Christopher Columbus

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Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1519)

The Ascended Master Saint Germain was embodied as Christopher Columbus, Cristóbal Colón (c. 1451–1506), the discoverer of America. We was aptly named after Saint Christopher, who by legend is pictured carrying the infant Jesus across the waters.

Christopher Columbus is one of the best known personages in history, yet his life is shrouded in mystery and is subject to misunderstandings and myths.

Early life

More than 250 scholarly books and articles have been written on the origins of Columbus. But no one knows for certain where Columbus was born or his date of birth, nor even exactly what he looked like. Columbus’s son Fernando said his father

was a well-built man of more than average stature, the face long, the cheeks somewhat high, his body neither fat nor lean. He had an aquiline nose and light-colored eyes; his complexion ... was light and tending to bright red. In youth his hair was blonde, but when he reached the age of thirty, it all turned white.

Other reports by his contemporaries agree. But no one painted a portrait of Columbus during his life.

Cristoforo Columbo (a Genoese wool worker) was said to be born in Genoa in 1451, according to the standard biography, but the explorer and discoverer was known in Spain as Cristóbal Colón. That name is not the natural Spanish equivalent of the Genoese, “Colombo.” It is not at all clear that Columbo, the wool worker, and Cristóbal Colón were the same person.

Columbus (Colón) never said he was Genoese and usually wrote in Spanish or Latin, never in Italian. The city of Genoa didn’t seem to regard him as a citizen. He signed letters and documents as “The Admiral” as “Christo Ferens,” the Christ Bearer, or he used a pyramid-shaped grouping of initials.

From what historians have been able to gather about the early life of a man called Cristóbal Colón, many details of his life do not match Genoese documents about a Cristoforo Columbo born in 1451. There is evidence to show that Columbus was born earlier than 1451. For example, Andrés Bernáldez, a friend of Columbus and a historian, said that Columbus was “about 70” when he died in 1506. If that is true, Columbus was born in 1436.

The standard biography that portrays Columbus as a poor self-seeking Genoese social climber driven by the need to attain fame and fortune leans on shaky historical foundations. Some of the myths concerning Columbus’s life originate from Washington Irving’s popular 1828 biography The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, including the myth that many believed the world was flat. In fact, no educated person in the fifteenth century believed the world was flat. Nor was Columbus “an obscure navigator” as Irving asserts.

Early voyages

Columbus made many voyages prior to and in preparation for his great “Enterprise” of sailing to the “Indies.” He is said to have sailed to England, Ireland, Iceland, and Madeira (560 miles off the coast of Africa).

Scholars believe that Columbus developed his plan to sail to the “Indies” sometime during his sojourn in Portugal. But historians simply do not know how the idea came to him. Some argue that the plan came from intuition, others that he formulated it from reading and study. Still others have concluded that Columbus used maps and written sources only to support his conclusions.

This last position seems to be backed up by Columbus’s own words. In 1501 he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella, “For the execution of the journey to the Indies I was not aided by intelligence, by mathematics or by maps. It was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.”

Personal life

Columbus was a deeply religious man. But, with few exceptions, scholars have minimized the importance of, or completely dismissed, his spiritual life. They have also ignored the most conspicuous record of that spiritual life: Columbus’s Book of Prophecies.

Columbus was said to have married Felipa Moniz, a Portugese noble woman Some standard biography historians claim her family must have fallen on hard times for the penniless Columbus to have married her. We do know that her family was neither disgraced nor impoverished. In fact they had strong connections to the Portugese court. If Columbus-Colón was not the son of a wool carder, his family must have had wealth and distinction. His later interactions with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella suggest that they did.

While in Portugal, Columbus is said to have received maps from his mother-in-law, whose late husband was a seaman with a yearning for ocean discovery. She informed Columbus of her husband’s voyages and gave him maps and writings of his oceanic explorations. This interested Columbus, as his son Fernando records:

These things excited the Admiral (as he called his father) still more; and he informed himself of the other voyages and navigations that the Portuguese were then making to Mina and down the coast of Guinea, and greatly enjoyed speaking with the men who sailed in those regions. One thing leading to another and starting a train of thought, the Admiral while in Portugal began to speculate that if the Portuguese could sail so far south, it should be possible to sail as far westward, and that it was logical to expect to find land in that direction.

