According to the Library of Congress site, “No portrait of Columbus drawn or painted from life is known to exist.” None of those masterful oil paintings or sketches of the man who sailed the ocean blue is accurate. All known likenesses of the Admiral of the High Seas are based on conjecture!
A lot of his biographical information that used to be canonized is based on some guesswork, as well. Before I began researching for this blog, I’d been holding on to the world-is-flat fallacy—you know, the one that says Columbus was one of only a few men who believed you couldn’t sail off the edge of the world. Come to find out, Columbus’s generation had accepted the concept of the globe; Copernicus and others of the time believed the world was round as did most everyone else. But there are more essential things about Columbus that are currently being debated: No one really knows his age. No one really knows his birthplace—some bright historians note that if he was born in Genoa, Italy, he never learned to speak or write in Italian! A current theory is that he was Jewish, and he hid his identity in pro-Catholic Spain during a more aggressive period in Spanish history when Jews and Muslims were deported to Africa. So now even Christopher Columbus’s ethnicity and religion are in question. Will the real Christopher Columbus please stand up?
So what do we teach our kids about Columbus Day?
Not everything about Columbus is obscured or debated: Everyone agrees that Columbus’s goal to reach the Indies was never realized despite several attempts to find a direct sea route, and his inclination to ruthlessly enslave non-hostile indigenous people groups is an undisputed fact. This legacy clings to his name like fish smell clings to cod. By some accounts he was only a stupid, greedy, slave master who brought biological warfare to the Americas and who not only does not deserve a holiday but also should be struck from historical records altogether.
But this picture of the controversial explorer isn’t complete either.
So we need to choose how to fill in the details of this explorer’s life, to find out if there is any truth to the stories of the heroic Columbus about whom I learned in the 1970s.
I’ve boiled it down to four key elements that kids should know about Columbus:
Key number 1: Regardless of the circumstances or date of his birth, Christopher Columbus came to faith in God and also Jesus Christ. Christopher Columbus was a devoted student of the Bible. By his own writing in The Book of Prophecies, Christopher revealed that he believed he was called by God to embark on his exploration: “Our Lord Jesus desired to perform a very obvious miracle in the voyage to the Indies, to comfort me and the whole people of God.” This book is steeped in Christianity, specifically regarding the Messiah with references to the Old Testament.
Key number 2: Christopher Columbus was a determined visionary. He had the guts to ask for money from the Spanish monarchy after his own King John II of Portugal rejected him. That determination is noteworthy—imagine him on a reality TV show trying to sell his the-world-is-bigger-than-you-think philosophy to investors on Shark Tank or The Profit. The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set sail led by a man of great courage. During his career, Columbus experienced hardship and imprisonment due to his poor and oftentimes violent governing tactics, and he also spent a year stranded on an island—yet after every setback he was ready to sail again to find that route to the Indies.
Key number 3: On capturing slaves, violently forcing natives to convert to Christianity, and unwittingly bringing disease to the New World—Christopher is guilty as charged. He sits in history alongside other people of power who exhibited a fifteenth-century version of Imperialism. The descendants of the Tainos people living in present-day Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas would testify that Columbus’s Christian belief system wasn’t strong enough to mitigate his greed.
Key number 4: Even though he was deeply flawed, Christopher Columbus should remain in the history books. His legacy serves a dual purpose: as an example of a courageous explorer as well as a warning of what unmitigated power can do to a society. Neither aspect of his life should be remembered without the other.
Near the end of his life, Columbus wrote or copied the following prayer into The Book of Prophecies, and I’d like my children to know about this man who searched for God’s truth. It perhaps shows a redeemed part of his nature that completes his portrait:
“O God, who without ostentatious clamor or effort teaches the heart of humankind and who makes stammering tongues eloquent and who is ever ready to come near at the opportune time, please consider the thoughts of our minds and be favorably inclined toward our desires. For we, inasmuch as we are limited in human knowledge, have indeed fathomed your power, because, O Lord, blessed is the one you teach and to whom you make known your law.”
Marianne Hering is the author of the Imagination Station series. She loves to research history and make it accessible to children through storytelling. Get the latest Imagination Station book, Trouble on the Orphan Train now.