By Christopher Simon
“Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” ~ Psalm 19:4
When I was a schoolboy, in the 1960s, Christopher Columbus was celebrated as the heroic discoverer of America, and every child knew that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-hundred ninety-two.” By the 1980s, when I was in college, history was no longer taught as if the great explorers were heroes. Their exploits were subjected to reasonable criticism, and the fact that Columbus was seeking wealth and slaves took the luster off of his image. It is worth noting that even in Columbus’ own time his treatment of the native Americans was subject to criticism.
But perhaps we shouldn’t judge Columbus too harshly. In the late 1400s slavery was still a near universal practice; Columbus had a lot of “bad apples” among his crew, and some of the “Indians” Columbus encountered were hostile. Furthermore, Columbus really did see his role at least partly as spreading Christianity to a benighted race of people who he thought would make good Christians.
Columbus belonged to the Franciscan third order and he took to wearing the monk’s robe after his third voyage, which he returned from in chains. After successfully defending himself, he spent time in a Carthusian monastery, where he wrote a Book of Prophecies which attempted to place his explorations within a larger divine plan. Columbus genuinely believed that he was doing the will of God, and so maybe this year on Columbus Day we should take a closer look at his exploits and his legacy.