and the Quest for Jerusalem
by Carol Delaney
Press: New York, 2012
319 pp, paperback, $16.00
Another Columbus Day is upon us and while the protests are
not as sizeable or virulent as they were back in the 1990s, the day has
certainly become less of a celebration of Christopher Columbus and more of a
forum for castigating the Italian mariner and lamenting the intrusion of
European civilization in the western hemisphere. Some states, such as Nevada
and Hawaii, do not recognize the holiday. And Berkeley, California some years
back indulged in its propensity for Orwellian newspeak, rechristening the
holiday as Indigenous People’s Day.
While ignoring or renaming a holiday
is one reflection of the modern Columbus backlash, more damning are the charges
that he perpetrated genocide in the Americas.
Carol Delaney believes Columbus has been unfairly
characterized by his critics and attempts to set the record straight in Columbus
and the Quest for Jerusalem
. The primary
error of many modern assessments is mistaking the consequences of his
undertakings for his motivations. And according to Delaney that central
motivation, as her title suggests, was the liberation of Jerusalem from Muslim
While many might not be aware of this, Columbus was very
open about his aspiration that the wealth secured from his new route to Asia
might help fund a new crusade to regain the holy city. For example, during his
first voyage to the western hemisphere, Columbus recorded in his diary that he
hope the Spanish Crown would “spend all the profits of this my enterprise on
the conquest of Jerusalem.”
But there was also a strong apocalyptic
element to this envisioned campaign, for Columbus believed that the conquest of
Jerusalem would usher in the last age. At times Delaney gives the impression
that she is the first person to fully appreciate the eschatalogical dimension
of his worldview, but there is little that is innovative in her focus on this
aspect. Many modern Columbus scholars have readily noted the influence of
apocalypticism on the Italian mariner. In his
, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto especially emphasized the
millenarian ideas that shaped Columbus’s thinking. Nonetheless, while this
focus might not be groundbreaking, it does underscore her aim of more properly
contextualizing the controversial explorer.
Though Columbus was born in 1451, Delaney’s recently
published book begins by examining the impact of an event that occurred two
years later: the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The
choice is a smart one, for the rising power of the Ottoman Empire was a key
catalyst in European endeavors to broaden their own horizons especially
into the Atlantic during the fifteenth century. While rightly
situating the Ottoman-Europe rivalry in the 1400s within the larger history of
Muslim-Christian conflict, the author’s synopsis of the Crusades is rather
Her discussion in the second chapter
of the growing influence of apocalypticism during the Middle Ages is even more
problematic. It certainly had nothing to do with the resolution of the Great
Western Schism and her claim that most medieval Christians had an apocalyptic
outlook is a ridiculous overstatement.
When focused on Columbus, Delaney hits her stride. Her
background as a cultural anthropologist shines through in her efforts to
recreate the environment of his early years, as she very effectively conveys
the religious milieu of Genoa and the likely impact this had on his evolution.
Noting the influence the account of Marco Polo’s travels in Asia had on
Columbus is a staple of many western civilization textbooks, but Delaney makes
a compelling case that another travel account, The Travels of John
, also factored significantly in
forging the worldview of the young Italian especially in its focus on
How the persistent Columbus convinced Ferdinand and Isabella
to fund his risky expedition is well known to most Americans. Other than
highlighting Columbus’s ideas about how this undertaking might contribute to
the liberation of Jerusalem, Delaney veers little from the standard narrative.
Where she stands out is in her examination of what happened in the Americas in
the aftermath of Columbus’ arrival in October 1492.
