When President Benjamin Harrison issued his “Proclamation 335 — 400th Anniversary of the Discovery of America by Columbus,” on July 21, 1892, he emphasized how the great discoverer pioneered “progress and enlightenment,” reflected four centuries later in America’s system of universal education:
Columbus stood in his age as the pioneer of progress and enlightenment. The system of universal education is in our age the most prominent and salutary feature of the spirit of enlightenment, and it is peculiarly appropriate that the schools be made by the people the center of the day’s demonstration.
President Harrison also highlighted the patriotic motivations for the holiday, and the shared “devout faith” — Christianity — of Columbus and the American people, so abundantly blessed by “Divine Providence”:
Let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the country and the exercises be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship. In the churches and in the other places of assembly of the people let there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer and for the divine care and guidance which has directed our history and so abundantly blessed our people.
As we celebrate Columbus Day — for those of us still inoculated enough against cultural relativist depravity to do so — it is also worth recapturing concretely the specific late 15th century religious motivations for Columbus’ voyage. Simply put, Columbus sought “eastern (even far eastern) alliances” to end a millennium of Islam’s jihad-imposed tyranny against Christendom. Louis Bertrand’s scholarly 1934 tome, The History of Spain, elegantly — and unapologetically — characterized the now well-nigh forgotten, or ignored, historical context.
When the Spanish Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella recaptured Granada on January 2, 1492, they ended almost eight centuries of jihad ravages (described by Bertrand in 1934, and in 2016 here) — massacres, pillage, mass enslavement, and deportation — and the grinding imposition of Sharia by Spain’s various pious Muslim conquerors, and rulers. Bertrand’s unsparing narrative describes the bitter, chronic fate of Spain’s Christians under Islam, both those fully subjugated and the populations never entirely subdued in the semi-autonomous northern regions:
The Christians of the interior were mastered. They had lost their leaders and their principal centers of resistance. The armies of the Caliph, the Arab and Berber chieftains, had massacred them, burned them out and pillaged them to the best of their ability. Thus decimated and humiliated, they nevertheless continued to exist, in a furtive and more or less precarious way of life …
The Christians of the North scarcely knew the meaning of repose, security, or any of the amenities of life. They were continually at war with their Musulman [Muslim] neighbors. It was the fatality of that Arab conquest, a superficial and hasty conquest, never carried through to the end, that it had divided the country into two irreducible camps: that of the replete, and that of the hungry; those who held the best soil, and those who were relegated to the mountains or to desert plains…[The Muslims] interposed a desert between themselves and the Christians, and made a waste of the region which lay on the left bank of the latter [Duero] river. This was what they called “the Great Desert.” …
To keep the Christians in their place it did not suffice to surround them with a zone of famine and devastation. It was necessary also to go and sew terror and massacre among them. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, an army sallied forth from Cordova to go and raid the Christians, destroy their villages, their fortified posts, their monasteries and their churches, except when it was a question of expeditions of larger scope, involving sieges and pitched battles. In cases of simply punitive expeditions, the soldiers of the Caliph confined themselves to destroying harvests and cutting down trees. Most of the time they took the field to win booty. A district was allowed to re-people itself and be brought under cultivation; then it was suddenly fallen upon. Workers, harvesters, fruits and cattle were seized.
If one bears in mind that this brigandage was almost continual, and that this fury of destruction and extermination was regarded as a work of piety — it was a holy war against the infidels — it is not surprising that whole regions of Spain should have been made irremediably sterile. This was one of the capital causes of the deforestation from which the [Iberian] Peninsula still suffers. With what savage satisfaction and in what pious accents do the Arab annalists tell us of those at least bi-annual raids!
A typical phrase for praising the devotion of a Caliph is this: “he penetrated into Christian territory, where he wrought devastation, devoted himself to pillage, and took prisoners. After that he brought the Musulmans back to Cordova safe and sound and laden with booty.” Abd er Rhaman [r. 912-961 A.D.], in the course of a campaign in Navarre, “did not fail, whenever a Christian retreat was to be found in the neighborhood, to carry destruction there and deliver the surrounding countryside to incendiarism, so that the Christian territory was ravaged by the flames to an extent often square miles.”
