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    Why celebrate Columbus Day?

    Why celebrate Columbus Day?

    Columbus and Divine Providence

    by Jeremias Wells
    Statue of Christopher Columbus in Spain

    Christopher Columbus certainly ranks as one of the greatest men of achievement the world has ever known, and also justly one of the most renowned, for the entire history of Europeans in America originated from his vision, religious sense and adventurous spirit. As can be expected in a man with an impassioned nature, many controversies have arisen, but all students of his voyages relate he sincerely believed that almighty God had chosen him to discover portions of the world hitherto shrouded in mystery. And his success, after years of struggle and suffering, lends credence to the historical reality of that statement.
    Pope Leo XIII summed it up best in an encyclical of tribute on the Quadricentennial of Columbus’ great discovery. The Pontiff recognized that he sought the improvement of human society through knowledge, “nor did he despise glory . . . an ideal to great souls, nor did he scorn a hope of advantage to himself.” But along with human desires was the consideration of Christianity that provided “him with the strength of mind and will…and consoled him in the midst of the greatest difficulties.” But his overriding motivation was “to open a way for the Gospel over new land and seas.” In short, America was discovered
    by a Catholic missionary.
    The Man

    Born Christoforo Colombo (Cristóbal Colón in Castilian, the language of his choice) in the Italian port city of Genoa in 1451, the young mariner went to sea at fourteen and spent the rest of his life either on the ocean or in some maritime-related business. Although the alert seaman had little formal education, he easily mastered navigation, geometry, astronomy, geography and map-making, and later in life became competent in Latin. He studied the Renaissance scholars, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, eventually Pope Pius II and Pierre (Cardinal) d’Ailly and corresponded with the Florentine intellectual, Paolo Toscanelli who numbered Da Vinci among his circle of friends, all of whom advocated sailing west from Europe into the unknown to engage in Oriental exploration.
    Columbus sharpened his extraordinary skills of seamanship while sailing under the Portuguese flag during the vibrant, exciting days that inaugurated the Age of Discovery. His nautical apprenticeship coincided with the advance of technology as the Portuguese persistently pushed their way down the West coast of Africa to locate an eastern route to India. He breathed in the exuberant air of discovery that instilled in him an ambition to extend the limits of Christendom, but in the opposite direction.
    Dispute among cosmographers. Painted by José Antônio da Cunha Couto for the celebrations of the 4th centenary of the discovery of the Americas. The painting shows Pedro Álvares Cabral, kneeling with a portfolio in his hands. At the background, from left to right, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Amerigo Vespucci.

    The turbulent and reckless times added to Columbus’ emotional maturity. Danger from the constant warfare of the petty states that rimmed the Mediterranean and from the ever-present Moslem corsairs developed in the sea captain that imperturbable courage and perseverance that marked all his great moments. More importantly, these natural virtues were augmented by a deep understanding of the supernatural that can only come from prayer and reflection. Columbus was fully cognizant of the inadequacy of human resources to sustain himself in the various ordeals he had to endure and the absolute necessity of the grace that he merited from his frequent Communion, canonical daily office and other devotions.
    Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was no great accomplishment, challenged his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers gave up, Columbus did it himself by simply tapping the egg on the table so as to flatten its tip.

    In short, the pious and fervent explorer, who became a third-order Franciscan friar while in Spain, could be considered a seagoing monk with much in common with the great religious military orders of the period.
    The Mission

    The vision of his vocation was deeply etched in his mind in 1479 when he married into a prominent Portuguese family that owned property in Lisbon and on Madeira. His unsuccessful efforts to interest the king in his voyages, his correspondence and his refusal to settle down to a life of comfortable mediocrity, all indicate his unswerving adherence to the call of Divine Providence regardless of whatever suffering it might entail. After the death of his first wife and his failure to obtain assistance from King Joao II, Columbus and his five-year-old, Diego, sailed to Spain, landing at the little sleepy seaport of Palos on the Atlantic.
    Christopher Columbus at the gates of the monastery of Santa Maria de la Rabida with his son Diego. Painting by Benito Mercade y Fabregas