The European treatment of
the indigenous peoples in the wake of Columbus’s expedition has become a
particularly hot-button issue. Delaney readily acknowledges how it was
frequently exploitative and despicable, but also notes that Columbus has too
readily been associated with those who perpetrated these heinous acts. His
track record with the Indians was by no means spotless. Frankly, Delaney is too
easy on him for his own role during his third voyage in contributing, albeit
indirectly, to the foundations of the future encomienda
system when he authorized a system on Hispaniola
that required the indigenous to provide labor services and food for the
colonists. To the consternation of Queen Isabella he also sent several
hundreds back to Spain as slaves. In general, though, he viewed the indigenous
tribes he encountered very favorably. Delaney highlights his genuine
friendship with the Taino chief Guacanagarí during his first voyage.
importantly, he repeatedly tried to protect them from the worst instincts of
his fellow Europeans. Bartolome de Las Casas, the celebrated sixteenth-century
critic of Spanish atrocities toward the indigenous peoples, acknowledged in his
writings that Columbus generally tried to defend the Indians. For instance,
when Columbus returned to Hispaniola during his second voyage to find that the
inhabitants of Navidad an outpost he had established during his first
expedition had been massacred he impeded the knee-jerk attempts at
reprisals against the local tribes. His diary is filled with laments about
Spanish mistreatment of the Indians. He controversially executed two Spanish
settlers for among other things their abuse of the Taino population.
This act contributed to his removal as governor of
Hispaniola in 1500. He was in fact a dreadfully bad administrator.
Bureaucratic details were not one of his strengths and he frequently adopted a
too-conciliatory approach to the Spanish colonists, like Francisco RoldÁn, who
rebelled against him. Ironically, the hangings were a rare instance of Columbus
actually taking a hard line against those who defied his authority. Indeed,
Europeans who ignored his prohibitions against exploiting the indigenous seldom
suffered consequences for their disobedience. It was for this shortcoming that
Las Casas was mainly critical of the Italian navigator. In his administrative
capacities Columbus often seems like the novice teacher who has no clue how to
control an unruly junior high class; the Spanish monarchs were wise to renege
on some of the initial political privileges they had granted him.
Back in Spain, in the aftermath of his embarrassing removal
as governor, Columbus sought solace in his mystical religiosity. Some scholars
have regarded this as a newfound (and self-serving) phase, but Delaney rightly
points out that these eschatological inclinations were a constant component of
his spiritual outlook. It is true they increased during this period as
Columbus began composing his unfinished Book of Prophecies
, which considered the apocalyptic significance of
his various discoveries and where his passion for the liberation of Jerusalem
was most explicitly manifest. During this period he also badgered Ferdinand
and Isabella about restoring his privileges and property with varying degrees
of success. It is a testament to his first-rate skills as a navigator, an
attribute one comes to fully appreciate from Delaney’s narrative, that the
monarchs decided to authorize a fourth voyage for Columbus in May 1502.
The book concludes with a misbegotten attempt to connect
Columbus’ eschatological spirituality with the modern-day Left Behind craze and
Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem, to name a few.
while it might leave the reader with furrowed brow, it does not mar Delaney’s
overall efforts. As she astutely observes, “The presentist perspective that
dominates the contemporary view, even among academics, holds him responsible
for consequences he did not intend, expect, or endorse.”
many flaws and his share of failures, but to fully understand the man and his
legacy we must correctly contextualize his mentality and actions. This is not
historical relativism or giving him a free pass, but a true consideration of
the past on its own terms. Contrary to the suggestions of a current GEICO commercial
it is likely that this perspective not speedboats would have
made Columbus very happy.
 Likewise, the faculty of Brown
University voted in 2009 to change Columbus Day in the academic calendar to
Fall Weekend holiday. http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2009/04/columbus
 The Diario of Christopher
Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), p. 291.
 Her claim, p. 12, that the “Fourth
Crusade wreaked more destruction on Constantinople than the Ottomans would in
1453” is one example of some of the erroneous assessments in this section.
 This fourth voyage is one of the more
overlooked aspects of Columbus’s nautical career. While it ended in failure, it
is a fascinating episode. Delaney treats it adequately enough, but I would
highly recommend the narrative of the expedition in Laurence Bergreen, Columbus:
The Four Voyages (Viking, 2011).
 It is even much more inane than it
sounds from my brief examples.
 Delaney, p. 236.