“When the odds were stacked against us — and there have been many times when the great experiment we call America could have and should have failed — did God intervene to save us?”
That question, posed by authors Chris and Ted Stewart, is the foundation for this remarkable book. And the examples they cite provide compelling evidence that the hand of Providence has indeed preserved the United States of America on multiple occasions. Skillfully weaving story vignettes with historical explanations, they examine seven instances that illustrate God's protecting care:
- The unlikely discovery of America by Christopher Columbus
- How (and why) desperate English colonists were able to survive the “starving time” at Jamestown
- The Battle of New York during the Revolutionary War
- The miraculous creation of the United States Constitution
- Abraham Lincoln's desperate prayer that turned the tide of the Civil War at Gettysburg
- How a series of extraordinary events changed the Battle of Midway during World War II
- The preservation of Ronald Reagan's life from an assassin's bullet, allowing him the time he needed to help extend freedom around the world
Never, at any of these critical junctures, was a positive outcome certain or even likely. Yet America prevailed. Why?
“No man is perfect,” write the authors. “And neither is any nation. Yet, despite our weakness, we are still, as Abraham Lincoln said, the best nation ever given to man. Despite our faults, this nation is still the last, best hope of earth.” In short, God still cares what happens here. This reassuring message is a bright light in a world that longs for such hope.
"I Could No Longer Resist the Truth"
MARY ANN PRICE HYDE
- Book on CD: Unabridged
- Number of discs: 9
- Running Time: Approx. 11 hrs.
- Size: 6x9
- Pages: 356
- Published: 10/2010
About the AuthorsChris Stewart is a New York Times bestselling author who has published more than a dozen books, has been selected by the Book of the Month Club, and has released titles in multiple languages in seven countries. He has also been a guest editorialist for the Detroit News, among other publications, commenting on matters of military readiness and national security concerns. He is a world-record-setting Air Force pilot (fastest nonstop flight around the world) and president and CEO of The Shipley Group, a nationally recognized consulting and training company.Ted Stewart was appointed as a United States District Court Judge in 1999 by President Bill Clinton. Prior to that, he served as chief of staff to Governor Michael O. Leavitt, as executive director of the State Department of Natural Resources, as a member and chairman of the Public Service Commission, and as chief of staff to Congressman Jim Hansen. He has been a visiting professor at two state universities, teaching courses in law and public policy. He is the New York Times bestselling author of The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World.
The Miracle of Christopher Columbus nd the Discovery of the New World
To fully appreciate the miracle of Christopher Columbus and his unlikely discovery of the New World, we have to start a century earlier and on the other side of the world. We have to start in China and consider the extraordinarily advanced civilization the Middle Kingdom had then become.
While the European continent lay in squalor and decay, the Dark Ages full and ripe, with Western culture still retarded in almost every intellectual area, China had become the most powerful nation on earth. While the kingdoms of Europe squabbled with each other, fighting brutal skirmishes that made up a series of meaningless wars, the Middle Kingdom had been united into the world’s largest empire. While the capitals of Europe built a few modest castles and called them masterpieces of architecture, China built the Forbidden City, still one of the wonders of the world. While the royalty of Europe gathered a few hundred books and a couple of dozen scholars and called it a university, scientists in China were discovering and advancing scientific theories beyond anything the West had yet imagined, including sunspots, equatorial astronomical instruments, solar winds, novas, solar and lunar eclipses, Halley’s Comet, a calendar year to within 26 seconds and sea navigation using terrestrial navigation tools and techniques. While monks throughout the Western kingdoms were copying scripture by hand, China had already put to use paper and movable type; at a time when the total library of King Henry V of England (1387–1422) consisted of six handwritten books, the emperor of China commissioned 2,000 scholars to produce an encyclopedia with 4,000 volumes. When most of Europe was burning whale oil, China was searching for, discovering, and exploiting natural gas. While millions died in Europe from smallpox, China had developed and deployed a method to inoculate against the disease. Engineering, medicine, mathematics, transportation, warfare—China excelled in them all.1
Perhaps there was no area of expertise more important to the future of the world than oceanic exploration, and in this, as in almost everything, China excelled. Their ability to navigate and explore the oceans was unparalleled. At a time when Europe hardly dared wander beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, China was building fleets capable of circumnavigating the world.
That raises a very important question.
Why didn’t China discover the New World? Why didn’t they settle the Americas? Being so much more advanced than the Europeans, why didn’t they colonize the Western hemisphere, spreading Chinese people, language, and culture, including Oriental religions and philosophy, to this sphere of the world?
Every piece of evidence indicates that they should have.
The Forbidden City, China
THE EMPEROR STOOD IN THE magnificent hall built in the middle of the Forbidden City, capital of the most powerful nation in the world.