    Once again monastic life, the backbone of the Church, proved to be a great asset to Western Civilization. Having arrived in a strange country, penniless and without any support, afflicted by compounding disappointments, Columbus reached out for the hand of God. He and his little boy, hungry and thirsty, trekked to the Franciscan monastery of La Rabida outside of town where they were received with bountiful generosity. Through the influence of the provincial, Columbus was placed in contact with several noblemen who in turn introduced him to the Most Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
    During this period, Columbus married for the second time. Several historians, including some prominent Catholics, have claimed that his relationship with the mother of his second son, Fernando, was illicit, based on some ambiguous language in his last will and the absence of a marriage certificate. But we should not carelessly compromise the Franciscan tertiary’s otherwise superior moral conduct. Since he moved freely among the most respectable elements in both lay and ecclesiastical society, this gratuitous calumny appears unlikely. Moreover, the cause of his canonization was opened in 1877 through the support of Pope Pius IX, who himself has been beatified. Revolutionary ferment in France quickly smothered the process because the thought that America had been discovered by a saint was intolerable.
    Detail of the monument to Christopher Columbus at the Plaza de Colón in Madrid, built between 1881 and 1885. Relief shows Queen Isabella offering to pawn her jewels in aid of Columbus' enterprise. At the right, a prayer kneeler with a crucifix.

    Delays and disappointments followed on obstacles and difficulties. Although Queen Isabella was impressed by the noble bearing and eloquence of the experienced navigator, her mind was occupied with other problems, principally the expulsion of the Moors from their last stronghold on the Spanish peninsula, the Emirate of Granada. Distressed beyond endurance and unable to provide subsistence for himself, much less for his two sons, Columbus decided to pick up Diego, now twelve, at La Rabida and leave Spain.
    The prior, Father Juan Perez, who had been the Queen’s confessor, convinced of the weary traveler’s ability and piety, sent a formal request asking her to reconsider, which she did. This resulted, after further and often harrowing negotiations, in her complete support. She located the money for three ships and ordered the seaport of Palos to provide men for the crew.
    King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella bid farewell to Columbus for his First Voyage, Departure for the New World, August 3, 1492.

    Fear of such an unheard of adventure struck the hearts of the town’s sailors with foreboding. Once again, Father Perez came to the rescue by enrolling the area’s leading mariners, the Pinzon brothers, along with their caravel, the Pinta, in the mission and using his Franciscan influence to instill confidence in the townspeople. Columbus spent much of his time praying in his cell, waiting for a favorable wind.
    At three o’clock in the morning on August 3, 1492, Admiral Columbus received Holy Communion, rode to town with Father Perez and received his parting benediction. The Admiral climbed aboard the quarterdeck and ordered the sails to be unfurled, beginning the voyage that changed world history. He then went below and made the first entry in the ship’s log, “In nomine Domini nostri Jesu Christi.”
    The Discovery

    A replica of the Santa María, Columbus’ flagship in 1492 seen in the harbor of Funchal, Madeira.

    From the very beginning of the voyage, fear and discontent ran through the crew, for no ship had ever sailed into the Sea of Darkness, leastwise that returned to tell about it. At specified times during the day, Columbus remained in his cabin to make his meditation and recite the Divine Office, and the rest of the time he spent on the quarterdeck sleeping very little. Every evening the eternal silence was broken by the sounds of the Salve Regina and the Ave Maris Stella. As the days dragged on, discouragement and fear increased. Only the dignified, noble bearing of the powerfully built navigator maintained discipline, but, nevertheless, on October 10 the men had reached the breaking point. Under extreme duress, the Admiral’s eloquent certainty (he had been watching flocks of land birds flying across in the distance) bought him three more days. On October 12 at two o’clock in the morning, in the light of the newly risen moon, a sailor on the Pinta saw land.

