as one of the greatest in recorded human history. Envy dogged his steps from the moment he set foot on E1 Salvador, October 12, 1492.
We can trace the first beginnings of hostility to Columbus after he had discovered the New Indies and the Spanish Sovereigns established their authority over these lands. A certain Bobadilla was appointed by the Spanish Crown as Governor General over the Indies. In the appointment, the name of Columbus was not even mentioned. This was an open contradiction to the original grant that Columbus had received from the Spanish Royalty. So sweeping were the powers conferred on Bobodilla that Columbus became literally a prisoner of the Governor General. Already by the year 1500, the envy of his enemies became so hostile that Queen Isabella herself, once Columbus' friend, became the tool of his implacable foes. Columbus was summoned to be tried by Bobodilla on charges that history shows were absolutely false. He was put in chains and sent as a prisoner to one of the caravels. The attendants were ordered to bind the Admiral in fetters: But they could not bring themselves to do so. Finally, an impudent and shameless cook by the name of Espinosa, riveted the irons on his master's feet, in the words of a witness, "with the same alacrity and readiness as if he were serving him some savory dish."
This introduction to Columbus' critics was necessary if we are to understand something of the five hundred years of both admiration and animosity associated with the discoverer of the New World. It was not coincidental that when Columbus was put in chains, he was clothed in the robe of St. Francis and during the whole ordeal behaved as a worthy son of the humble man of Assisi.
As we read through the massive literature on Christopher Columbus, we find especially three charges leveled against his character. He is branded as being an invader of a land that belonged to the gentle inhabitants of the New World. He is charged with being an enslaver of the Indians who, until then, were living in joyful freedom among their contemporaries. Columbus is finally accused of being a cruel oppressor of persons who, until then, had been living in prosperous harmony.
Much has happened since 1892, when the Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago to commemorate the quadricentennial discovery of America. The Columbian Exposition was held in a generation when Christianity was still strong in North America, and the name of Columbus was held in benediction among the followers of Christ.
But now, the media are telling us that the discovery of the New World was cataclysmic.
What, then, is there to commemorate 500 years after 1492? If the scribes of our age are to be believed, it is the sad tale of those who survived the explosion as two worlds collided: the Christian and the non-Christian; the Christian world imported from Catholic Spain and the non-Christian world of native America before 1492.
Defenders of the Native Indians
A library of literature is in print mourning what happened to the native cultures of North and South America with the landing of Columbus. An earthquake was touched off, we are told. It crushed and all but wiped out many centuries-old civilizations.
Always the critics concentrate on the unproved 50 million Indian deaths due to the diseases brought in by their European conquerors. Or, the critics point out that America was discovered during the pontificate of Pope Alexander VI, who is described as "probably the most corrupt pontiff in 2000 years of Catholic history" without distinguishing between Rodrigo Borgia before he became pope and Alexander VI, whose defense of Christian faith and morals was among the most outstanding in Catholic history.
Those who criticize Columbus for destroying, in their words, the precious culture of the American Indians, ignore the grim facts of pre-Columbian American history.
A fair example is the Aztec civilization in Mexico. Seemingly advanced in other ways, the Aztec religion sank to some of the worst excesses of superstition. It is so extreme as to be almost incomprehensible to us who are familiar with the barbarous atrocities of the concentration camp and nuclear war.
The Aztec religion sprang from a compulsive instinct to attract those natural forces which were beneficial to man and repel those which were malign. Most of these forces, such as the sun, rain, wind and fire, were personified as gods and goddesses, and idols of these deities were worshipped in the massive pyramidal temples.
The Aztecs felt under a compelling duty to offer human sacrifices to these gods. It was either in atonement for some physical calamity, such as pestilence or earthquake, or to forestall an expected misfortune. The Aztecs felt driven to supply the gods with a regular "nourishment" of human blood for fear that a deity, like the sun, might no longer appear on the eastern horizon.
The victims of these sacrifices were most frequently slaves or prisoners of war. Tearing out the hearts of living victims by black-robed, long-haired, chanting priests was a relatively merciful death compared to being scourged or eaten alive. The killings were on a large scale and would reach thousands on a single day, as failure to influence the gods became a frenzy of slaughter.
Among other historic sources, we have record of what happened at the inauguration, in 1487, of the temple of Huitzilopochtli (Wheatzilopochtly), the god of war and of the sun. At the ceremony, some 20,000 human beings were sacrificed on the temple altars at the command of the Aztec Emperor, Auitzotl, to appease the monstrous deity.
When, then, we are told that Columbus destroyed the meek and peace-loving Indian culture, Columbus brought Christianity to the blood-thirsty Indians. Millions embraced the religion of Jesus Christ before the end of the 16th century and became, like the converted Aztec Juan Diego, models of humility and charity.
Among the critics of Columbus, some of the most vociferous are those who charge him with introducing African slavery into the western world.
Totally oblivious of the facts of history, they claim that, shortly after 1492, Columbus ushered in the trans-Atlantic trade in human captives that would enslave 10 million Africans before it was made illegal in the late 1800's. His slanderers further say that Columbus resorted to slavery as his early dreams of riches failed.
What are the facts? We must distinguish between Christopher Columbus himself, and his European contemporaries. No doubt many of the Europeans of the day believed that slavery was morally justified. Columbus himself believed the same. But there is no clear evidence that Columbus approved the enslavement of innocent persons.
Moreover, neither he nor the Europeans introduced slavery into America. It was an established Indian custom for centuries before the discovery of America.
More important, however, is the marked difference between the attitude of the Catholic colonizers of America, like the Spanish and Portuguese; and the attitudes of colonizers from, by then, Protestant countries like England and Holland.
The U.S. had to engage in a civil war to liberate the Negroes by government edict. Three centuries before, however, countries under Catholic influence were already telling their people that slavery was forbidden.
Here the influence of the Popes was paramount. In document after document, the Bishops of Rome protested against the enslavement of the native Indians and the imported Africans. The papal declarations finally prevailed, long before slavery was declared illegal in Anglo-Saxon America.
Appraisal of Christopher Columbus
The real ground for animosity against Columbus is the fact that he brought the Catholic faith to the New World. Columbus believed he was specially chosen by God to bring the Gospel to a people who were living in darkness and the shadow of death.
His Book of Prophecies is a full-scale study of the Messianic prophets of the Old Law and the teaching of Christ about the duty to proclaim the Gospel to all nations.
He was a devout Catholic attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion regularly.
He was a Franciscan Tertiary who believed, like St. Francis, that the world should be converted to Christ by prayer, preaching and peaceful means.
His Journal from August 3 to October 12, 1492 is a daily record of the historic voyage from Spain to the New Indies. Day after day, he refers to Jesus and the need for divine help. He is always asking Our Lord for the light and strength he needs to realize what God had entrusted him to do the mission of bringing the knowledge and love of Jesus and Mary to the multitudes who had not had the Good News of salvation brought to them.
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