Was Christopher Columbus a good or an evil person?
Columbus was an Italian explorer and colonizer who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean that opened the New World for conquest and permanent European colonization of the Americas. Columbus had embarked with intent to find and develop a westward route to the Far East, but instead discovered a route to the Americas, which were then unknown to the Old World. Columbus’s voyages were the first European expeditions to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. His Spanish-based expeditions and governance of the colonies he founded were sponsored by Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Monarchs of the budding Spanish Empire.
In the old days, when I was a child, and especially in Italy, Columbus was celebrated as a great explorer and man. More recently, however, Columbus has been criticized and accused of harsh and violent treatment of the natives.
There is a verse in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13:12, which is believed to refer to Christopher Columbus:
“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.”
When the missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught me for the first time, 35 years ago, in Italy, they showed me this verse and it surely had an impact on me. My idea of Columbus in those days was a very positive one and his story of discovering the Americas by mistake had always puzzled me. I was interested by the possibility of his travel having actually been guided by a higher power.
Now that Columbus’ character has been questioned and criticized, is this interpretation of 1 Nephi 13:12 less plausible, or does it in some way discredit the Book of Mormon?
Absolutely not. As well noted by a recent article in the Book of Mormon Central website,
“It is important to acknowledge that not everything Columbus did was inspired by God. Nephi only says the Spirit would inspire him to cross the many waters. He says nothing that endorses Columbus’s actions after he arrives in the promised land. Columbus was not as cruel to the natives as many others, but he was a man of his time who exploited and enslaved the natives he came into contact with, and he opened the flood gates of European conquest. Indeed, as Nephi prophesied, the arrival of this “man among the Gentiles” led to the tragic scattering and smiting of the Lamanites throughout the New World (1 Nephi 13:14).”
As this quote explains, Nephi never endorsed everything that Columbus did, he only said that the Spirit would inspire this man. Also, it is easy, and perhaps even a little hypocritical, to criticize too harshly people who lived hundreds of years ago. They were immersed in a culture very different from ours, a culture in which behaviors that we don’t approve now were more accepted. To pose as their judges, and demonize them, may not serve us that well when we try to understand our history. The point is not whether or not Columbus was a good or an evil person. We will let God judge that. The point is that he was guided to discover the lands of America, despite his mistakes as a human being.
Another important point made by the Book of Mormon Central is that
Those who have studied Columbus’s first voyage, in particular, have been impressed by how Columbus navigated so perfectly, despite sailing into unknown waters and having only rudimentary means of determining where he was. Samuel Eliot Morison remarked, “no man alive, limited to the instruments and means at Columbus’s disposal, could obtain anything near the accuracy of his results.” While many today might attribute this to Columbus’s brilliance or skill, or even to shear dumb luck, Columbus himself attributed it to the Lord’s guiding hand. “Who can doubt,” he later wrote, “that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit … urging me to press forward?”
Surely, Columbus’s motives were manifold and complex, including a desire for glory and gold, but still, throughout his life, Columbus insisted that his primary motives for crossing the Atlantic were religious, and he even believed that he was fulfilling biblical prophecies about the end times found in Isaiah mentioning the “islands of the sea” and in John 10:16 about “other sheep.”
Whether or not Columbus was a good or an evil man, it doesn’t change the importance of what he did, neither change the fact that he was guided by God to discover the Americas.