Syracuse, New York.--In offering us the real Cristobal Colon, better known as Columbus, TV and Hollywood sanitize one crucial aspect: Colon believed he was God's instrument to redeem Christendom before the Apocalypse.
Colon and the effects of his voyages have been lionized and denounced along ethnic, national and patriotic lines, but no one has given a better reason for his travels than Colon himself: "God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and Earth, as St. John writes in the Apocalypse, after he had spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me where to go."
Even before he set off on his first voyage, Colon had pledged to his Sovereigns, Isabel and Ferdinand, that the gains of the enterprise would be spent for the reconquest of Jerusalem. Although the voyage produced few gains, Colon remained undaunted in his convictions, signing his summary letter to his Sovereigns "the Christ Bearer."
After returning from a more lucrative second voyage, Colon came under the influence of Arnold of Villanova, a popularizer of the prophecy of Joachim of Fiore. Fiore, a 12th-century abbot, had foretold that "he who will restore the ark of Zion, will depart from Spain." Colon, who had taken to wearing a humble Franciscan habit, believed he was this person; however, his written records still did not clarify one crucial question. Why did he think it was necessary for him to reconquer Jerusalem?
On August 12, 1498, when Colon, sailing off the Venezuelan coast, briefly noted in the journal of his third voyage that he had found the Terrestrial Paradise. Thinking he was close to the Orient, Colon knew he was right because "all men say that it [the Garden Eastward of Eden] is at the end of the Orient, and that it is."
Two months later his religious rationale burst forth in page after page of another summary letter. He had obviously found the Terrestrial Paradise: The people were whiter than any other, more intelligent, more courageous and had plenty of gold. Since the Bible had said it would be found in the land of the first river out of Eden and many contemporary maps located the Garden of Eden near Asia, Colon knew that this land called Paria was, in fact, Paraiso or Paradise.
He wrote, "I am convinced that it is the spot of the earthly paradise whither no one can go but by God's permission." He had reached the edge of the Garden of Eden from which man had been expelled, only to return with God's permission. And such permission could only signal the Apocalypse.
Garden or no garden, Colon was arrested and shipped home to Spain in chains. After being released, his apocalyptic zeal poured itself into a "Book of Prophecies" in which Colon tied together clues from the biblical book of Revelation and the writings of St. Augustine, among others: He had been chosen as God's divine instrument to fulfill ancient prophecies.
Believing that the world would end in the seventh millennium after creation -- about 1650 -- Colon would redeem Christendom by spreading the faith and obtaining the gold to finance the crusade to recapture Jerusalem. With this purpose in mind, he undertook his fourth voyage saying: "Gold is treasure, and with it whoever has it may do what he wants in this world, and may succeed in taking souls to Paradise." Gold he sought, ruthlessly, but for God's purposes.
In the Ptolemaic-Christian geography of his time, Colon's reasoning was understandable. There was thought to be only a single land mass -- the Island Earth, surrounded by a band of water; another land mass seemed impossible. The land he saw must be the Orient. In the highly charged ethnic, nationalistic and patriotic debate about Columbus, we would do well to remember the apocalyptic fantasies of a 15th-century explorer.
Brad K. Berner teaches history at the Manlius Pebble Hill School in DeWitt, New York.