A thick wall surrounded the inner court, with a second wall around the outer, wrapping him in a cocoon of garrisons and swords and guards. The splendid Hall of Supreme Harmony rose almost a hundred feet over his head. The Forbidden City lay before him, the fruit of a million workers and fifteen years of construction. With eighty-foot logs of the rare nanmu wood found only in the most remote jungles of southern China, enormous blocks of marble quarried at the cost of human blood, intricate wooden carvings depicting dragons spewing balls of metal, multiple thrones rising over various halls, with palaces for his wives and concubines, the pathways between them literally paved with gold, the emperor was surrounded by more wealth and power than anyone outside the kingdom had ever seen.
Standing atop the inlaid bricks, he lifted his hands and slowly turned, taking in the glory of the city. Five hundred thousand servants stood before him. The sky was clean and pure. He was standing at the center of the universe. He couldn’t help but smile.
Fat, strong, black-haired, long-bearded, ambitious, steely-eyed, cunning, quick to smile, kindly to his sons, uncaring to his daughters, Emperor Zhu Di was the most powerful man on earth. And this great city around him was the crowning jewel of it all.
For more than a month, they had been celebrating the dedication of the Forbidden City. Ambassadors from twenty-eight different countries had gathered for the festivities, some from as far away as the east coast of Africa: dignitaries, kings, queens, military commanders, princesses, religious leaders, merchants, warriors, scholars—the most powerful leaders in the East. Having invited thousands of dignitaries to the celebration of China’s new capital, the emperor had also accepted the responsibility of seeing them home. The Treasure Fleet—the largest and most powerful fleet ever built—was getting ready to depart. The fleet commander, Zheng He, planned on sailing south along the Chinese and Indonesian coast, then west around Malaysia, along the Indian coast, across the Arabian Sea, up and down the Persian Gulf, then finally south along the eastern coast of Africa. The expedition would take more than two years to complete while covering more than ten thousand miles.
Turning, Emperor Zhu Di walked toward the naval commander, who was waiting at the foot of his throne. Commander Zheng He stood erect, his shoulders taut, his eyes down. The two men knew and loved each other dearly, their companionship dating to their childhood, but the naval officer never presumed the casualness of friendship, even when they were alone.
“This will be the sixth of the Treasure Fleet’s great voyages,” the emperor observed.
Commander He’s eyes lit up and he took a step forward, the emotion on his face impossible to contain. “It will be the greatest voyage of them all! Three hundred and fifty ships. Nearly twenty-eight thousand men. We will sail farther than we ever have. We will . . .” He turned his head and looked southeast, toward the ocean. “If you let me, Emperor, I will complete the task we talked about before.”
Zhu Di frowned. “I am told it can’t be done,” he answered doubtfully.
“It is not impossible, my master. I know some of your advisors tell you that, but . . .”
“Not some of my advisors. All.”
The naval officer waited, saying nothing.
“It is far too dangerous,” the emperor went on. “And even if you were successful, what are we to gain?”
“What are we to gain? What are we to gain!” The commander’s voice was incredulous. “We gain access to the world! We prove our supremacy to every kingdom that lies between us and whatever else is out there! We grab hold of trade routes, cultures, and kingdoms we don’t even know about. We would solidify the power of the kingdom for a thousand years to come.”
The emperor watched his commander’s face and listened before he said, “It is a great risk to my fleet, Commander He.”
“But we have been so close already. By my evaluation, we have already been halfway around the world. In truth, once we are near the end of our planned voyage, it might be the shorter route to keep on going rather than to turn around to come home. We have enough men, enough courage, enough ships, enough cargo and provisions. The risk of going forward is no greater than the risk of coming back.
“We have the chance to strike now. No other people are as prepared as we are. I beg you, master, let me go sail around the world. Let me find the New Lands and plant our people there, scattering your seed and power! Let me spread the blood of China in every land throughout the world!”
Emperor Zhu Di stood silent, deep in thought. His soul was extremely troubled. He didn’t know what to do. He considered for a long time, then turned west, his dark eyes looking out upon his kingdom.
The naval commander waited, hardly breathing, his head low.
“All right,” the emperor finally answered, “for the glory of my kingdom, I grant you license to explore. But if you fail, Commander He, remember, the shame you will bring will not be easily borne by either a monarch or a warrior. Succeed, and you bring me glory; fail, and we both will be destroyed.”
So it was that, at a time when the monarchies and kingdoms of Europe were struggling just to survive, a courageous and brilliant military leader from China set out to sail around the world, intent on discovering new lands beyond the borders of Eastern Africa, about which he already knew.2
The Treasure Fleet
Shortly after the end of the celebration dedicating the Forbidden City, Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor of China and the third of the Ming Dynasty emperors, held court overlooking the Yangzi River near ancient Nanjing. His view included the docks of Longjian, the largest shipbuilding yards in the world. Here, communities of twenty to thirty thousand workers—carpenters, ironsmiths, caulkers, and sail and rope makers—were constructing, upgrading, and maintaining an immense imperial fleet.
The jewels of this fleet were the “treasure ships.” These monster boats were 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. Designed for traversing the deep seas, each had nine staggered masts and twelve square sails made of red silk. Most important, each treasure ship was constructed with sophisticated systems for surviving ocean storms: a V-shaped hull, heavy ballast, watertight compartments, and a balanced rudder that was thirty-six feet long.
