Five-hundred-fifteen years ago today, Oct. 12, 1492, the explorer Christopher Columbus first made landfall on an island in the southern Bahamas. Columbus and his crew of 87 had been aboard the three ships - the Nina, the Pinta, and Santa Maria - for five weeks. Toward the end there had been talk of mutiny. So it was probably a genuine act of praise and thanksgiving that Columbus named that first land, "Holy Savior" (San Salvador).
A sailor aboard the Nina, Rodrigo de Triana, had been the first to see land. Boats were soon launched and Columbus came ashore. Historians report that Columbus kneeled on the shore, kissed the ground, wept, and then prayed these words. "O Lord, Almighty and everlasting God, by Your holy Word, You have created the heaven, the earth, and the sea, blessed and glorified be Your Name. And praised be Your Majesty, which has designed to use us, Your humble servants, that Your holy Name may be proclaimed in this second part of the earth."
It is clear that Columbus thought he was on a mission. He thought that sailing to the west was one way of obeying Christ's command to take the good news to all nations. He had copied passages from the Bible into his personal journal, including Zechariah 9:10, "He shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth." Columbus even wrote that he understood his first name, "Christopher" to be a sign. It means "Christ-bearer".
And Columbus first showed great concern for the natives, whom he called "Indians." Unfortunately, he also had an attitude of superiority which saw nothing wrong in forcibly capturing the people and making them slaves of the Europeans. And after the discovery that the natives had gold and silver, Columbus's desire to spread the good news became subordinate to his drive for wealth and power.
So how do we remember Christopher Columbus? Was he a hero or a villain? Was he a good man on a daring voyage, or a greedy man seeking wealth and power? Was he both?
I like to remember a daring sea captain, sailing for five weeks across the unknown ocean, barely keeping order on his ship, straining his eyes to see the land that his faith said was there, all the while keeping watch on his back. Land ahoy.