The same Caliph, when he laid siege to Toledo, began by destroying everything in the rich plain which surrounded the town. “He commenced by doing the rebels unimaginable harm. He remained there for thirty-seven days without ceasing his devastation cutting down the trees, pillaging and ruining the villages, destroying all the crops.” And again: “the strongholds of this region were reduced to ruins. Not one stone was left upon another…, The suburbs were surrendered to the flames, the harvests and all the property in the neighborhood were utterly ravaged and laid waste.”
Bertrand also chronicled the 11th and 12th century North African Berber Muslim Almoravid and Almohad invasions of Spain. These renewed jihad campaigns wrought not only further ravages and persecutions of Spain’s Christians, but massive population transfers:
From the outset of the Almoravid invasion the destruction of Christian churches had begun. … The faquis [Muslim clerics] commenced to persecute the Christian Mozarabs [dhimmis] so intolerably that they begged the King of Aragon, Alfonso the Warrior, to come and deliver them. The Aragonese did not succeed in taking Granada. When they retreated, the faquis avenged themselves on the Mozarabs in the most merciless fashion. Already ten thousand of them had been compelled to emigrate into the territory of Alfonso to escape their enemies’ repression. The remainder were deprived of their property, imprisoned, or put to death. Many of them were deported to Africa. They were established in the neighborhood of Sale and Meknes, where oppression of all kinds compelled them to embrace Islam.
Ten years later there was a fresh expulsion. The Christians were again deported to Morocco en masse. Here, then, were cities and whole districts depopulated by massacres and proscriptions. This corresponded with a plan drawn upon in advance, a systematic course of action. “Sultan Yousouf,” writes [Muslim historian] Marrakeshi, “never failed to repeat at every one of his audiences: ‘To rid the [Iberian] Peninsula of the Christians that is our sole purpose … ’” Accordingly, after having expelled the Christians, he replaced them by Berbers. “To combat our enemies,” said Yousouf himself, “I shall fill Spain with horsemen and footmen who think nothing of repose, who do not know what it is to live softly, whose sole thought is to groom and train their horses, take care of their arms, and hasten to obey their orders.” The Almohads devoted themselves no less ardently to repopulating the South of Spain by filling it with Africans and Arabs.
Not surprisingly, as Bertrand notes, following “so many massacres and expulsions,” accompanied by a “new flood of barbarous and fanatical [Muslim] invaders,” Christians and Muslim “religious passions and hatreds acquired intensified vigor and virulence.” As a result, he concluded:
Once more the fatal dilemma which had hung over Spain for more than four centuries [i.e., since the 8th Century Arab invasion, through the 12th Century Almohad invasion] presented itself to the Spaniards: expel the foreigner, or be expelled by him!
But as the rationale for Columbus’ voyage demonstrates, even Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquest of Granada three centuries later did not solve the broader “dilemma” of Islam’s global jihad. Shortly after Granada was reconquered, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to fund and provision Christopher Columbus’ voyage. His expedition, which serendipitously ended in the discovery of the Americas, had for its original objective, as Bertrand documents:
… to reach the East Indies, so as to take Islam in the rear, and to effect an alliance with the Great Khan — a mythical personage who was believed to be the sovereign of all that region, and favorable to the Christian religion — and finally, after the sectaries of Mahomet had been reduced to impotence, to diffuse Christianity throughout that unknown continent and trade with the traditional source of gold and spices.
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Most Christian, the most high, the most excellent and most powerful princes, King and Queen of the Spains … In this present year 1492, after Your Highnesses had brought to an end the war against the Moors who reigned in Europe, and after Your Highnesses had terminated this war in the very great city of Granada, where, in this present year, on the 2nd of the month of January, I saw, by force of arms, the royal banners of Your Highnesses planted on the towers of the Alhambra, the citadel of the said city, and where I saw the Moorish king come out of his gates and kiss the royal hands of Your Highnesses; And immediately afterwards, in this same month, in consequence of information which I had given Your Highnesses on the subject of India, and of the Prince who is called the “Great Khan/ which, in our Roman, means ‘the King of Kings’ namely, that many times he and his predecessors had sent ambassadors to Rome to seek doctors of our holy faith, to the end that they should teach it in India, and that never has the Holy Father been able so to do, so that accordingly so many peoples were being lost, through falling into idolatry and receiving sects of perdition among them; “Your Highnesses, as good Christian and Catholic princes, devout and propagators of the Christian faith, as well as enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, conceived the plan of sending me, Christopher Columbus, to this country of the Indies, there to see the princes, the peoples, the territory, their disposition and all things else, and the way in which one might proceed to convert these regions to our holy faith. And Your Highnesses have ordered that I should go, not by land, towards the East, which is the accustomed route, but by the way of the West, whereby hitherto nobody to our knowledge has ever been.
