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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

The Story of Columbus Pt 1: Christianity and The Sea (1451-1492)

Updated: Jan 28, 2022



Christopher Columbus was born to a middle class Italian merchant family in the Northern Italian port city of Genoa. Italy was not a united country during the lifetime of Columbus but instead was a collection of feudal city states. Columbus was Genoese. In the environment of late medieval northern Italy he was impacted profoundly by two major influences- Christianity and the sea. Christopher Columbus grew up watching sailing ships coming and going from the busy harbor below where he lived in Genoa. The sailors carried tales of travel and adventure that must have fascinated young Christopher. It was not long until he found himself involved in the sailing trade, perhaps as early as age ten.


The port city of Genoa in northern Italy. Columbus' childhood home.

Columbus also appears to have become even more religiously devout than most people of his time, which is significant considering the already religiously saturated culture he grew up in. During his formative years the big story going on in the news of his day was the ongoing conflicts between the Christians and the Muslims. Multiple crusades happened in the preceding centuries and had failed ultimately to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. To make matters worse, during Columbus' early childhood, the second largest center of Christianity (Constantinople) fell to the Muslims.

The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims- 1453

Thus, the context of Columbus' formative years was this epic struggle between Christian civilization and the ascendant Islam which seemed to be squeezing Christendom into an ever smaller box. People like Columbus felt that the Muslims were the great antichrist mentioned at the end of the Bible. Adding to the signs that the end was coming was the growing schisms in the church that divided Christians against themselves. With all these ideas swilling in his young mind, Columbus became enmeshed in this apocalyptic fervor of his age and himself predicted that there were only 150 years left until the end of the world.


Like a typical idealist, in his 20's, Christopher Columbus began to form his ideas about the world and his role in it. It was this confluence of religious worldview and a passion for the sea that served as the ingredients for the development of Columbus' great vision and the basis and motivation for almost all his later actions. His vision was that he could save Christianity and prepare the world for the second coming of Jesus Christ through the use of his navigational skills. He was like a proto-entrepreneuran Elon Musk of his time. He believed his idea could not only revolutionize the world, but save it.


So what was his great idea? Christopher Columbus grew up reading the tales of Marco Polo‘s travels and adventures in Asia. As a sailor you can only imagine how much these stories fascinated him.

Columbus' actual copy of Marco Polo's Travels with his own notes in the margins.

These stories told of immense amounts of gold in Asia and a "Great Khan" who was open to becoming a Christian. In addition, there was a lot of discussion amongst navigators of his time about the nature of the earth's geography. While essentially everyone knew the world was round, there were debates about its geography and size. Columbus believed the prevailing notion, that Asia could not be reached by sailing west due to its vast distance from Europe, was incorrect. He sided with what was likely a respectable minority view that the world was actually smaller. With that in mind he believed that by sailing west he could find a new trade route to Asia and its riches. By finding this western trade route to Asia he thought he could be the means of finding new military alliances in the East with powerful kingdoms, like that of the Great Khan, as well as the wealth and gold necessary to raise an army that would retake the great city of Jerusalem in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. He felt his journey could reverse the decline of Christendom and literally save the world.



Columbus' commitment to this vision cannot be understated and is the CRITICAL piece that makes sense of his actions during his life. This can be seen first in how diligently and boldly this middle class merchant tried to sell his idea to some of the most powerful people on earth. Like a determined entrepreneur with a big idea, he spent almost a decade of his life trying to sell this idea over and over to potential backers whilst he continued his day job as a skilled navigator of growing repute and tried to manage the happenings of his sometimes complicated family life. However, not everybody shared easily in Columbus' big vision either from a nautical perspective or from a religious perspective and he faced multiple rejections. Still, he did not give up. Eventually, after years and years of trying, it was Queen Isabella of Spain that finally bought into his vision and ended up backing the idea. This likely was because Isabella shared Columbus' above average sincerity in religious devotion. Her husband King Ferdinand also supported the voyage but probably for more practical reasons. The Spanish primary rival, the Portuguese, were already making attempts to reach Asia by sea and there was a chance Columbus could help the Spanish win this "spice race".


So with the royal buy-in from Spain they formulated a plan. Despite not being a Spaniard, Columbus was to sail west on a voyage of discovery to find the Great Khan of Asia, discover new territory that could be incorporated into the Spanish realm, and set up a permanent trading base. The idea was that the trading base and the wealth from the new lands discovered would serve to make Spain the richest nation in Europe and give them the funds needed to raise an army that would lead Christendom back to glory via the reconquest of Jerusalem.


This is not to say that Columbus did not want any personal benefit from this endeavor. Like any good entrepreneur, he saw this endeavor as a way to continue his rise out of middle class obscurity and into the respected aristocracy of his time though both money and title. So he negotiated for a 10% share of the revenues from the endeavor along with titles and power over new territories discovered. It's very likely that he and the crown envisioned this being a voyage that might discover a few islands and set up a profitable trading post with missionary operations to the peoples of Asia. Neither Columbus nor the King and Queen had any idea what they were about to stumble upon. And as we will see, much of what ensued later was a result of this gross underestimation and their attempts to deal with the magnitude and complexity of such a momentous discovery.




K.E





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