A well-known television show, To Tell the Truth, involved four panelists who were presented with three contestants, each of whom claimed to be the key figure in a unique occupation or experience. Two of the contestants were counterfeits who were permitted to misrepresent the truth, while the third contestant—the real key figure—was required to tell the truth.
After asking questions, the panelists would then give their opinion as to which contestant was the real McCoy. Thereafter the moderator would say, “Would the real ‘key figure’ please stand up.” The panelists were often surprised to discover they had picked the wrong contestant. In a somewhat like manner, we have many revisionist historians who have manufactured a counterfeit Columbus who has often fooled the audience. The purpose of this article is for the real Columbus to stand up and be revealed for whom he really was.
What Was Columbus’s Motive
For many years Columbus sought financing for his desired voyage. Finally, Queen Isabella of Spain gave her approval. Even though the voyage would have profound financial benefits for Spain, Columbus was under no misapprehension about its purpose; he knew it was much more than a secular quest. He knew it was an integral part of God’s divine master plan. He was not alone in this understanding. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, Spain’s royal historian, referred to the king and queen’s “faithful service to Jesus Christ and their fervent desire for the spread of His holy faith.” He then added, “It was for this purpose that the Lord brought Christopher Columbus to their notice.”
While fame and fortune may have contributed to Columbus’s interest in exploration, his main motivation, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Samuel Eliot Morison, was his belief that he was an instrument in God’s hands: “There can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement. … This conviction that God destined him to be an instrument for spreading the faith was far more potent than the desire to win glory, wealth and worldly honors, to which he was certainly far from indifferent.”
Not only did Columbus desire to spread Christianity among the natives whom he encountered, but he also sought gold and wealth for a very specific purpose—to finance a crusade that would conquer Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. In his own words, Columbus said: “I urged your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.” Being a devoutly religious man, Columbus believed this conquest and the rebuilding of the temple was necessary in order to prepare the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Delno C. West and August Kling, scholars on the life of Columbus, wrote: “We cannot deny that the Admiral wanted a comfortable income for himself and his heirs, but the primary motivation in his quest for gold was spiritual. On many occasions, he clearly stated that any gold found should be used first and foremost to propagate the faith and to launch the final crusade to Jerusalem.” Why is it that we seldom, if ever, hear of these sentiments from the revisionist historians?
God Works through Imperfect Men
At some point this key historical question must be addressed: “Was Columbus divinely inspired or were his voyages nothing more than secular quests?” Columbus certainly had his weaknesses but if God could use only perfect men to advance His work, He would be left empty-handed.
The critic sees only warts and blemishes; God sees the beauty and strengths, and then uses such attributes to further His cause. And so it was with Columbus. To deny his God-inspired role in events which ultimately made possible the birth and founding of the United States of America is to suffer from a severe case of historical myopia.
The Revisionist View of Columbus
For purposes of this article the term “revisionist historians” refers to those historians who would rather promote their own prejudices and perspective of history than actual facts as reflected in primary sources (meaning original sources created during the historical time under discussion).
Primary sources for learning the history of Columbus include such records as Columbus’s journal and letters, a biography by his son Ferdinand Columbus, contemporary historians such as Peter Martyr of Angleria, Bartolome de las Casas, and Andrés Bernáldez, and Columbus’s bitter enemy and rival—Francisco de Bobadilla.
As I read about the life of Columbus, I was surprised and disappointed at the many times revisionists quoted passages out of context, cited other revisionists without reference to primary sources, or simply failed to quote primary sources that disproved or weakened their position. Lest there be any question, a partial truth presented as the whole truth is an untruth, and there is no doubt but that many revisionists have engaged in partial truths. Following are but a few examples of such partial truths:
Columbus did send some slaves to Spain but his motive was not nefarious.
It is true that Columbus did send some slaves to Spain but one needs to understand the context in which Columbus did so. For example, King Guacanagari was a native chief who sought the help of Columbus to defeat an enemy tribe of cannibals who were destroying his own tribe. Columbus did assist in this request and sent the captured cannibals as slaves to Spain.
Regarding these slaves, Columbus wrote to the monarchs: “We send by these two vessels some of these cannibal men and women, as well as some children, both male and female. Their Highnesses can order them to be placed under the care of the most competent persons to teach them the language.” Columbus then explained his motive for sending these slaves: “that they may one day be led to abandon their barbarous custom of eating their fellow-creatures. By learning the Spanish language in Spain, they will much earlier receive baptism and ensure the salvation of their souls.” What a noble sentiment!