Columbus Before the Queen, Emanuel Leutze (1843)

Plans for the voyage

According to the standard biography, in 1485, Columbus arrived with his son Diego in Palos, Spain, at a Franciscan monastery, penniless, and met Father Antonio de Marchena, an astronomer and cosmographer, who is said to have become Columbus’s spiritual father and advocate. Through Marchena, Columbus is supposed to have gained powerful friends in financial and political circles. Eventually, (in 1486) Columbus met King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Yet, there is disagreement among scholars as to how Columbus first came to their attention. The standard biography then relates the scenario of the queen appointing a “committee” to discuss Columbus proposed voyage. Columbus is depicted as a person of humble birth, with no connections of his own and at the mercy of the “committee” and the sovereigns. After six years and much anguish, Columbus finally received his commission after all his “astonishing” demands, including being made a member of the nobility.

First voyage to the New World

On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed out of Palos, Spain, on the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Although these may be the best known ships in the world, we know very little about them. Scholars have had to guess at their size. The ships carried a crew of 90 men.

After a 33-day voyage including the threat of mutiny, the crew landed on an island Columbus named San Salvador. However is is not clear on what island Columbus first landed. Columbus’s original log and a copy have been lost. Historian Bartolome de las Casas made a copy of the log or a copy of a copy. Only about 15 percent of the log is thought to be Columbus’s own words. Columbus also discovered and claimed other islands for the monarchs including Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

After having lost the Santa Maria, which was grounded on a coral reef (the officer on duty turned the helm over to one of the ship’s boys), the Niña and Pinta sailed back to Spain, but not before being caught in a severe storm. Columbus returned to Spain on March 15, 1493, and was received by Ferdinand and Isabella with great pomp. The crown reconfirmed his titles and honors.

Subsequent voyages

Columbus made three more voyages to the Indies. During the second voyage, 1493 to 1496, he established a colony on Hispaniola and discovered other islands including Jamaica. During the third voyage, 1498 to 1500, he discovered South America, landing at the mouth of the Orinocco River.

However, during the third voyage Columbus’s administration in Hispaniola collapsed. He was faced with rebellion and finally arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. He was exonerated by the sovereigns but lost his right to govern the lands he had discovered. During his fourth voyage (1502–1504) he reached Panama.

Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, wealthy and surrounded by family.

Columbus’s background

The standard biography of Columbus has many implausabilities, starting with the rags-to-riches, wool carder-to admiral story. Columbus was supposed to have been so embarrassed by his humble origins that he never mentioned them. Yet, he married into one of the most prestigious noble families in Portugal when marriage across class lines was not allowed. He mixed easily with the elites of his day—dukes, ecclesiastics, nobles and kings. Even though he was a foreigner, he was incorporated into the Spanish nobility; he demanded and received the extraordinary offices of admiral and viceroy.

When the sovereigns gave Columbus a coat of arms as a newly created nobleman, they gave him the singular honor of incorporating the royal symbols of Castile and Leon on his coat of arms. They simply would not have done that if he were of humble birth. But in 1493, the sovereigns wrote Columbus a letter confirming his nobility, and giving him the right to use the royal insignia along with “your own arms which you are accustomed to bear.” In other words, Columbus already had his own coat of arms—something no Genoese commoner would have had. Only the nobility had coats of arms.

Columbus seemed to have a close relationship to Queen Isabella. He was on the royal payroll but it was never clear what Columbus did for the monarchy. A booking entry by a royal accounting clerk shows that the clerk gave money “to Christopher Columbus, foreigner, who is here on Her Majesty’s secret service.” What Columbus was doing on behalf of the queen was a royal secret. According to the Columbus Encyclopedia, Columbus may have been assisting Queen Isabella with the marriage of her daughter to the prince of Portugal between 1488 and 1489. This suggests, but does not prove, that Columbus was from one of the upper classes.