Although each of these massive ships was equipped with twenty-four bronze cannons, they were not designed for warfare but to extend the power and influence of the Chinese emperor through trade and diplomacy. One look at them made this obvious. Each ship had grand chambers for the emperor’s envoys, with windowed halls and carved balconies and railings. The prows were adorned with carved animal heads and dragon eyes, and the sides were painted with bright colors.
Deep inside the ships’ holds were valuable goods collected from throughout the emperor’s vast kingdom: silks, porcelains, cotton cloth, iron, salt, hemp, tea, wine, oil, and candles, all of it demanded by the emperor from his various provinces.
Magnificent as they were, the treasure ships were only a part of the massive fleet assembled by the Yongle Emperor. There were also eight-mast horse ships, only slightly smaller than the treasure ships, which carried horses for trading as well as for equipping the Chinese military. Other ships transported all the tools and materials needed to repair the fleet’s ships, as well as additional trade goods. The fleet also contained troop transports, five-masted warships, and fast patrol boats to keep pirates at bay. Tucked in the middle of the convoy were supply ships that carried food and drinking water, allowing the fleet to stay at sea for three months and travel 4,500 miles without making landfall. Considering that the fleet had crews and soldiers numbering 28,000 men, and that the voyage about to be undertaken might be more than two years in duration, with the ability to restock in question, these ships were heavy laden.
The crews included the eunuch commander-in-chief, Zheng He, and various directors. Each ship had a military commander, secretaries for preparing official documents and for keeping track of supplies used; protocol officials, astrologers and geomancers, translators, and one medical officer for every 150 crew members, as well as workmen for making whatever repairs were called for at sea. Communication among the ships was conducted by flags, signal bells, banners, drums, gongs, and lanterns. Carrier pigeons were also brought along for long-range communications.
Emperor Zhu Di commanded the largest navy in the history of the world: 3,500 vessels, of which 250 were the giant treasure ships. In contrast, the next-largest navy at that time was the Venetian, which consisted of 300 small galleys good only for traversing the Mediterranean Sea.
After he had come to power in 1403, one of Emperor Zhu Di’s first commands had been to order the construction of the magnificent Treasure Fleet. Departing in 1405, the first of the famed Treasure Fleet voyages lasted two years. Commanded by Zheng He, the fleet had set out for Calicut, an influential city-state on the west coast of India, the purpose of their voyage to announce the ascension of Emperor Di to the throne while throwing the doors open to foreign traders.
Over the course of nearly twenty years, Emperor Zhu Di sent out half a dozen Treasure Fleets, sending emissaries to Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Indian state of Cochin, even to Africa’s eastern coast. Commander Zheng He traversed the China Sea and the Indian Ocean, docking at ports in Sumatra, Ceylon, India, and Africa. He visited the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, and the east coast of Africa, going as far south along that coast as Kenya, at least. Perhaps Mozambique. The ships returned with exotic animals such as zebras, elephants, and giraffes for the pleasure of the emperor. Their trading would secure them ivory, spices, precious stones and metals, and medicines.
The early voyages of the Treasure Fleets were intended to bring more foreign rulers within China’s tribute system—a system whereby such rulers would pay a regular tribute to China in return for special trading rights as well as protection with the Chinese fleet. Being granted by the richest and most powerful nation on earth, such rights were of considerable worth. But the Treasure Fleets had another purpose beyond trade—they were sent out to explore, map, and expand China’s power, allowing China to become creator of kings and power throughout the world it traversed. Zhu Di gave and revoked the right to rule various cities and nations according to what he thought would assure peace.3
During his reign, the power, wealth, and prestige of the Middle Kingdom continued to grow until there was no question that Emperor Zhu Di presided over a nation far more advanced than any other in the world. So it was that, on that summer day in 1421, the emperor watched with tremendous pride as his fleet organized itself on the Yangzi and set off.
The Treasure Fleet sailed away.
Two and a half years would pass before it returned.
The Forbidden City, China
THE EMPEROR HAD NOT SLEPT in three days. He paced, pulled at his garments, and stared east. He moved constantly, sometimes lying upon various beds in various palaces, but he’d never found a moment’s rest. Reports of the approaching Treasure Fleet had made it impossible to sleep, impossible to relax, impossible to sit still. He hadn’t eaten. He barely talked.
For the past day, he’d hovered in a private room on the top floor of the East Glorious Gate, staring across the city to the rolling plains and low hills that separated him from the ocean. Every time he thought of it, his heart skipped a beat, his chest tightening into a ball of nerves. Commander He had been gone so long. The entire Treasure Fleet—the kingdom’s greatest asset—had sailed off and disappeared far beyond the lines of communication. There was nothing the emperor could do but hope and wait, knowing that much of his future relied on the outcome of the Treasure Fleet’s voyage.
He’d taken a huge risk. Like any emperor, Zhu Di was surrounded by ambitious men—some of them his sons—who valued power more than family, and many of the kingdom’s most powerful leaders were snapping at his heels. They claimed that he had thrown it all away, that he’d wasted the Treasure Fleet, sending it on such a dangerous mission. For months, and then years, the emperor had put them off while waiting for the return of the fleet.