    Later in the morning, the Admiral went ashore to claim the island for his Spanish sovereigns and dropped to his knees to thank Our Lord for His infinite mercy, and in His honor named it San Salvador—Holy Savior (usually identified with Watling Island in the Bahamas). He also claimed the island and all subsequent discoveries for Christianity and noted in his log that the friendly, docile natives would make excellent converts. Modern sensibilities may cringe at the idea of Europeans placing discovered land and people under royal and ecclesiastical authority, but Columbus was just transferring the rules of the day to the New World. A Christian state had the right to proclaim sovereignty over heathen and infidel domains. The Catholic monarchs exercised a similar prerogative over Granada and so did John Cabot in Newfoundland, Jacques Cartier in the St. Lawrence Valley and Henry Hudson in New York harbor, among others.
    Christoper Columbus arrives in America. Painting by by Gergio Deluci

    Columbus spent several days cruising through the Bahamas, explored the northeast coast of Cuba and crossed the Windward Passage to make contact with a large group of friendly Indians on the Haitian coast of Hispaniola. There on Christmas Day, the Santa Maria ranaground on a treacherous coral reef through the ineptitude of an insubordinate pilot and had to be abandoned. The sailors stripped the vessel of its valuable wood that was used to build La Navidad, the first European settlement in the New World. Leaving most of the shipwrecked crew behind as its residents, Columbus warned them not to partake in the vices of the natives, and sailed off to the east and Spain.
    Immediately upon his return to Spain, the Admiral marched in solemn procession to the monastery at La Rabida where Father Perez said a Mass of thanksgiving and chanted a Te Deum. Throughout Spain for the next few weeks, Columbus heard nothing but cries of joy and praise. But he was to hear the sound of celebration no longer, only the haunting cries of misfortune and disappointment.
    Second Voyage

    The return of Christopher Columbus; his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Painting by Eugene Delacroix

    Isabella sent the Admiral back to the Indies with a much expanded fleet of 17 ships and 1,500 men. Added to the original goals of making discoveries and spreading the Gospel were instructions to colonize. Columbus made landfall in the southeast Caribbean in the island chain of the Lesser Antilles and came in contact with the fierce Caribs for the first time. No primitive people have ever carried the eating of human flesh to such disgusting depths. The Caribs from which our word “cannibal” is derived actually raised children for roasting much the same as farmers raise steers. After working his way up the island chain, he finally reached the colony of La Navidad on Hispaniola. He discovered to his grief that the entire garrison had been murdered. Investigation revealed that passions, lust and general misconduct led to the slaughter.
    Columbus laid out a new town called Isabela, appointed a council to rule, and set out to do that for which he was best suited: navigate and explore. For five months, he cruised off the coasts of Cuba and Jamaica in a remarkable voyage that demonstrated his superior talent for piloting under exceedingly difficult conditions. On his way to Puerto Rico, the Admiral succumbed to a condition that resembled what some would call today a nervous breakdown, caused by extreme exertion, improper diet and lack of sleep. The first evidence that he was suffering from arthritis compounded his afflictions.
    The ailing navigator returned to Isabela and walked into a hornet’s nest of intrigue and rebellion. Against his orders, a large group of adventurers were ravishing the Indians. An understandable reaction from the latter had plunged the island into warfare. Tired and sorrowful, Columbus returned to Spain. When he left his cabin upon arrival, he was wearing his brown Franciscan habit, and his face showed the marks of a man who had aged greatly.
    Last Voyages and Death

    Muelle de las Carabelas (Harbour of the Caravels) is a waterfront exhibition with life-size replicas of Columbus's three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María, built for the 500th anniversary celebrations in 1992. The museum has details of Columbus's life, including this exhibit.