Indeed several decades before Columbus appealed to Ferdinand and Isabella, the so-called “Plan of the Indies,” of Portuguese clerical origin, had been hatched — allying with an ostensible “Great Khan of India,” and perhaps East African Christians, “to take Islam in the rear and begin … by ruining its commerce in the Red Sea.”
To understand this properly we must bear in mind the terror which the Turks had inspired throughout Europe since they had set foot there, and especially since die taking of Constantinople. As early as 1442, Pope Eugene IV issued an encyclical calling the Christians to arms against the Infidels, who were increasingly threatening the Entire and Italy. In 1459 Pius II, the learned Sylvius Aeneas Piccolomim, convoked an assembly of the Christian nations, at Mantua to concert means of combating the new barbarians. In the following year he proclaimed a holy war against the Turks. But the Christian nations, at war with one another, made no response to the appeal of the Sovereign Pontiff. He refused to be discouraged. In November 1463, Pius II set himself at the head of a crusade against the Turks, and once more conjured the Christian world to unite against the common enemy. It was a fruitless effort. Europe took no interest in what was happening on the banks of the Danube.
In 1477, Mahomet II penetrated into Carniola, Styria, and Carinthia, and invaded Salzburg and Friuli. In the following year he occupied Albania. There he was at the gates of Italy. In 1480 he launched a fleet of a hundred sail against the town of Otranto and seized it. Now he was at the gates of Naples and of Rome. The startled Pope addressed the most pressing adjurations to Christendom. “The conquerors,” said Sixtus IV, “spread themselves with insatiable avidity over the towns and the neighboring countrysides. Nardi, Lecci, Castro, Brindisi, Bari are exposed to their outrages or have already fallen into their power. Soon they will be masters of Sicily, of the Neapolitan kingdom, of the whole Peninsula, if we remain plunged in the same inertia, if the princes and the peoples do not rise incontinent, hasten to arms, and lend one another mutual support, to defend their fields and their homes, their children and their wives, their religion and their liberty. Let them not think that they are protected against invasion, those who are at a distance from the theatre of war! They, too, will bow the neck beneath the yoke, and be mowed down by the sword, unless they come forward to meet the invader. The Turks have sworn the extinction of Christianity.
A truce to sophistries! It is the moment not to talk, but to act and to fight!” This, no doubt, was why this same Sixtus IV encouraged the Spanish crusade against Granada and sent the Catholic Sovereigns, by way of a standard, the famous massive Cross of silver which was finally planted on the Watch Tower of the Alhambra. To fight Islam in Andalusia was equivalent to depriving die Turks of ports of disembarkation and lessening the chances of invasion … The danger seemed so menacing that, in the very year which preceded the capitulation of Granada, Innocent VIII organized, once more, a Crusade to attack the Turks by land and sea. This time it was to be an operation of great scope, in which a dozen states were to take part. This ambitious project failed like all the others, and for the same reason: the indifference or the selfishness of the European peoples and potentates.
In the end, Bertrand maintains, it was “Columbus’ shrewdness” that prevailed:
… dazzling the eyes of Isabel with the possibilities of a last Crusade, which, after all, would not be very costly and would definitely reduce Islam to impotence. The very terms of the text [from Columbus’ Journal, quoted above] proved conclusively that the Genoese had conceived his discovery as a pious enterprise of mass conversion. So it was that the discovery of America was the last Crusade against Islam…In short, it was the Crusade against the Moors which was to be continued by a new and surer route. It was by way of the Indies that Islam was to be dealt a mortal blow.
Bertrand’s concluding discussion reveals how Columbus’ westward voyage, motivated by anti-jihadism, “chimerical ideas,” and his own persevering genius, begot “immense discovery”:
Columbus’ great idea was that of reaching there by the route of the West. The Genoese was merely synthesizing all the more or less chimerical ideas, which had been in the air for the last half century at least, adding to them his own peculiar genius. It was to realize the dream so long cherished by pious imaginations—the dream of a final and definite Crusade against Islam by way of the Indies—that he asked the Catholic Sovereigns for the three poor little caravels which were to lead to the immense discovery.