Christopher Columbus Thought He Was Causing the End of the World

23 Mar

These are sad days for Christopher Columbus. His feats are placed in the context of invasion and subjugation, his “discovery” is no longer a discovery, and his legacy is one of slavery and genocide more than a triumph of human expedition. More, Seattle, Minneapolis, and other U.S. cities are electing to celebrate “Indigenous People’s Day,” instead of Columbus Day.

Even the internet is getting in on the action:

The uprising against Christopher Columbus in American pop culture (AmPopCult) seems inevitable considering what some might call a “politically correct” perspective in many corners of America. Suddenly, we hardly know the Christopher Columbus of our grade school class rooms anymore, do we?

I’m wowed by this because I’ve been finishing the first draft of a novel that takes place in Castile, Spain at the end of Columbus’s life (1506). When I discovered that Columbus’s funeral was in 1506, I figured why not include his funeral as a scene? Have some of my characters come to pay their respects to the “admiral”? Maybe have Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand show up?

But as it turns out, I’d have to bend and fib like, well, Christopher Columbus to get my characters there, since no one in 1506 Spain actually wanted to be associated with Columbus when he died. He was a joke in his own time. In 1500, for example, his third voyage west ended with Columbus being hauled back as a criminal from “Hispaniola” literally in bonds for violating the terms of his contract with Queen Isabella and King Fernando of Spain after all.

What had he done that was so bad the monarchs stripped him of land and titles? Columbus had enslaved the populations of the islands he had “discovered,” for one. As Queen Isabel reportedly said to Columbus upon his return to her court, “Who gave you permission to enslave my subjects?”

His contemporaries  were widely aghast at Columbus’s actions as a slaver. That isn’t a modern, “politically correct” spin on old events. Isabella and Ferdinand sent a celebrated knight from the Order of Calatravas across the ocean to bring Columbus back in chains, they were so upset with him.

Worse, he was than losing land and title, Columbus was discredited as a scientist and navigator in his own time. Almost as soon as Columbus came back from his first voyage, fellow mathematicians  of his own day proved Columbus was wrong and probably lying.

For example, European scholars all agreed that the Earth was round — there was little argument that the world might be flat — but what they couldn’t agree on was how big the planet was. During his seven year plea to the Spanish monarchs, Columbus made the case that the Earth was small enough that he could take three ships from Cadiz, Spain and find Japan or India with them. Most mathematicians disagreed, saying the planet was far too big for such a small fleet to make it.

When his three ships made landfall on what is now the Dominican Republic-Haiti island, it was clear to the other navigators in Columbus’s employ that they were not in India or Japan — they had not traveled far enough — and that the “Big Earth” scholars were right.

Looking through his logs upon his return, it seemed Columbus might be correct, but many figured he was lying about how far he’d traveled. Indeed, evidence now exists that Columbus’s logs were altered.

Why would he do this? It’s an important question to answer. Was he a jerk, or was something else at play> My take is that Columbus was astonishingly, breath-takingly mentally ill — psychotic, to put it bluntly. We can only grasp the frightening depth of Christopher Columbus’s megalomania by understanding what he actually believed he was accomplishing with those voyages of his. To do that, we have to first explode a long-treasured myth about the admiral.

Namely, that Columbus was seeking a western trade-route to Asia.

Yes, finding Asia was part of his goal — his diaries, journals, and books are full of such conjecture — but there was something else far more important than money at the top of Columbus’s to-do list.

In the seven long years that Columbus petitioned the Spanish monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand to finance his voyages (1485 – 1492), the navigator repeatedly used the argument that a new trade passage to the “East” would be opened up if he could find the way. Interestingly, that argument never convinced the monarchs to finance him. It was only in 1492, after Isabella and Ferdinand had sacked the Moorish kingdom of Granada, crushing the Caliphate in Iberia, that Columbus had an “epiphany” about what was happening to him: A centuries-old prophecy was coming to pass with Columbus himself at the focus of it.

Columbus was open to this interpretation because he was a millennial Franciscan, that is, he believed that the world was coming to an end, that Jesus Christ was due back soon (in 1520, according to this propecy), and that He would make his cosmic reappearance in Spain. When Isabella and Fernando sacked and occupied Moorish Granada in 1492, Columbus changed his argument from one about trade to one embracing the prophecy whole-heartedly. Columbus made the case that the “crusade” against the Moors could continue on to Jerusalem were he to discover a shorter, western passage to Jerusalem. A subsequent Spanish attack on the Holy City (then under the control of the Muslim Turks) would complete the prophecy.

Here’s how Columbus records his conversation with Isabel and Fernando when he finally convinced them to undertake his quest for a western passage to Jerusalem, in his own words from “The Diary of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America 1492-1493:”

“I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem and Your Highnesses laughed and said that it would please them and that even without this profit they had that desire.”

