Thursday, October 15, 2015

Columbus, the Man Who Opened America's Door to European Settlement and Christian Evangelization

Photo credit: Sebastiano Piombo (from Wikipedia)
Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire paved the way for the cultural and religious exchange between Europe and Asia. In addition, trade and commerce between the two continents were opened and enhanced with the flourishing of lands along the Silk Route. The Roman Empire supplanted Alexander’s Greek Empire and extended its influence into Northern Africa and Western Europe. The conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine spread Christianity all over the Roman Empire. The birth of Islam around 610 A.D. eroded Christianity’s influence over much of Asia and North Africa. In just a few years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered much of territories that were once parts of Persian and Roman Empires.

The fall of the Christian City of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453 had a profound implication to Europe and the world. The Ottoman's conquest was significant in the sense that the city was the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. The city’s location was also very strategic considering that it geographically links Europe and Asia, and it was a gateway for the transport of goods and people between the two continents.

The control of trade routes by hostile powers made it difficult for Europe to avail of commodities such as silk and spices from Asia. particularly those that came from India, China and Southeast Asia. It also made their cost became prohibitive. Christian maritime powers of Europe such as Spain and Portugal had to find an alternative way to Asia without passing through perilous land routes. The best option was through the sea. The competition of European powers to cross the seas to reach the spice islands in Asia ushered in the Age of Exploration.  

Christopher Columbus (30 Oct. 1451-20 May 1506) a Genoese navigator, proposed to King John II of Portugal an expedition to the East Indies via western sea route. But the monarch was not convinced and turned down his proposal. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias, sailing southeast reached Cape of Good Hope which was a spring board toward the East Indies.  The success of Dias doused any hope of Columbus to have the king agree with his proposition.

Failing in his bid, Columbus presented his idea to King Henry VII of England who also turned it down. He later went to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Castile, Spain. At first, the monarchs were skeptical of Columbus’ proposal. However, it occurred to them that the eastern sea route was already taken and controlled by rival Portugal, and Columbus’ proposal if successful would give Spain an edge in the lucrative spice trade.

Photo credit: John Vanderlyn (from Wikipedia)
Photo credit: E. Benjamin Andrews (from Wikipedia)
In 1492, Columbus was granted authority by Queen Isabella to sail to Asia. He was given three ships- the Pinta, the NiƱa and the Santa Maria which was his flagship. For claims on new lands to the crown Columbus was entitled to the following privileges: a rank of “the Admiral of the Ocean”; a designation of viceroy or governor of new found lands; a 10% perpetual share of profits earned as a result of his explorations, and the option to buy 1/8 interest in commercial venture in the new lands and to receive 1/8 of the profits.

On August 3, 1492, Columbus with his fleet of three ships departed from Palos de la Frontera, and sailed to his destination. After travelling considerable distances, he saw an island and landed on it. He named it San Salvador. He then passed through groups of islands that is now called the Bahamas and explored the northern coast of Cuba and Hispaniola. At that time Columbus believed that he had reached India, and even called the native inhabitants “Indios”or Indians. The Spanish crown was pleased with Columbus’ discovery, and was prepared to grant the condition set by Columbus in return for the successful voyage.

After meeting the monarchs, Columbus left port of Cadiz, Spain on September 24, 1493, for a second voyage. With a fleet of 17 ships and 1,200 men composed of soldiers, farmers and priests, he aimed to establish permanent colonies in new found lands. In his third voyages in 1498 Columbus with a fleet of six ships made further explorations to the islands and reached as far as the western coasts of South America. He returned to Hispaniola only to find that the Spanish settlers of the new colony were rebellious to his role. He made peace with them, but the news of his gross mismanagement and tyranny had already reached the Spanish monarchs who ordered that Columbus and his brothers be arrested and returned to Spain. Columbus was replaced as governor by Francisco de Bobadilla, a member of the Order of Calatrava. In Spain Columbus and his brothers were imprisoned, and he was divested of his privileges and properties. 
King Ferdinand II listened to Columbus’ plea and released him and his brothers after six weeks of confinement. They were also restored of their wealth and privileges. Columbus was also allowed to lead another voyage to the new found lands. But this time he would no longer serve as governor. He left Cadiz on 11 May 1502 with a fleet of three ships. He explored several islands and landed in Hispaniola. He explored the west coasts of Central America and east coasts of Cuba. A fierce storm stranded his fleet in Jamaica where he remained for almost a year. Columbus and his men then returned to Spain. They arrived in San Lucar on June 29, 1504. In Spain, Columbus' long years of travels took a toll on his health. He was severely stricken with diseases. Columbus died on May 20, 1506, probably at age 54 in Valladolid, Spain.

Critics of Columbus cited the negative effects of his explorations. They claimed that the arrival of the European settlers caused the depopulation of the indigenous Taino and Arawak Indians. The Indians were being exploited for forced labor such as having them worked in gold mines. Spanish soldiers committed with impunity grave abuses such as massacres and rapes. Indigenous people were seized, captured and sent to Spain as slaves with about half of them dying en route. The pandemic of small pox in 1519 which was brought by the European settlers into the islands almost brought to extinction the indigenous inhabitants.

Map from Wikipedia
Columbus’ erroneous view that the lands that he found were part of Asia denied him the honor of having the continent named after him. Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator, who came to the new lands a year after Columbus, correctly speculated that the land Columbus discovered was not Asia. Amerigo's travel journals also convinced German cartographer Martin Wadseemuller to reach the same conclusion. Wadseemuller published a world map in 1507 referring to the big new found continent as “America”, which is the Latinized version of Amerigo. With that map, people at that time also followed suit to refer to the continent as “America”. For it, Vespucci was unintentionally and undeservedly accorded an honor that should have rightfully belonged to Columbus.

It is claimed that Vikings came to America before Columbus did, and therefore he was not the first European to discover it. But there is no doubt that Columbus’ explorations were the ones which certainly opened the door of the American continent for European settlement. After Columbus had claimed lands for Spain, other European powers such as Portugal, England, France and Netherlands followed to explore the hitherto huge unknown continent. This resulted to the influx of immigrants who brought along with them their languages and cultures, and created new Independent nations with predominantly European cultures and demographics. The predominantly Christian roots of the immigrant people have also brought about the Christian evangelization of the American continent, thus making Christianity the largest religion of the world.