    The Caribbean operation was taken over by professional soldiers, capable but turbulent men, and trained bureaucrats who were motivated by securing a good return on Spain’s investment. Columbus had planned for a permanent settlement for the transfer of Hispanic culture and Catholic principles to the newly discovered land. That conflict of priorities produced most of the troubles that fell so heavily on the courageous idealist.
    On his third voyage in 1498, Columbus navigated even farther south where he discovered Trinidad and laid eyes for the first time on the American Continent at Venezuela. When he returned to his home base on Hispaniola, now located at Santo Domingo, he found the island in turmoil as usual. This time he applied stricter justice and hung a few of the troublemakers. Meanwhile Columbus’ enemies had caused sufficient doubt in the great Admiral’s ability to govern to have a royal commissioner sent to investigate. When the Admiral appeared obediently before the commissioner, he slapped Columbus in jail. Loaded with chains and wasted by disease and acute pain, the Discoverer of the New World was sent home to Spain.
    During the fourth voyage (1502–1504), an attempt to find the nonexistent passage through the discovered lands to India, Columbus enjoyed having his son, Fernando, now fourteen, with him. However, little else succeeded for he experienced an unrelieved series of terrible storms, murderous Indians and the constant threat of disaster from worm-eaten ships that were literally rotting beneath them. After sailing along the coast of Central America for several months, the harried navigator was forced to beach his two remaining caravels (of the original four) on the island of Jamaica where he was marooned for seven months. A bloody mutiny and a miraculous rescue followed.
    Finally Columbus arrived back in Spain, broken in health and fortune, at the end of 1504. Three weeks later, Queen Isabella died and in her grave with her lay buried any hope for earthly reward, for Ferdinand never completely fulfilled his promises. But that mattered very little because the great Discoverer, wearing the brown habit of Saint Francis and surrounded by his two sons and a few Franciscans, breathed his last eighteen months later with the chains of his third voyage hanging on the wall.
    The death of Columbus. Lithograph by L. Prang & Co., 1893.

    Bibliographical Note:
    Two books by Samuel Eliot Morison contributed greatly to the story of Columbus: Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Boston, 1942) and The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages (New York, 1974).

    Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites
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    Re: Why celebrate Columbus Day?

    Libros antiguos y de colección en IberLibro
    A perhaps cliched article about the enduring legacy of Columbus in the US:

    America's national memory is filled with icons and symbols, avatars of deeply held, yet imperfectly understood, beliefs. The role of history in the iconography of the United States is pervasive, yet the facts behind the fiction are somehow lost in an amorphous haze of patriotism and perceived national identity. Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol of the first order in America, is an important figure in this pantheon of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which raised him to his pedestal in the American gallery of heroism.

    This gallery was not in place at the birth of the political nation. America, as a young republic, found itself immediately in the middle of an identity crisis. Having effected a violent separation from England and its cultural and political icons, America was left without history--or heroes. Michael Kammen, in his Mystic Chords of Memory explains that "repudiation of the past left Americans of the young republic without a firm foundation on which to base a shared sense of their social selves." (65) A new national story was needed, yet the Revolutionary leaders, obvious choices for mythical transformation, were loath to be raised to their pedestals. "Even though every nation needs a mythic explanation of its own creation, that process was paradoxically elaborated by the reluctance of Revolutionary statesmen to have their story told prematurely." (Kammen, 27) To be raised above others would be undemocratic, they believed. The human need to explain origins, to create self-identity through national identity, was thwarted by this reluctance. A vacuum was created, and was slowly filled with the image of Christopher Columbus.