Columbus also said of these slaves that he “intended to reclaim” them and then “return them to their lands so they would instruct others.” This helps us understand the motives behind Columbus’s actions, namely, to help civilize and save these indigenous natives, some of whom practiced cannibalism. This is an important insight completely neglected by the revisionists who want only to paint Columbus in a negative light. Likewise, it is important to understand that Columbus, who the revisionists accuse as a slave trader, never personally owned a slave. In other words, any natives sent to Spain were not for the personal benefit of Columbus, but for what he thought might be the ultimate education and conversion of these natives to Christianity.
Columbus wanted to make friends, not enemies of the natives.
It is true that Columbus did kill some natives, but this was largely in response to the death of 39 Spaniards (killed by these same natives) that Columbus had left behind to govern the island of Hispaniola. As to this event Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus and historian, wrote: “Truly, I would not dare blame the admiral’s intention, for I knew him well and all I know his intentions were good.”
This also seems consistent with the observation of Carol Delaney, emeritus professor at Stanford University and a lead historian on the life of Columbus, who indicated that Columbus wanted to make friends not enemies of the natives. In a conversation with Delaney, Alton Pelowski noted that “the popular view today is that Columbus is responsible for countless atrocities against the native peoples.” Pelowski asked her if she felt “this is a fair assessment.” Delaney, after having reviewed all the available evidence and being as well informed or perhaps better than any other on the subject, responded with impartiality: “No, not
at all. The late 20th century brought a lot of critique about him from the perspective of the natives, and Columbus has become a symbol for everything that went wrong. But the more I read of his own writings and that of his contemporaries, my
understanding of him totally changed. His relations with the natives tended to be benign. He liked the natives and found them to be very intelligent. … Christopher strictly told the crew not to do things like maraud [or] rape, and instead to treat the native people with respect. There are many examples in his writings where he gave instructions to this effect. Most of the time when injustices occurred, Columbus wasn’t even there.” What a difference in perspective when someone relies on primary sources not secondary sources and revisionist history!
In my own reading of original sources, I came to the same conclusion as Delaney. Columbus pretty well summarized his attitude towards the natives in this diary entry: “I knew they were a people to be converted and won to our holy faith by love and friendship rather than by force.” Peter Martyr, a contemporary historian, confirmed this belief of Columbus: “As he had never mistreated the natives, the
inhabitants [of Cuba], both men and women, gladly brought him gifts, displaying no fear.” One must ask: “Why is it that these trusted original sources—the personal diary of Columbus and the impartial testimonies of contemporary historians are so frequently in opposition to the conclusions of the revisionist historians?”
On one occasion Columbus left 50 men under the supervision of Pedro Margarit to mine gold on the island of Cibao. He instructed Margarit that the Indians were to “receive no injury, suffer no harm, and that nothing is [to be] taken from them against their will; instead make them feel honored and protected so as to keep them from becoming perturbed.” Does this sound like a tyrant as asserted by the revisionists? As Carol Delaney noted: “What Columbus didn’t know was that Margarit, and the men under his command, had gone on rampages, marauding the native villages and raping the women”—actions for which the revisionists blame Columbus. Delaney concluded: “They’re [the critics] blaming Columbus for the things he didn’t do. … I just think he’s been terribly maligned.” And so he has been.
Columbus brought the natives a much better way of life.
Some revisionists would have us believe that the natives with whom Columbus interacted were all peace-loving, free of all major diseases, and living in a Garden of Eden state before Columbus “destroyed” it all. The facts reveal, however, that many tribes were continually at war. Furthermore, the facts reveal that some of these natives were cannibals, some ate their own children, some were subject to major diseases, some possessed slaves, some used captured women as sex slaves, some were addicted to cocaine, some performed human sacrifices, the vast majority were uneducated, and some practiced witchcraft, among other atrocities. To suggest that Columbus destroyed their peaceful, civilized, and harmonious societies is pure, absolute fiction.
To the contrary, Columbus brought them a much better way of life— Christianity. That is why the Americas today are filled with Christian nations where cannibalism has been eradicated, slavery abolished, human sacrifices done away, major diseases minimized, women treated with greater respect, life expectancies extended, poverty reduced, and education made available to most. That is the true legacy of Columbus.
A Partial Truth When Told as the Whole Truth is an Untruth
As stated, a partial truth when told as the whole truth is an untruth, and unfortunately, the revisionists have propagated partial truths in exponential degrees. Perhaps one of the most impartial witnesses of Columbus was the contemporary historian Las Casas, who was concerned about the welfare and treatment of the indigenous natives and who was not afraid to point out Columbus’s weaknesses. Nonetheless, taking Columbus’s shortcomings into account, La Casas summarized his life as follows: “Many is the time I have wished that God would again inspire me … to extol the indescribable service to God and to the whole world which Christopher Columbus rendered at the cost of such pain and dangers, such skill and expertise, when he so courageously discovered the New World.” What a compelling compliment from an impartial firsthand witness confirming God’s hand in the life of Columbus and his significant contribution to the world.