Pacing, the emperor walked to an open window and looked out, the evening breeze blowing at his flowing beard.
Was it true, what his scouts had reported? Were ships approaching from the north?
Had Commander He been successful? Had he really sailed around the world?
The outer reaches of the kingdom had been the first to report the sighting of the ships, their unmistakable huge sails billowing off the coast of Shanghai. The local commanders had dispatched military carriers toward the capital with the information. The emperor hadn’t slept or relaxed ever since.
Standing at the open window, Emperor Zhu Di heard the light brush of flowing robes behind him and slowly turned around. His son, Zhu Gaozhi, was there, staring at him. How long had he been watching? Why hadn’t he said anything? Something in the look on his son’s face made the emperor’s skin crawl.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Gaozhi said.
The emperor didn’t answer.
The son nodded toward the open window. “You’ve heard the rumors?”
Zhu Di nodded. “The Treasure Fleet has returned.”
Zhu Gaozhi pressed his lips together. “Maybe. We will see.”
His father turned back to the window. Gaozhi walked toward him. “I hope, for all of us, my dear emperor, that Commander He has been successful. If not, what a waste it will have been.”
The emperor squinted against the sun and hunched his shoulders. He was old now and getting older, the aging process seeming to have accelerated over the past two or three months. A body that had been so quick and vibrant was suddenly winding down, and he would soon be walking the pathway to his ancestors, he was sure.
Gaozhi watched his father. “Have you considered my proposition?” he asked.
Zhu Di shook his head. “I will never do it. You’ll have to wait until I die.”
Based on the ghostly pallor of his father’s cheeks, that wouldn’t be too long, Gaozhi thought as he stared at his father.
The emperor glanced over Gaozhi’s shoulders, looking for the younger man’s various aides and advisors, knowing they would be close. His son was never alone now, having surrounded himself with mystery men spouting smoke and chants and foolish words of wisdom the emperor knew were nonsense of the most dangerous sort. The influence of extreme Confucian philosophy had nearly consumed his son. The words his son repeated often rolled around inside the emperor’s head:
“With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my crooked arm for a pillow—is not joy to be found therein?”
“Riches and honors acquired through unrighteousness are to me as the floating clouds.”
The ancient philosophies had been around for generations, but they were finding growing power among the rising generation of the kingdom’s leaders.
The emperor pulled on his beard and wondered. Was it evil to send out the Treasure Fleet? Was it evil to expand his power? Was it contrary to the will of nature or the deities to seek the interest of his kingdom?
Four days later, Commander He stood underneath the magnificent Gate of the Divine Might. He looked older now, but quicker, his eyes bright and alive. Without waiting, he moved toward the mighty emperor, taking the stairs two at a time, then bowed and kissed the ground below him. Zhu Di reached to lift him. The two men stared at each other; then the emperor drew the commander close. “Tell me!” he whispered into his ear.
Commander He pulled back, smiled, then reached down to a leather satchel at his side. Opening it, he pulled out a series of parchment maps. “Look at this, my emperor. Look at what we’ve done!”
He spread the maps out on the golden bricks at their feet.
The emperor knelt beside the commander, then started laughing with pure joy and relief.
Zhu Gaozhi, soon to be the emperor of the Middle Kingdom, watched from behind a silver curtain. Seeing the excitement in his father’s eyes, he didn’t smile.
How Far Did the Commander Go?
Some historians have speculated that Commander He’s sixth voyage was special, that it ended up in a two-and-a-half-year expedition that traversed the world.4 Chinese map segments that show details of the west coast of Africa are part of the evidence supporters use to contend that this voyage went well beyond any others. Further, a few Europeans seemed to be in possession of maps that show details of the Atlantic they had not yet explored. Before he explored it, Magellan knew of the strait on the southern tip of South America that would bear his name. Bartolomeu Dias, who discovered the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa in 1488, had some information about the Cape before he set sail. Columbus had a map with Caribbean islands marked on it. It is assumed that such maps made it to Europe through Arab trade routes during the 1400s.5
The truth is, whether or not China did in fact make it to the Americas in 1421 does not matter. With its capabilities, it would have happened eventually. The crucial question is: Why didn’t China continue to expand its discoveries and influence? With the wealth, the technology, the experience, and the vision of its rulers, China should have, by all rights, been the nation that colonized the Americas.
Yet it wasn’t.
Zhu Di died soon after the return of the sixth Treasure Fleet. The very first edict issued by his son, Zhu Gaozhi, the new emperor, called for the end of the treasure ships. All foreign emissaries of China were to return home. The construction and repair of treasure ships was to cease. Though Zhu Gaozhi’s reign was brief, the die had been cast.