According to Robert Fuson, an authority on Columbus:

This veil of mystery surrounding Columbus’s personal background is not...an accident of history. It is in large part Columbus’s own doing. There is ample evidence that Columbus altered his identity, keeping many facts from his own sons. His brother Bartholomew was obviously in on the cover-up, but even Bartholomew’s life has been obscured.

The standard biography of Columbus has many other problems. The traditional story about Columbus arriving poverty stricken in Spain in 1485 may be fiction. There is also no documentary evidence to show that Columbus showed maps and charts to the “Committee” in 1486 at the court of Queen Isabella regarding his enterprise to sail to the “Indies.”

Foster Provost, author of Columbus: An Annotated Guide to the Scholarship of His Life and Writings does not think that Columbus’s enterprise was ever rejected by any committee, because the sovereigns were interested in Columbus’s enterprise, and as soon as the Moors were defeated in January 2, 1492, they issued the “Capitulations” (contracts and titles between Columbus and the monarchs). Nevertheless, Columbus may still have had to wait for years before gaining royal sponsorship, but not because he was waiting for the “Committee” to decide.

Did Columbus know where he was sailing?

Did Columbus believe that he actually had sailed to the “Indies” which in Columbus’s day meant Asia, including China, India and Japan? At first glance, evidence seems overwhelming that he did. But there’s also persuasive evidence that Columbus did indeed know where he was going and that it was not the Indies.

First, in the Capitulations and Titles, the contracts Columbus signed with Ferdinand and Isabella, there is no mention of the Indies. The king and queen simply authorized Columbus to discover and acquire “islands and mainlands” in the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, Columbus’s actions strongly suggest he knew he was not in the Indies. Columbus is said (by biographers) to have brought with him a “Letter of Credence” from the monarchs introducing him to the Great Khan in China (or to whomever was the ruler who succeeded him) and to other oriental potentates he might meet. But when Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, he immediately went ashore and claimed the land for Ferdinand and Isabella. He carried royal flags and repeated a declaration required to make the acquisition legal. He did this in full view of the natives, without the protection of an army, as if he had prior knowledge that he would not be in any danger from the forces of an Asian prince.

It would have been dangerous to claim the territories of the Great Khan. Yet Columbus showed no fear of claiming lands belonging to the Great Khan or any other Oriental ruler. Moreover, while supposedly seeking Japan or the mainland of Asia, Columbus continued to sail around, claiming islands for Ferdinand and Isabella.

Colombus’s copy of Marco Polo’s Le Livre des Merveilles, with his handwritten notes in the margins

The writings of Marco Polo depicted China and Japan as advanced, opulent societies with streets of marble and roofs of gold. Yet Columbus carried worthless trinkets with him on his voyage. Could Columbus have brought glass beads and cheap bells to trade with the Great Khan? Definitely not. But that’s exactly what he would bring if he was expecting to find people who were technologically inferior to the people of Europe. In fact, that’s what the Portuguese had brought to Africa to barter with the natives—and Columbus knew it.

Also, Columbus brought back a number of natives to show the king and queen of Spain, and to colonize the islands. Would this be allowed by the emperor of China or Japan? This also indicates that Columbus knew he was not in Asia. Those who believe that Columbus was headed for the Indies have the upper hand in academic circles, yet a case can be made that Columbus knew where he was going.

We know that Columbus picked a nearly perfect path to sail from Spain to the Bahamas, and that he sailed north and picked a nearly perfect path back to Europe. He also seemed to know just how far his destination was. According to Columbus’s son Fernando, Columbus told his crew not to expect to find land until they had gone 750 leagues from the Canaries, just about the distance of the first landfall. One could argue that Columbus merely miscalculated the distance between Europe and Japan using his “narrow ocean” theory, as the standard biography states. But if Columbus did not think he was headed to the Indies, how did he know just where to expect land or that he would find lands that he could claim? He apparently knew he would find people who would be delighted with trinkets.

Had Columbus been to America before? Columbus himself gave his own description of why he made the voyage. In a letter Columbus described his background as follows:

At a very early age I began to navigate upon the seas, which I have continued to this day. Mine is a calling that inclines those who pursue it to desire to understand the world’s secrets. Such has been my interest for more than 40 years, and I have sailed all that can be sailed in our day.

