There once was a society that fell in love with the equality of its citizens. They saw it everywhere and in everything so much so that fought to remove its enemy, excellence. They did not lift up the lowly, but lowered the mighty. Heroes became a thing of the past and then past heroes were erased because they might inspire noble acts among the citizenry. Heroes simply never existed. Then one day a great crisis came upon that society and for want of enough heroes, they perished. They were all equally dead.
Is this just a story, or is this a glimpse of what the future will say about us? We might gauge by asking, which is easier, to name three modern day heroes or three celebrities? Most certainly the latter. Heck, even most our fictional super-heroes are deeply flawed bullies lacking nobility. For want of heroes, the people perished.
We look down on Achilles because we can’t take our eyes off his heel. Paradoxically we abhor excellence while at the same time demanding perfection. That is because we have forgotten what a hero is. The heroes of the past and the present are all fallen men and women. They are not heroes because they are perfect, they are heroes because they are magnanimous and courageous. They do great and noble things, even if not all the things they do are great and noble. All saints are heroes, but not all heroes are saints. I can think of no better example of this principle than the former hero Christopher Columbus.
Christopher Columbus may not have been a Catholic saint, but he is a great Catholic hero. As Leo XII said of the great explorer “[F]or the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity” (Quarto Abeunto Saeculo [QAE]). His unflappable courage in literally “setting out into the deep” and his noble intention of winning souls to Christ, that set the course of history off in an entirely new direction. For generations, his life was a model and inspiration. For our generation he is a scoundrel.
Why He Went
There are those who would challenge the contention that he set off from Spain in August of 1492 with anything more than a desire for fame and riches. They allow the men holding the eraser to tell the whole story rather than letting the man himself tell it. Leo XIII summarized it best when he said that it is “indubitable” that the Catholic faith was the strongest motivation for Columbus and for this reason the whole human race owes “not a little to the Church.” After 30 plus days without the sight of land mutiny threatened and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea reminded his crew of their mission. His log for October 10, 1492 records:
They could stand it no longer. They grumbled and complained of the long voyage, and I reproached them for their lack of spirit, telling them that, for better or worse, they had to complete the enterprise on which the Catholic Sovereigns had sent them. I cheered them on as best I could, telling them of all the honors and rewards they were about to receive. I also told the men that it was useless to complain, for I had started out to find the Indies and would continue until I had accomplished that mission, with the help of Our Lord (The Log of Christopher Columbus, p. 72).
After discovering Hispaniola, he wrote (again in his log) to Isabel and Fernando:
I have to say, Most Serene Princes, that if devout religious persons know the Indian language well, all these people would soon become Christians. Thus I pray to Our Lord that Your Highnesses will appoint persons of great diligence in order to bring to the Church such great numbers of peoples, and that they will convert these peoples. . . . And after your days, for we are all mortal, you will leave your realms in a very tranquil state, free from heresy and wickedness, and you will be well received before the Eternal Creator (Nov. 6 entry).
Even one of his contemporary critics, Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas, the great champion of the rights of the Native Americans, labeled him “extraordinarily zealous for the divine service; he desired and was eager for the conversion of these people…And he was especially affected and devoted to the idea that God should deem him worthy of aiding somewhat in recovering the Holy Sepulchre” (quoted by Samuel Eliot Morison in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea pp.45-46).
This quote is particularly appropriate because it helps to explain one reason why Columbus has become an object of scorn in recent times. His name, Christopher, or “Christ-bearer”, was his mission. In an age of religious subjectivism anyone who acts must be acting for some other motive. To act for the glory of God is deemed to be absurd and bears the label fundamentalist or extremist. Not only that, but his motive was also politically incorrect. Columbus saw his mission as an extension of the Crusade to capture the Holy Land.
The tellers of history often speak of the reason why explorers set out to find water routes to the Orient based on strictly on economics, but do not explain why the land route was so costly and dangerous. The reason is simple—the lands that needed to be crossed were controlled by Muslims who heavily “taxed”, robbed, enslaved and killed merchants from the West. Columbus and his generation thought this could be avoided by finding a water route. What set Columbus apart however was that he thought he could convert the East and then squeeze the Islamic lands between East and West and recapture the Holy Land for good.
Although these were Columbus’ primary motivations, they were not his only. He did also seek riches. Riches are a “second thing” and provided that the First Thing remain first there is nothing wrong with that. He wanted to fund the Crusade to recapture the Holy Sepulcher, but he also had investors that he had to satisfy. He also sought to increase his own wealth and like the rest of fallen mankind these secondary goals were wont to make him forget the primary goal at times.
A Great Hero, but a Fallen Man
There is no need to whitewash all that Columbus did. He failed to live up to his noble mission at times, especially in his inability to transcend his own circumstances. When he arrived in Hispaniola he found two peoples, the peaceful Arawaks and the brutal Caribs. The Caribs committed all kinds of atrocities including human sacrifice and cannibalism, mostly directed at the Arawaks. Columbus viewed the peaceful Arawaks as Spanish citizens and thus worthy of protection. When he conquered the Caribs, he, as was the accepted custom of the time, enslaved the conquered peoples. He was gravely wrong in doing so, although he may not have realized the full import of what he had done at the time by blindly accepting the cultural norm. It is easy to condemn him thinking we are more enlightened now about slavery, except we are far less enlightened about the barbarity of human sacrifice to our own gods.
He also was a much better explorer than an administrator. Despite objections to the contrary—he told the King and Queen that only “good Christian men should be sent”—the Spanish sovereigns sent him back to govern Hispaniola with 1200 colonists. These men were included corrupt nobility and convicts whose death sentences were commuted for going. Rather than accept this role wholeheartedly, he often left the island for long periods of time to continue exploring. While the cat was away the mice played and he returned to find the peaceful Arawaks enslaved to the Spanish men there. Rather than putting an end to it, he allowed it to continue and eventually ended up returning to Spain in chains This ultimately cost his governorship, but he was allowed to return a fourth time strictly as an explorer.
Before closing, it is also worth addressing the other common accusation lobbed at Columbus, namely that he stole the land. The fact that this is an accusation at all shows how chronologically bias we are. There is no evidence that the natives themselves viewed the land as their own. They were for the most part nomadic peoples among nomadic peoples so that even if there were stationary groups you have to ask whether the land they occupied was rightfully theirs. How did these primitive peoples make land claims and how were the recognized? Did they merely use the land for a certain amount of time and move on, or did they actually own it? What is sure is that they did not have any understanding of property the way the Western Europeans did or we do today. So, even if the Spanish were guilty of exploiting them in many ways, the accusation that they had their land stolen from them is really meant to excite modern prejudice. In any regard this is not as cut and dry an issue as it is often presented to be.
It is Leo XIII that seems to best summarize why we as Christians should redeem the history of Christopher Columbus and rank him among the great American heroes of the past: —“ He was distinguished by this unique note, that in his work of traversing and retraversing immense tracts of ocean, he looked for a something greater and higher than did these others. We say not that he was unmoved by perfectly honorable aspirations after knowledge, and deserving well of human society; nor did he despise glory, which is a most engrossing ideal to great souls; nor did he altogether scorn a hope of advantages to himself; but to him far before all these human considerations was the consideration of his ancient faith, which questionless dowered him with strength of mind and will, and often strengthened and consoled him in the midst of the greatest difficulties. This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely, to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas” (QAE). This Columbus Day let us come to his defense. For want of heroes, the people will perish.