By 1440, the emperor’s fleet was reduced by half. By 1500, it was a capital offense to build boats of more than two masts. In 1525, an official edict called for the destruction of all oceangoing ships and the arrest of the merchants who might have sailed them. By 1551, it was a crime to go to sea in a multimasted ship, even for trade. The prejudice against seafaring was so intense that the logs and charts of Zheng He’s voyages were purposely destroyed.6
The rise of the Middle Kingdom had reached its crest. Soon it would subside, and the empire would lose much of the power and knowledge it had already attained. China turned completely inward, leaving the New World to the Christian Europeans, who would soon discover their own way across the ocean on a mission to colonize the Americas in the name of their God.
The first miracle in the colonization of the Americas is, then, that the Chinese didn’t do it.
The second is how Christopher Columbus did.
Who Was This Man?
Few men in history generate such diverse views as does Christopher Columbus. On the one hand, he is afforded a national holiday. On the other, he is viewed as the raper and destroyer of a paradise. The passion with which his detractors assault Columbus often clouds an honest examination of the man. Setting aside for the moment the debate over the consequences of his vision and bravery, the facts reveal a man who was extraordinary in the confidence with which he pursued his belief that a great discovery awaited the determined voyager to the west. He was persistent in lobbying for the necessary patronage to undertake his voyage. He was tenacious in preparing himself to undertake such a voyage. Further, his own writings reveal that his motivations were noble. He truly believed his success was the result of heavenly guidance prompted by that noble motivation.
The Europe into which Columbus was born (in Genoa, probably in 1451) was a land of great pessimism. It was a time when little seemed to be going right for the Christians of the Western world.
Among its most distinct failures was Christian Europe’s inability to wrest control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. For centuries, pope after pope had called for a crusade to regain control of the Holy Sepulcher, but such calls fell upon deaf or impotent ears.
Despite the success of the Christian royalty in driving the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, Christianity was losing ground to the armies of Islam. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks two years after the birth of Columbus, thus ending the Byzantine Empire. During the ensuing decades, the Turkish Ottoman Empire would add Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Romania, and Hungary to its dominated states. Its expansion into Europe was not to be halted until 1529, when Turkish armies were finally defeated in their first attempt to take Vienna. Such defeats had to be repeated in 1566 and 1683 before a Christian Europe was secure.
In the mid- to late-fifteenth century, the Catholic church was in turmoil. Some scholars contend that it reached its lowest point when, in 1492, Rodrigo de Borgia bribed, blackmailed, and coerced his way to election as the newest pope, Alexander VI. Wealthy and robust, the father of numerous illegitimate children, Borgia was to propound policies that generated continual war and dissension throughout the Italian peninsula. Among his vices was the selling of ecclesiastical office to the highest bidder until his excesses triggered the Reformation that began in 1517.
In the land that was to become known as Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella initiated the Inquisition in 1478. Originally, the Inquisition focused on assuring purity and orthodoxy within the Catholic faith, but it soon evolved to include the banishment of all Jews from Spain. This was accomplished in 1492. A few decades later, the target became Protestants.
In the secular world, there were few nations but rather innumerable kingdoms and fiefdoms that were at constant war with one another. With no powerful governments to curb it, violence was everywhere. With no authority to offer protection, crime was pervasive.
Disease and plague were common. The Black Plague had done most of its death-work earlier, but it still erupted from time to time in various regions. Europe’s crowded and squalid cities and towns were also home to smallpox, measles, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, and leprosy, to name but a few of the prevalent sources of high death rates.
Famine visited Europe frequently. Although sometimes the famine would be local, often it was general in nature. Grains were the primary source of food. If there was inadequate moisture, the land did not produce. Seemingly all of Europe was but one or two bad crop seasons away from mass starvation.
Progress in science, education, and medicine was stalled.
These dire conditions led the people of Europe to believe that the Millennium had to be near. It was, in fact, the only hope for the future in the minds of many.7
But Christopher Columbus would not succumb to this pessimism. From the time that he was young, he felt driven by a cause. Ultimately that drive would do much toward leading Europe into a more enlightened age.
THE WALLS THAT ROSE AROUND HIM were ancient and almost crumbling now. Genoa, like most of the primeval cities throughout Europe, had been built and destroyed and rebuilt again, layer upon layer of old bricks falling in ruins under new. Black Death had taken most of the occupants of Genoa a couple of hundred years before, but the city struggled on, its natural port too valuable to allow it to fade away completely.
The boy stood on the main dock, a large wooden structure that ran parallel to the rocky beach. Hemp rope held wooden barrels against the ocean waves, providing a buffer to the half dozen two-masted galleys that were tied up at the dock. It was nearly sunset, and the boy was waiting to shoot a mariner’s quadrant and astrolabe—a quarter-circle made of brass—at one of the early evening stars. His instructor waited impatiently beside him, his breath foul, his clothing filthy, his shirt crusted with salt from the sea and sweat.
As the skies darkened over their heads, the star they’d been waiting for was one of the first to appear—the red planet the brightest object in the northeast sky, a scarlet twinkle directly above the moon. Ursa Major and the North Star also came into view. Kneeling, the boy lit a single candle, studied the sky a few moments, then set to work, moving quickly, his tutor watching intently without saying anything. Twenty minutes later he had the bearings. The large man with the slovenly beard and broken teeth leaned toward the candle. He checked the boy’s equations—it should have taken much longer—said nothing for a moment. Finally he nodded. “It is right,” he said in a disbelieving tone.