I have had business and conversation with learned men among both laity and clergy, Latins and Greeks, Jews and Moslems, and many others of different religions. I prayed to the most merciful Lord concerning my desire, and he gave me the spirit and the intelligence for it. He gave me abundant skill in the mariner’s arts, an adequate understanding of the stars, and of geometry and arithmetic. He gave me the mental capacity and the manual skill to draft spherical maps, and to draw cities, rivers, mountains, islands and ports all in their proper places.

During this time, I have searched out and studied all kinds of texts: geographies, histories, chronologies, philosophies and other subjects. With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project.

This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses. All who found out about my project denounced it with laughter and ridiculed me. All the sciences which I mentioned above were of no use to me. Quotations of learned opinions were no help. Only Your Majesties had faith and perseverance.

Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit, who encouraged me with a radiant illumination from his sacred Holy Scriptures, by a most clear and powerful testimony from the 44 books of the Old Testament, from the Four Gospels, from the 23 epistles of the blessed Apostles—urging me to press forward? Continually, without a moment’s hesitation, the Scriptures urged me to press forward with great haste.

Legacy

Throughout history, Columbus has had friends and enemies. During his own life, people laughed at him and his “Enterprise.” After he had sailed to the New World, some were jealous of his power and tried to undermine his authority. But Columbus had many powerful friends among the clergy and the nobility who helped him out at critical turning points in his career.

Columbus has been seen as a pivotal figure in history, the man who initiated the modern age. His discovery unified the world and set in motion the process of global integration. The discovery of the New World transformed the Old World. Before 1492, Europe was cynical and pessimistic. But after Columbus’s discovery, Europe’s outlook changed. Men began to wonder if a golden age might lie in the near future. The discovery of the New World gave a powerful impetus to the Renaissance and the enlightenment.

Columbus has also held a special place in the hearts of Americans, beginning in the nineteenth and through most of the twentieth century. But beginning in the last two decades of the twentienth century, Columbus was on trial in America. Even today there is the tendency to disparage Columbus. He has been accused of greed, ambition, dishonesty, cruelty and genocide.

Accusations of genocide

The basis for the charge of genocide is that following Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the populations of the Indians dropped precipitously. And some tribes, like the Tainos, were completely wiped out. Researchers estimated the Indian population of Hispaniola to be about eight million prior to 1492. Twenty years later it was about 28,000. Indian populations in the New World, which numbered about 40 to 50 million people prior to 1492, were decimated. But it was not due to genocide. The real causes were European diseases, particularly smallpox. Many more Indians died of the accidental transmission of European diseases than were deliberately killed by European swords. In short, neither Columbus nor the Spanish were engaged in the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Indians.

Columbus is said to have initiated slavery in America. Yet, slavery was already being practiced by the natives when he arrived. The Indian tribes of America were as cruel and corrupt, and more so, than the nations of Europe. It is well known that ritual cannibalism and ritual scrifice were practised by the Caribs and Aztecs. While it is true that Columbus did send 550 Indians to Spain, these were the mores of that period, and, unfortunately, slavery was a customary practice, sanctioned by the ruling monarchs and the Catholic Church, especially as a result of the defeat of the Moors, who were sold or given into slavery.

Inspiration of Christopher Columbus, Jose Maria Obregon (1856)

His spiritual life

Scholars have had a difficult time coming to grips with Columbus’s spiritual life. They knew he was extremely devoted to Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother and Saint Francis. They recognized that he was a pious man who was close to the Franciscans and may have belonged to a Franciscan lay order. They knew that on occasion he heard celestial voices. The following excerpt from one of Columbus’s letters tells of one of his mystical experiences. He writes:

I was outside and all alone on this very dangerous coast, with a high fever and greatly exhausted. There was no hope of rescue. In this state, I climbed in pain to the highest point of the ship and called, in tears and trembling, to Your Highnesses’ mighty men of war, in all the four corners of the earth, for succour, but none of them answered me. At length, groaning with exhaustion, I fell asleep, and I heard the most merciful voice saying:

“O fool, so slow to believe and to serve thy God, the God of all! What more did He do for Moses or for His servant David? He has had thee in His care from thy mother’s womb. When He saw thee a grown man, He caused thy name to resound most greatly over the earth. He gave thee the Indies, which are so rich a part of the world, and thou hast divided them according to thy desire. He gave thee the keys to the gates of the Ocean, which were held with such great chains. Thou was obeyed in many lands, and thou hast won a mighty name among Christians. What more did He do for the people of Israel when He led them out of Egypt, or for David, that shepherd boy whom He made a king in Jewry. Turn thyself to Him, and acknowledge thy sins. His mercy is infinite. Thine old age shall not prevent thee from achieving great things, for many and vast are His domains. Abraham was more than a hundred years old when he begat Isaac; and Sarah, was she a girl?

“Thou criest for help, with doubt in thy heart. Ask thyself who has afflicted thee so grievously and so often: God or the world? The privileges and covenants which God giveth are not taken back by Him. Nor does He say to them that have served Him that He meant it otherwise, or that it should be taken in another sense; nor does He inflict torments to show His power. Whatever He promises He fulfills with increase; for such are His ways. Thus I have told thee what thy Creator has done for thee, and for all men. He has now revealed to me some of those rewards which await thee for the many toils and dangers which thou has tendured in the service of others.”

I heard all this as if in a trance, but I could find no reply to give to so sure a message, and all I could do was to weep over my transgressions. Whoever it was that had spoken, ended by saying: “Fear not, but have faith. All these tribulations are written upon tablets of marble, and there is reason for them.”

Columbus collected a series of biblical and secular quotes in an unfinished book known as the Book of Prophecies. Scholars have not known what to make of this book. As Columbus wrote in the introduction to his Book of Prophecies:

Already I pointed out that for the execution of the journey to the Indies I was not aided by intelligence, by mathematics or by maps. It was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.

Columbus believed he was destined to fulfill prophecies relating to the dawning of a new age. When Columbus was arrested in Hispaniola in 1500 and sent back to Spain, he wrote a letter in which he said (referring to the newly discovered lands):

Of the New Heaven and Earth which our Lord made, as Saint John writes in the Apocalypse, after he had spoken it by the mouth of Isaiah, He made me the messenger thereof and showed me where to go.

Two themes run through the Book of Prophecies: the recovery of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, symbolical of the Holy Land and the final conversion of all people to Christianity. Yet conquering the city of Jerusalem may not have been what Columbus had in mind. In the very beginning of the Book of Prophecies Columbus collected quotes which stated that the scriptures had four levels of interpretation. He then included one example: the fourfold interpretation of the word “Jerusalem.” The passage reads:

In a historical sense, Jerusalem is the earthly city to which pilgrims travel. Allegorically, it indicates the Church in the world. Tropologically, Jerusalem is the soul of every believer. Anagogically, the word means the Heavenly Jerusalem, the celestial fatherland and kingdom.

Columbus never explained his real purpose in “recovering Jerusalem.” He was speaking metaphorically and that was his true purpose: to establish the New World and a place where God’s plan for the New Age would unfold.

For more information

This article is excerpted from a lecture by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, “Christopher Columbus: The Man and the Myth,” delivered October 12, 1992. See the complete lecture for additional information.

See also

Saint Germain

Sources

Pearls of Wisdom, vol. 20, no. 51, December 18, 1977.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet, “Christopher Columbus: The Man and the Myth,” October 12, 1992.

Fernando Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand.

Andres Bernaldez, History of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.

Silvio A. Bedini, The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 and 2.

Robert Fuson, The Log of Chrisopher Columbus.

Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

William D. Phillips, Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus.

Paolo Emilio Taviani, Columbus, The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages.

Zvi Dor-Ner, Columbus and the Age of Discovery.

Michael Bradely, The Columbus Conspiracy.

John Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus.

Christopher Columbus, The Book of Prophecies.

Henry Vignaud, The Letter and Chart of Toscanelli.

Pauline Moffitt Watts, Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus’s “Enterprise of the Indies”.

Foster Provost, Columbus: An Annotated Guide to the Scholarship of His Life and Writings.

Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise.

Bartolome de las Casas, The History of the Indies.

Delno C. West, August Kling (trans. and eds.) The Book of Prophecies of Christopher Columbus.