    "The association between Columbus and America took root in the imagination" in the eighteenth century. "People had even more reason to think of themselves in distinctive American terms." (Noble, 250) Americans, searching for a history and a hero, discovered Columbus. A rash of poetic histories and references to Columbus emerge in the years following the Revolution: Philip Freneau's The Pictures of Columbus, Joel Barlow's 1787 The Vision of Columbus, and Phillis Wheatley's 1775 innovation, the poetic device "Columbia" as a symbol of both Columbus and America. King's College of New York changed its name in 1792 to Columbia, and the new capitol in Washington was subtitled District of Columbia, in deference to those who would name the country after Columbus. Noble observes that,
    It is not hard to understand the appeal of Columbus as a totem for the new republic and the former subjects of George III. Columbus had found the way of escape from Old World tyranny. He was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier...as a consequence of his vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In Columbus the new nation without its own history and mythology found a hero from the distant past, one seemingly free of any taint from association with European colonial powers. The Columbus symbolism gave America an instant mythology and a unique place in history, and their adoption of Columbus magnified his own place in history. (252)
    If the Revolutionary generation was inspired by Columbus, consider the reaction of the nineteenth century: Columbus was an embodiment of that century's faith in progress--seeking out new lands, a fearless explorer. However, nineteenth century America's discovery of Columbus was not as straightforward as that of the late eighteenth century. The United States, certainly by the 1830s, was in the throes of a love affair with the new. America was seen as the "country of the Future" (Emerson's "Young American", 1844), the new more important than the "ancient" of history. Formal education, for most of the nineteenth century, "gave short shrift to the past. American history remained very much a minor subject in the schools--rarely a part of the curriculum." (Kammen, 51) Americans had a "limited attention span for history, even the history of their own heroes." (Kammen, 49) What was important was that their heroes were bold, adventurous, and represented innovation: who better than Columbus to represent the bold new America? Americans still needed a heroic pantheon; the facts behind the faces were of little importance.

    Again, as in the late eighteenth century, Columbus was a reflection of the society which created and re-created him. Kammen reminds us that "societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them" and do so "with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind." (3) The culture of the early nineteenth century was one of growing fragmentation, and "obstacles to achieving a viable, coherent sense of national tradition were numerous: distinctive sections as well as value systems with conflicting self-images of one another and themselves" as well as diverse political factions and parties. (Kammen, 50) Columbus was a perfect icon for the confusing days of the early nineteenth century, cutting across social, political, and regional boundaries, providing a kind of superficial unity for the American national identity, a decontextualized and increasingly monodimensional hero, created in the image of the age.

    How did Columbus achieve this status? Again, through his valorization by writers. Washington Irving was part of a "small yet vocal group of antebellum Americans" who "felt deeply troubled by the irrelevance of memory to their contemporaries" and in 1819 expressed a desire to "'lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.'" (Kammen, 60) He did just that with the newly discovered Navarrette manuscripts (a work on Columbus' life by one of his contemporaries) which were published in 1825, utilizing the documents to create a romantic hero for the nineteenth century. His version of Columbus' life, published in 1829, was incredibly popular, "read avidly in the United States and contributed to the idealized image of the discoverer that dominated literature for more than a century and has not been entirely expunged. His soaring fancy produced a romance, more than a judicious biography." (Noble, 39)

    It was not simply Irving, or the early Revolutionary Columbus boosters, who created an idealized version of the explorer's life. His contemporaries could not agree on the facts of Columbus' life, either. Scholars still debate issues which may seem to the public somehow already set in stone--what he looked like, whether or not he originated the idea of sailing west to reach the east, even what island he first landed on. The confusion began with the first "official" biography of "the Admiral" by his son Don Hernando, which was strangely vague in a number of key areas--including those mentioned above. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, Martin Fernandez de Navarrette, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, and Bartolome de la Casas all presented differing views of the man who was to become an important American hero. Humphrey Gilbert, a citizen of the first British colony in the New World (St. John's, Newfoundland, 1583) said of Columbus, "Christopher Columbus of famous memory was not only derided and generally mocked, even here in England, but afterward became a laughing-stock of the Spaniards themselves." (qtd. in Noble, 248) and yet in 1614, Lope de Vega portrayed Columbus in a more familiar light. In his play El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristobal Colon, Columbus is a "dreamer up against the stolid forces of entrenched tradition, a man of singular purpose who triumphed, the embodiment of that spirit driving forces to explore and discover." (Noble, 249) The conflicting details, the vague rendition of biography, and the prejudices of early writers made it easy for early Americans to take Columbus and mold him to their purposes.