Christopher Columbus smiled lightly but didn’t dare reply.
The instructor, captain of the nearest galley tied up at the port, one that had seen far too many trips across the Mediterranean, shook his head again. “How did you get the equations for the bearings?” His voice was low now, skeptical and accusing. “You were out here last night. Someone helped you. They must have.”
Columbus shook his head. “No, sir. I only did what you instructed.”
The captain growled. “You did more than that,” he sneered.
It had to be a trick, some kind of hoax from his drunken friends. He raised his head and looked around, thinking a couple of his mates might be hiding and laughing at him now. But the docks were empty, the wind blowing lightly from the Mediterranean Sea, salty and cool. He looked back at the boy, his anger rising. Did the lad think he was a fool! There simply wasn’t any way he could have gotten the right quadrants and angles, not without significant help. Many a ship captain wouldn’t have been able to figure out the problem by himself, yet the young boy had come up with the answer—and done it very quickly.
And it made the captain angry. Something wasn’t right.
Columbus stood before him. The captain scowled at the boy and turned around. “That is all I’m going to teach you, boy!” he sneered. He started walking, the sound of his leather boots atop the heavy planks swallowed up in the lapping of the gentle waves against the dock.
Columbus followed after him. He was not afraid. “Sir, I paid you for instruction. It was my hard-earned money. I could have bought cabbage for a week for what I paid you . . .”
The captain swung around, his eyes burning in the dark. “Something’s wrong with you, boy!” He spat the words. “No man without ten years of sailing could have figured that problem out. This is a joke. At my expense!” He lifted his head and looked around again.
“Sir,” Columbus pleaded, “I don’t know what you mean . . .”
The captain tapped the boy’s chest and glared. “Stay away from me,” he muttered.
The captain pushed him back, then turned and walked away, fingering the coins the boy had paid him to teach him navigational skills he obviously already understood.
Columbus watched the sailor walk away, leaving him alone on the rocking dock, then looked down and swallowed. He’d been scraping coins together for months, rummaging through garbage, working as a slop boy in the filthy animal pens behind the dock, doing anything he could to earn a few denaris in order to pay for his instruction. His father would be furious if he knew he’d lost it for an hour or two of celestial navigation instruction that should have taken a week.
He’d lost the money. Worse, he’d been humiliated. He stared down at the ground, shaking with shame and anger, knowing that if he had to do it all again, he would.
The ambition burned inside him, the familiar drive that forced him to move forward in his learning, no matter what the cost. His father thought he was crazy. His mother didn’t know. Even he couldn’t explain it sometimes. It was like there was a light inside him that drove him to explore. And it wasn’t something new. He’d felt it now for years.
“You have a mission,” the voice inside him seemed to say. He looked toward the sea, which drew him like a moth toward a flame. “You have a mighty purpose. Believe that and continue. The path will be long and dangerous, but I will lead you,” the whisper seemed to say.
Columbus was the son of a weaver named Domenico. Little is known of his youth except that he came from a poor family and was motivated by a desire to escape poverty. That, and the fact that he knew that he had a destiny.8
Columbus was self-taught. He was described as being a man of great intellect but little education. Later in his life he explained the sources of his education and preparation:
I have had commerce and conversation with knowledgeable people of the clergy and the laity, Latins and Greeks, Jews and Moors, and with many others of different religions. Our Lord has favored my occupation and has given me an intelligent mind. He has endowed me with a great talent for seamanship; sufficient ability in astrology, geometry, and arithmetic; and the mental and physical dexterity required to draw spherical maps . . . with everything in its proper place.
During this time I have studied all kinds of texts: cosmography, histories, chronicles, philosophy, and other disciplines. Through these writings, the hand of Our Lord opened my mind to the possibility of sailing to the Indies and gave me the will to attempt the voyage. . . . Who could doubt that this flash of understanding was the work of the Holy Spirit . . . ? The Holy Spirit illuminated his holy and sacred Scripture, encouraging me in a very strong and clear voice . . . urging me to proceed. Continually, without ceasing a moment, they insisted that I go on.9
Columbus acknowledged that he obtained his knowledge and understanding not from formal education, for he had little of that, but from his own intense efforts to learn and to become skilled in those areas that would permit a successful adventure to the West. He also freely acknowledged that God provided him with not only the inspiration but also the natural abilities and opportunities to learn what he needed to in order to undertake the voyage that changed the world.
He went to sea at a very young age, perhaps fourteen. His voyages through the mid-1480s took him throughout the Mediterranean, north to Iceland, to the west as far as the Azores, and to the south as far as the Gulf of Guinea. These journeys, most of them trading missions, exposed Columbus to the most remote points of then-established navigation.
Then, in 1476, Columbus nearly lost his life.
And the effect of this experience was certain to change the world.
