To Reach From Afar

This Day in History

Love him or hate him Christopher Columbus changed the world. It was on this day, August 3rd, in 1492 that Columbus left the shores of Spain at Palos de la Frontera with his ships the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

Only two, the Nina and the Pinta would return. The vessels were shockingly small. The Nina, the ship that Columbus himself sailed over 25,000 miles aboard, was but 65 feet long by 18 feet wide. A tiny boat to be sailing on the most dangerous ocean in the world, especially when one was not certain of where one was going.

The intrepid explorer was not the first to discover the New World (he himself never claimed the honor). It is believed Norse explorer Leif Ericson was the first to venture forth from the European mainland, doing so in the 11th century, proceeding Columbus by some 400 years. Other theories abound. Some believe 962 years before Columbus’s voyage, in 530 A.D., that an Irish priest named Saint Brendan, who in search of the “Land promised to the Saints” was first to find America. There is as yet no evidence to confirm it but it could be true.

First or not, it was Columbus who has had the greatest impact of most any explorer in history. The western world that we know today exists in large part due to his unquenchable desire to hoist his sail westward.

As with everything in history there exists a set of events which when placed in motion bring about change large and small.

The trade routes to the orient, chief among them the famed Silk Road, were left open for centuries more or less, with very little interruption or impediment. All of that changed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Replica of the Niña by Michael Baird

Conquered by the Ottoman Turks, the fall of the ancient city brought about the closing of the lucrative trade routes, necessitating the need for an alternate passage to the Orient. The Italian born sailor concocted a plan. He pitched his idea first to the King of Portugal and was rejected.

Not to be denied, he travel east to the Spanish Crown and presented his plan to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille. He was rejected there too but he continued to lobby for the voyage, eventually secured financing for his bold expedition.

Columbus set sail on August 3rd 1492 landing in the Bahama’s thirty-six days later. There he was met by friendly and unassuming natives who were eager to trade with the sailors.

Columbus soon set sail again but not before noticing the gold adorning his new found friends ears. Columbus landed at present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, naming the beautiful island Hispaniola.

His flagship, the Santa Maria, was shipwrecked off the coast and he and his crew used the materials from the wreckage to build the first European settlement in the America’s, calling it Villa de la Navidad (Christmas Town) so named because the flagship Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day.

Satisfied he had reached Asia (In his previous travels he had only ventured as far as Greece and therefore had no knowledge of what Asia actually looked like), he left a few of his crew in the village and took the Nina and the Pinta back eastward to report to his royal patrons.

He gleefully told Ferdinand and Isabella, that he had succeeded in finding the new passage he had sought. He immediately began making arrangements for a second voyage.

19th century illustration of Christopher Columbus

Upon his return, he was mortified to find his village destroyed and his entire crew massacred. Distraught at the lost of his men, he retaliated by forcing the natives to rebuild Christmas Town and mine gold for him. He did this despite knowing Queen Isabella’s feelings about subjugation.

This is one of the historical blights on the reputation of the man. It is not known why his crew was slaughtered the way they were. Columbus can fairly be judged from multiple facets. The subjugation of the native peoples of Hispaniola is certainly a fair angle. But to leave all of them unexplored is not only to do him an injustice, but us as well. For the past, in all its facets, should serve us as an illuminating light, not as a selective shadow.

There can be no doubt that Columbus’ four voyages set in motion some horrid events. The Atlantic slave trade for one, the inadvertent introduction of viral and bacteriological pathogens which ravished the native populations, leading some historians and activists to accuse him of genocide, as another.

But the reasoned and sober mind can view the man in the sunlight as well as the shadows. One can admire his courage, his tenacity, his iron determination. Like any historical figure, he must be examined in the time in which he lived, from different perspectives. As with anything scaled in such large proportions, one must learn to take the good with the bad.

After all, he did sow the seed that led to the creation of the first true republic in history. One which, marshaling its deeply rooted and hard won ideals, defeated the very evils that Columbus, by accident or not, was at least partially complicit in creating.

For his part, Columbus, being a devout Christian, viewed all of his accomplishments through the prism of his faith. To him, he wasn’t discovering a new world (in fact, he was looking for the old one – present day, India, China, Vietnam, etc.), he was trying to secure a new trade route to the east and on the way opening wide the main chance of spreading his deeply held faith. In this, he ultimately succeeded.

Whether religious or not, most Americans today can appreciate the moral foundations necessary for the continued prosperity of a people. No nation long survives when it loses the enriching idea of transcendence – the idea that there exists in the world something larger than oneself.

Christopher Columbus set sail for the new world this day in 1492. Whether you like him or not, at least a part of you should be glad he did. His story was only the beginning of an extraordinary book – with many unwritten chapters yet.

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