Las Casas further wrote, “Truly this man had a good and Christian purpose.” Quotes such as these, however, are noticeably absent from the writings of the revisionists who seem to have an agenda at the cost of historical accuracy.
Las Casas was not naïve; he was keenly aware of the many false accusations against Columbus. He marveled why the King of Spain (after Queen Isabella died) was so unkind to Columbus, “one whose unparalleled services no other monarch ever received.” He then gave this possible reason: “Perhaps he was unduly impressed by the arguments and false testimonies of the admiral’s enemies and rivals,” a common malady suffered by many revisionist historians today.
The most damaging evidence against Columbus is a document known as La caída de Cristóbal Colón written by his bitter enemy Francisco de Bobadilla, who coveted and eventually succeeded Columbus as administrator of one of the colonies. As noted by Las Casas, Bobadilla instructed his men to “take as many advantages as you can [against the natives] since you don’t know how long this will last.” Delaney then added, “By ‘advantage’ he meant for the men to take as much of the gold, women, and labor of the Indians as they could.” Las Casas further noted, “The Spaniards loved and adored him [Bobadilla] in exchange for such favors.” Consequently, these men were willing to denounce Columbus in order to gain the favor of Bobadilla. No wonder Delaney concluded: “Because there was no opportunity for Columbus to counter the accusations against him made by Bobadilla, the recently found report by Bobadilla, La caída de Cristóbal Colón, is highly suspect.” To give credence to Bobadilla’s work would be similar to giving credence to a life history of the Savior written by the Pharisees and Sadducees, or a history of the Jews written by Adolf Hitler. It would be a biased history to say the least—a form of revisionist history.
If Columbus were an evil man, as some assert, one must wonder why he took no slaves for himself, why we have no record of him taking advantage of native women even though many Spanish colonists did so, and why he did not hoard gold like those who succeeded him. In addition, we must ask why we have so many firsthand accounts of him speaking well of the natives and treating them fairly, why his prime motivation for all his acts was the conversion of the natives to Christianity, and why in his last will and testament he donated money for a church and hospital for the benefit of the indigenous natives. Does that sound like a racist?
Columbus Was Inspired by the Holy Ghost
What then is the real story of Columbus? Historical references to Columbus as an instrument in God’s hands are numerous, nonetheless, some historians minimize these references or altogether avoid them, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate some intellectual superiority that doesn’t fall “victim” to belief in divine things. Perhaps others want to promote their own creative view of history. And perhaps others can’t resist the affliction of presentism. In any case, the facts are overwhelming in spite of one’s ideological bent—God’s hand was in the life of Columbus and his contribution in the ultimate discovery and settlement of America.
Nephi prophesied that a man would be wrought upon by the Spirit of God and cross the many waters unto the seed of his brethren (see 1Ne.13:12). Lest there be any question who this man was, President Gordon B. Hinckley observed, “We interpret [1Ne.13:12] to refer to Columbus.” It is little wonder that not only the Founding Fathers had their temple work done for them in the St. George Temple, but also Columbus. In addition, Wilford Woodruff recorded that Columbus was one of four men ordained an high priest—certainly an indication of his worthiness.
In his Libro de las profecías (a religious treatise), Columbus shared his conviction that God’s hand was in the discovery of the Americas: “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 opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me. … Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit … urging me to press forward?” Delno C. West and August Kling, who translated and gave commentary on Libro de las profecías, made this observation about the character of Columbus: “The documents surrounding the life of Christopher Columbus support the fact that he was the kind of person he claimed to be,” meaning a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Columbus Brings Christianity to the Americas
During Columbus’s first voyage, he wrote to the king and queen of Spain about the native people: “May your Highnesses believe that in the whole world there cannot be a better or more gentle people. Your Highnesses should take much joy in that soon you will make them Christians and will have instructed them in the good customs of your realms, for neither better people nor land can there be.” Columbus was anything but a racist; to the contrary he wanted to bring joy to these natives through Christianity. Some may disagree with his methods, but it would be hard to argue with his motives.
Columbus was an instrument in God’s hands to discover the New World and bring Christianity to its shores. In accordance with actual, not revisionist history, Columbus had the courage to follow God’s promptings, the daring to cross the seemingly impassible ocean, and the righteous desire to share Christianity with the natives. His discoveries led to a people that eventually abandoned slavery, cannibalism, and human sacrifices, and instead replaced it with religion, education, and a more refined civilization. What a colossal contribution to society and ultimately, the restoration of Christ’s gospel! It is now time for the real Columbus to stand up and be recognized and honored for who he really was.