"Why Did Columbus Sail"
by Kevin A. Miller
in Christian History Issue 35 (Vol XI, No 3)
The bright noon sun beat down on the stone walls of the Church of St. George in Palos, Spain. Inside, in the cool quiet, knelt Cristobal Colon, captain general of three small ships anchored in the town's inlet below. With Colon, saying confession and hearing mass, were some ninety pilots, seamen, and crown-appointed officials. Later that day they would row to
their ships, Colon taking his place on the Santa Maria, a slow but sturdy flagship no longer than five canoes.
The next morning, Friday, August 3, 1492, at dawn, the Santa Maria and its companion caravels caught the ebb tide and drifted toward the gulf. Their sails began to fill, and the crosses emblazoned on them caught the light. Their mission--the wild- eyed idea of their foreigner captain--was to sail west, away from all visible landmarks. They would leave behind Spain and
Portugal, the "end of the world," and straight into the Mare Oceanum, the Ocean Sea.
In that Ocean of Darkness, some feared, the water boiled and sea monsters gulped down sailors so foolish as to sail there. Beyond--if they lived to see it--lay the fabled island of Cipangu. There, in the land of the Great Khan, houses were roofed with gold, streets paved in marble. And this was but one of 7,448 islands Marco Polo had said were in the Sea of China.
But even if they reached the Indies, how would they get back, since currents and winds all seemed to go one way?
Why take the risky voyage?
Commander Cristoforo Colombo (as he was known in his hometown of Genoa, Italy) was taller than most men; so tall; in fact, he couldn't stand inside his cabin on the Santa Maria. He'd had "very red" hair in his younger years, but since he'd passed age 40, it had turned prematurely white. His face boasted a big nose and freckles.
Columbus, as we know his name today, was an experienced mariner. He had sailed the Mediterranean and traveled to parts of Africa, to Ireland, and probably even to Iceland. He boasted later in life, "I have gone to every place that has heretofore been navigated."
He knew the Atlantic as well or better than anyone, and he probably knew more about how to read currents, winds, and surfaces of the sea than do sailors today. "He [our Lord] has bestowed the marine arts upon me in abundance," Columbus said.
For nearly seven years, the "socially ambitious, socially awkward" Italian had become a fixture at the Spanish court, carelessly lobbying for his crazy "enterprise of the Indies." A royal commission in 1490 had judged "that the claims and promises of Captain Colon are vain and worthy of rejection....The Western Sea is infinite and unnavigable. The Antipodes are not livable, and his ideas are impracticable." Yet Columbus had pressed on,
proving, as he said, "If it strikes often enough, a drop of water can wear a hole in a stone."
Why? Why would someone, anyone, doggedly spend years
getting funding for a death-defying feat?
The misleading textbook answer as any schoolchild could recite, is that Columbus wanted to find a trade route to the Orient. Writer Robert Hughes expressed the conventional wisdom: "Sometime between 1478 and 1484, the full plan of self-aggrandizement and discovery took shape in his mind. He would win glory, riches, and a title of nobility by opening a trade route to the untapped wealth of the Orient. No reward could be too great for the man who did that."
That's true, but incomplete--so incomplete it's misleading.
At least later, Columbus saw his voyage in much greater terms: "Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures,...urging me to press forward?'
Columbus felt that Almighty God had directly brought about his journey: "With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible...and he opened my will to desire to accomplish that project...The Lord purposed that there should be something miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies."
There may be many things we don't know about history's most famous mariner. We don't know exactly what Columbus looked like. We don't know the precise design of his three ships. And most bizarre of all, we don't know--and will probably never know--the spot where he came ashore.
But we know beyond doubt that Columbus sailed, in part, to fulfill a religious quest. Columbus's voyages were intense religious missions. He saw them as a fulfillment of a divine plan for his life--and for the soon-coming end of the world. As he put it in 1500, "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev. 21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it."