    "Irving's Columbus was a figure of heroic stature, eminently useful to Americans who were attempting the first democratic experiment in modern times. Irving presented him to young America as a culture hero divinely inspired and divinely sent..." (Shurr, 237) The vision of Columbus as underdog, triumphing over circumstances and his "betters" was particularly resonant for the new republic, as was his image as the great explorer, a "symbol of the adventuring human spirit and an avatar of the Western faith" (Noble, 48-9) His reputation seemed to have been secured by the mid-nineteenth century, when the sculptor of the Capitol's Columbus Doors, Randolph Rogers, stated, "Perhaps there is but one man [i.e., George Washington] whose name is more intimately connected with the history of this country or who better deserves a lasting monument to his memory than Christopher Columbus." (Quincentenary, 10) Basing his work on the romantic stories of Irving, Rogers portrayed an heroic underdog, bold and ingenious explorer, a figure perfect for the age--and for inclusion in America's pantheon of heroes in the temple of legitimacy, the Rotunda. "Daniel Boorstin observes that people 'once felt themselves made by their heroes' and cites James Russell Lowell: 'The idol is the measure of the worshipper.' Accordingly, writers and orators of the nineteenth century ascribed to Columbus all the human virtues that were most prized in that time of geographic and industrial expansion, heady optimism, and an unquestioning belief in progress as the dynamic of history." (Noble, 253)

    By 1893, the year (one late) of America's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing (in the West Indies), Columbus had become, in the minds of Americans, the first real "founding father," with any problems or controversies (specifically his treatment of the native peoples he encountered) swept aside. "Most people living in America four centuries after the voyages of discovery had created a Columbus they wanted to believe in and were quite satisfied with their invention." (Noble, 258) Amy Leslie, a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, covered the World's Columbian Exposition, in name a celebration of Columbus' "discovery" of America. She remarked that she was surprised to see a statue of George Washington there, "who, until Columbus was so vehemently discovered by America, held something of a place in the hearts of his countrymen." (Buck, 93) The United States, as a country, had fully embraced the ideals that their Columbus represented: he was "the symbol of American success...Clearly, the exposition was more than a commemoration of the past, it was also the exclamation of a future that the self-confident Americans were eager to share and enjoy." (Noble, 256)

    By the Quincentenary of 1992, Columbus had been virtually stripped of all positive symbolic meaning. The pendulum has swung, and now he "is the post-colonial and demythologized Columbus. He has been stripped of the symbolic cloak of optimism and exposed as a human being whose flaws were many and of reverberating consequence." (Noble, 260) In our multicultural, and often cynical, society, we have created Columbus in our image. As Noble notes, "Each generation looks back on the past and, drawing on its own experiences, presumes to find patterns that illuminate both the past and the present." (xii) Christopher Columbus was literally in the right place (Spain) at the right time (the dawning Age of Discovery) to set his place in history. America was the right place at the right time to appropriate, simplify, and mould Columbus to reflect the image of an independent and growing America. Columbus is found throughout American popular culture, national commemorations and memory, and prominently in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Randolph Roger's massive bronze Columbus Doors express this vision of Columbus, the ultimate visual expression of America's self-identity as embodied in the explorer. He "emerged from the shadows, reincarnated not so much as a man and historical figure as he was a myth and symbol. He came to epitomize the explorer and discoverer, the man of vision and audacity, the hero who overcame opposition and adversity to change history." (Noble, 249)

    Columbus in American History
    "And, as we Catholics know, Western Civilization is Roman Civilization, first classical Roman Civilization, then Roman Catholic Civilization, as the Christians preserved and carried classical Roman Civilization to the world in a Christianized form. That is, after all, why we are described as Roman Catholics."

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