Christopher Columbus (detail), from Alejo FernÃ¡ndez, La Virgen de los Navegantes, circa 1505 to 1536, AlcÃ¡zares Reales de Sevilla.
In his magisterial Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 1942, Samuel Elliot Morrison writes:
(Christopher Columbus did) more to direct the course of history than any individual since Augustus Caesar. Yet the life of the Admiral closed on a note of frustration. He had not found the Strait, or met the Grand Khan, or converted any great number of heathen, or regained Jerusalem. He had not even secured the future of his family. And the significance of what he had accomplished was only slightly less obscure to him than to the chroniclers who neglected to record his death, or to the courtiers who failed to attend his modest funeral at Valladolid. The vast extent and immense resources of the Americas were but dimly seen; the mighty ocean that laved their western shores had not yet yielded her secret.
America would eventually have been discovered if the Great Enterprise of Columbus had been rejected; yet who can predict what hat would have been the outcome? The voyage that took him to “The Indies” and home was no blind chance, but the creation of his own brain and soul, long studied, carefully planned, repeatedly urged on indifferent princes, and carried through by virtue of his courage, sea-knowledge and indomitable will. No later voyage could ever have such spectacular results, and Columbus’s fame would have been secure had he retired from the sea in 1493. Yet a lofty ambition to explore further, to organize the territories won for Castile, and to complete the circuit of the globe, sent him thrice more to America. These voyages, even more than the first, proved him to be the greatest navigator of his age, and enabled him to train the captains and pilots who were to display the banners of Spain off every American cape and island between Fifty North and Fifty South. The ease with which he dissipated the unknown terrors of the Ocean, the skill with which he found his way out and home, again and again, led thousands of men from every Western European nation into maritime adventure and exploration. And if Columbus was a failure as a colonial administrator, it was partly because his conception of a colony transcended the desire of his followers to impart, and the capacity of natives to receive, the institutions and culture of Renaissance Europe. …
One only wishes that the Admiral might have been afforded the sense of fulfillment that would have come from foreseeing all that flowed from his discoveries; that would have turned all the sorrows of his last years to joy. The whole history of the Americas stem from the Four Voyages of Columbus; and as the Greek city-states looked back to the deathless gods as their founders, so today a score of independent nations and dominions unite in homage to Christopher the stout-hearted son of Genoa, who carried Christian civilization across the Ocean Sea.
James Carroll, in the Boston Globe, explains why Columbus ought to be understood both as a crusader by means of exploration and as the first proponent of a theory of New World exceptionalism.
Columbus wanted to circumvent the Muslim chokehold on European trade with the East, the glories of which had been sung by Marco Polo. And he wanted to enrich his sponsors with gold and spices. But picking up the thread of Crusader attempts to retake Jerusalem was even more to the point.
In his â€œJournals,â€™â€™ Columbusâ€™s report to his royal sponsors, he declares; â€œYour Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes devoted to the Holy Christian Faith and the propagation thereof, and enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India, to see the said princes and peoples and lands and the disposition of them and of all, and the manner in which may be undertaken their conversion to our Holy Faith, and ordained that I should not go by land (the usual way) to the Orient, but by the route of the Occident, by which no one to this day knows for sure that anyone has gone.â€™â€™
As for the gold that Columbus hoped to find for his sponsors, he knew that it was not merely for their enrichment. He wrote, â€œI declared to Your Highnesses that all the gain of this my Enterprise should be spent in the conquest of Jerusalem; and Your Highnesses smiled and said that it pleased you.â€™â€™
For Columbus, achieving Jerusalem was not merely a matter of releasing the Holy Sepulcher from the age-old Muslim bondage. Like millennialists before and after him, he seems to have believed that the final restoration of the Holy Land to Christian dominion would usher in the Messianic Age. â€œGod made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth,â€™â€™ he wrote in about 1500, â€œof which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John . . . and he showed me the spot where to find it.â€™â€™ An apocalyptic impulse informed the New World project at its birth; the project assumed hostility to Islam; and its ultimate purpose involved Jerusalem. Those three facts remain pillars of the American problem today.