In short, money was no object if Columbus was talking about the final crusade of Jerusalem, not just a dumb voyage of discovery.

This is an extraordinary moment in history to consider, since, on balance, the Spanish monarchs were financially broke. Agreeing to this costly scheme of Columbus’s was not simply ill-advised, it was virtually impossible to finance. On one hand, they had just wiped out the Islamic caliphate in southern Spain and should have been flush with cash. But on the other, the war effort had bankrupted Castile, Aragon, and the other five Spanish kingdoms after decades and centuries of war. Tributes and treasure received from sacking wealthy Granada had all but vanished in paying back Spanish royals and various foreign banks.

Luckily for Columbus. Queen Isabel was of the same religious mind as he. She and many of her ministers belonged to the same millennial Franciscan sect, and there’s decent evidence that she believed in the same end-of-the-world prophecy as Columbus. This prophecy had been delivered by an abbot named Joachim de Fiore of Calabria (Calabria is the “toe” of southern Italy’s peninsula) several centuries earlier, predicting that a Spaniard would play a key part in bringing Jerusalem under Christian rule. More, Islam would be extinguished and the Holy City would bear a Spanish Catholic banner. The fact that the Spanish Monarchs had just defeated the Muslim caliphate in 1492 was not lost on anyone.

But Columbus took his belief in the prophecy a step further — or “one step beyond,” as they say. In 1501, he began dropping his given name “Christopher” and started signing documents as “Christo Ferens,” or Christ-bearer. It’s a clear reference to his belief that he was the Spaniard of the Fiore prophecy who would bring about the Second Coming of Christ. If there’s any doubt about that, Columbus in 1500 writes a letter to a member of the Castilian court, saying, “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St John after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it.”

Columbus’s voyage across the ocean blue was not in the name of capitalism, mathematics, navigation, nor science. It was a millennial mission to bring about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. After being brought back in irons for enslaving the Carib population and other atrocities, and with his reputation as a scientist and navigator now in tatters, Columbus set out to salvage his legacy by writing “The Book of Prophecies” in 1501 and 1502, and which he continued to amend till shortly before his death in 1506. In this book, he purports that the biblical book of Jeremiah’s prophecies refer to himself, to Columbus the chosen one. In Jeremiah 1:5, Columbus claims God is speaking directly to him when He says in Sripture:

“I formed you in the womb. I knew you before you were born. I set you apart. I set you as a prophet to the nations.”

Columbus says to God in response:

“This is what You ordained beforehand according to Your good pleasure, such [prophesies] as were written in Your book about me, in conformity with your secret purpose.”

Reading ancient text and believing it’s proof that God is speaking to you directly could be diagnosed as grandiose delusional disorder as some part of mania or an intense narcissistic personality disorder. When confronted with the mathematical evidence from his own calculations and those of other navigators, that the planet Earth could not be as small as he claimed, that the Caribbean islands couldn’t possibly be China, Japan, nor India, Columbus refused to admit he was wrong (this too is textbook delusional behavior). Instead, he concocted the astonishing explanation that the planet must bulge around the Caribbean where he traveled and be smaller everywhere else. Like a pear, he said. That, or his own navigators had simply failed to record the correct data (also classic narcissistic behavior: everyone is wrong but the narcissist). Columbus couldn’t allow himself to think he was wrong, since HE was the chosen one. If he was wrong, then God was wrong.

Accordingly, Columbus claimed the Caribbean islands were China literally till the day he died.

Not even fellow millennial Queen Isabel put any stock in his bizarre theories after Columbus was hauled back in chains for being a slaver — slaving was illegal in Spain, and Columbus simply cost Spain too much money for the queen to take him seriously anymore. After Isabel died in 1504, Columbus couldn’t get a dime out of King Ferdinand for further voyages, and, thus, the Chosen One’s star fell as precipitously as it had risen. His funeral was attended by a few family members and a handful of shipmates.

It’s a funny pear-shaped world, ain’t it?

4 Responses to “Christopher Columbus Thought He Was Causing the End of the World”

  1. sirenaross March 26, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

    History leaves halos on successful villains

  2. Erik Esse April 28, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

    How have I never heard any of this before? It’s like popular history leaves out all of the interesting stuff. Thanks, Barth.

    • barthanderson April 28, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

      It drives me batty, reading about CC. He was a fucking psychopath, and it’s all there, black and white, in his own hand-written memoirs.

  3. barthanderson April 28, 2015 at 10:35 pm #

    Oh, and I learned after I wrote this blog post that it’s been proven now that Columbus falsified his own log books on that first, famous voyage in 1492. He altered dates after the fact to make the trip look shorter, the planet smaller, and he, more like the Chosen One.

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