Christopher Columbus, the Crusades, and the End of the World

A review of Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem.

Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem by Carol Delaney
Free 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.[1] 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 control.

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.”[2] 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 1991 biography, 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 simplistic.[3] 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 Mandreville, also factored significantly in forging the worldview of the young Italian especially in its focus on Jerusalem.

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.

More 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.[4]

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.[5] And 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.”[6] He had 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.


[1] Likewise, the faculty of Brown University voted in 2009 to change Columbus Day in the academic calendar to Fall Weekend holiday.

[2] The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), p. 291.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] It is even much more inane than it sounds from my brief examples.

[6] Delaney, p. 236.

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About Vincent Ryan 0 Articles
Vincent Ryan earned his doctorate in medieval history at Saint Louis University and has presented papers on various aspects of the Fourth Crusade at the International Medieval Congress and the Midwest Medieval History Conference. He is an Assistant Professor of History at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN and the co-editor of The Crusades: Medieval Worlds in Conflict (Ashgate, 2010).