Off the Coast of Portugal
THE CANNONBALL IMPACTED THE HULL of the small trading ship just a foot below the waterline, a nearly perfect shot. Any higher, and the damage would have not allowed the sea into the breach; lower, and the water would have protected the ship’s hull from the impact of the ball. As it was, the cannonball exploded through the four-inch hull, shattering a bushel-barrel-sized hole through the port side of the ship while sending a violent explosion up and down the mast.
The young mate, Christopher Columbus, knew immediately that the ship was going to falter. He could tell by the way it decelerated, the hole digging through the frothing sea like a huge brake. He could tell by the way the ship leaned into the water, by the screams that cried out from down below. The captain was already dead, along with half the mates around him. Attacking ships were on both sides, the enemy firing at the broken vessel and its crew. Chaos and blood and burning black powder surrounded him. There was no option of a parley, not with his captain dead. The ship’s going down might be the best chance he could hope for. Better to face the sea than more swords or flying balls.
The attackers were going to win. He didn’t know yet who they were—the entire region was at war, every state against the other, with more shattered agreements and broken treaties than he could possibly keep track of. The small convoy of trading ships never had a chance. With gunships having accelerated up both sides of the convoy, trapping the cargo ships between them, the battle had been short and one-sided.
Another crashing explosion sounded through the smoke. Cold seawater rained on his head. The ship lurched. Cracking wood. The main braces split with the sound of thunder as the timbers broke. Vibration against the waves now. Smoke and cries from the galley vents below. The setting sun turned the smoke into a rosy haze, the clouds on the horizon turning the sky bloodred.
The ship leaned further and he had to catch his footing against the wet and slippery boards. He ran to the port side, grabbed a torn rope that was hanging from the mainsail, wrapped it around his chest, held it with one hand, and leaned out, hanging over the frothing water. Looking toward the sound of the gushing water, he surveyed the damage. Half of the hole was below the waterline, allowing a steady stream into the ship. Every wave that splashed against the ship covered the hole completely, causing a deep and sickly gurgling sound. Even through the chaos he could hear the shouts from below as some of the surviving crew members struggled to repair the hole at least enough to slow the deluge. An eight-inch patch was thrown across the tattered hole but was immediately washed back. He held his breath and counted, still suspended over the green sea. The board appeared again, unseen hands trying desperately to hold it in place, but another wave crashed against the ship and pushed it back. The ship creaked and leaned forward, the bow dipping further into the sea. The hole was completely underwater now. Footsteps and the rattle of metal chains sounded behind him as crew members started scrambling up the ladder from below. The ship rolled and tilted starboard, rocking with the waves. He had been hanging out almost perpendicular to the water before, but he was angled upward now, 45 degrees against the horizon because of the ship’s tilt.
The ship was going down. He knew that, and there was nothing he could do.
He bent his knees, fell toward the railing, stepped over, and dropped back onto the deck. The attacking ships were starting to move away. No more ropes were thrown between them. The attackers could see that his ship was sinking, leaving them no time to loot or salvage. Their captain wouldn’t be very happy with this result.
Columbus slid across the deck, almost falling down as he slipped toward the port side, where he held onto the rail. The sea was safer on this side, the attackers having sailed farther away. He couldn’t see the shoreline any longer—it was too dark and the smoke burned his eyes—but he knew the rocky shore of Portugal was out there, five or six miles to the east.
A white-hot ball of metal exploded through the main mast, tearing it from its moorings deep inside the bowels of the ship. Shattered wood exploded all around him, sending sharp pieces of shrapnel bursting through the air. Jagged splinters pierced his arm and side and leg, blood oozing from the open wounds. Pain ran up and down his side and he bit his lip to keep from screaming. He suddenly felt nauseated, his vision swooning, his forehead clammy, his armpits dripping in cold sweat.
He took a final look at the horizon to get his bearings—once he was in the water and it grew dark it would be difficult to hold his direction—then grabbed a half-full barrel of drinking water and tossed it overboard. Every motion sent chills of pain all through him, and his clothes were soaked in sweat and blood. Checking his coat pockets for his maps and navigational tools, the two things he valued as much as his life, he took a deep breath, braced for the cold water, leaned across the tilted railing, and jumped over the side of the ship.
Concealing himself behind the floating barrel, he watched his ship list and turn, the back lifting into the darkening sky and then bubbling through the waves, the top of the rudder finally disappearing below the murky surface. Farther to his right, a second ship went down, sucked into the cold sea with a froth of white. To his left, the flagship of his convoy was bathed in red smoke from a fire across its deck, its white sails illuminated from the final hint of sunlight and the fire. Dozens of sailors were in the water now. Some of them were wounded. Many couldn’t swim. Calls of terror and desperation sounded from the growing darkness, sending an angry chill down his side.
Looking up, he tried to take his bearings, but the sky was still obscured by low clouds and smoke. Taking his direction from the position of the attacking ships, he started swimming. It would take him most the night, and he was already very cold.
Just before morning, he flopped upon the shore, one of the few who survived the bloody attack.
Columbus washed ashore, literally, in Portugal at a time when most of the nations and city-states of the Mediterranean were at war, his small Genoan convoy having been attacked by a Franco-Portuguese war fleet. Eventually, he found his way to Lisbon. And although his entry into Portugal was not auspicious, his taking up residence there proved to be very important.
The century into which Columbus was born was one in which the Atlantic Ocean dominated explorers’ attention, and Portugal was at the center of this enterprise. During Christopher Columbus’s early life, ocean exploration resulted in the discoveries of the two most remote islands of the Azores (1452). The Cape Verde archipelago was explored in about the same time frame. In the 1470s, the islands of the Gulf of Guinea were added to maps. The west coast of Africa was accurately mapped in the 1480s. Almost all of these daring explorations were undertaken by Portuguese seamen. Portugal was also the home of the most progressive mapmakers.
So it was that Columbus’s unfortunate sea disaster resulted in his making a home in the one place where he could learn and train himself in all of the arts necessary to undertake his great adventure into the unknown regions of the western oceans.
In the decade before his voyage, Columbus spent less time at sea and more time learning the art of mapmaking and delving into those books then available to provide him insight as to what he might find in a westward voyage. He studied Ptolemy, a second-century Greek Alexandrian, whose book Geography was a collection of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge of the geography of the charted world. He was familiar with The Book of Marco Polo and relied upon Polo for his understanding that there were many islands to the east of China and that any approach to China from the west would pass by those islands. He also relied upon Polo for the names of various places in Asia, in particular the island of Cipangu, today known as Japan. Polo said that Cipangu was outrageously wealthy, with the king’s “mighty palace all roofed with finest gold, just as our churches are roofed with lead. The windows of that palace are all decorated with gold; the floors of the halls and of many chambers are paved with golden plates, each plate a good two fingers thick. There are pearls in the greatest abundance.”10
By 1492, Columbus had equipped himself with the skills of a navigator and mapmaker and had an understanding of geography.
He spent this time learning and preparing, for it’s clear from his own writings that he believed he was appointed to a task. Persistent, undoubting, physically strong and courageous, he was simply hard to break, his persistence always bolstered by his belief that he was directed by a heavenly cause. One biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, said of him:
Men may doubt this, but there can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement. It gave him confidence in his destiny, assurance that his performance would be equal to the promise of his name. This conviction that God destined him to be an instrument for spreading the faith was far more potent than the desire to win glory, wealth and worldly honors, to which he was certainly far from indifferent.11
When exactly Christopher Columbus decided upon a plan to cross the empty and unexplored Atlantic, it is not known. Perhaps it was something that he had considered for years before he made his intentions public. Morison has speculated whether he might have received inspiration as a youth, “at a season of fasting and prayer.”12 The fact is, Columbus never said exactly when he decided to undertake his expedition into the far reaches of the unknown. However, it is certain that at some point while in Portugal, Columbus made the decision to go where no European explorer had ever gone before.
He started sharing his idea.
Almost without exception, all he met was scorn. No one believed that it was possible. The most learned men of the time would call him foolish, sometimes insane. It would be a bitter and exhausting battle, lasting many years, for him to get the chance to prove if he was right.
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS STARED at the map of the western coast of Africa. A series of small islands were scratched into the parchment. La Palma. Las Palmas. Santa Cruz. The map indicated that the nearest of the islands was a little less than ninety miles off the coast, but he’d been around long enough to be skeptical of the charted distance.
His visitor, a wealthy Naples merchant, his fur and leather coat drooping below his wrists, tapped the hand-copied letter beside the map. Columbus turned around to face the setting sun and thought, then looked down at the letter once again.
Toscanelli, a famous Italian physician and one of Europe’s best mathematicians and astronomers, had sent a letter to the court of Lisbon in which he provided his best estimate of how far it was from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic to Japan, or what the Europeans called Cipangu. According to the letter, a copy of which the merchant had kindly brought to show Columbus, Toscanelli estimated the distance as 3,000 miles to Japan, 5,000 miles to China.
Most of the scholars throughout Europe thought the estimate was ridiculous. Columbus was certain Toscanelli was close to being right.
Leaning over, he studied the map again, his finger tracing the tiny island of Santa Cruz. “This is the key,” he muttered. “But islands are not what I’m interested in. Islands don’t have the capacity of changing the world. Islands, no matter their position or significance, will not change the fate of men, the fate of Europe, the fate of Christianity in the world. Only the unknown world is capable of doing that.”
The Italian nodded. “Antipodes?” he asked.
Columbus smiled. “Antipodes. Yes. The great landmass. Some maps call it Hesperides. I call it the New World.”
“So that is what you’re after?”
“Not necessarily, my friend. A clear sea route to the Indies is just as important, for it would bridge our two worlds.”
“The earth is too small.” The wealthy merchant waved the copy of the Italian mathematician’s letter. “There is no more room for another great land mass like Europe or Asia. The eastern shore of China is all you’ll find out there. That, or the edge of the world.” The Italian smiled at the thought of Columbus sailing to the edge of the earth and falling into a cold, black hole.
Columbus saw the sarcastic turn of the visitor’s lips. “There is no edge of the world, Cornelius. Only fools still believe the world is flat. Aristotle understood that the world is a great globe. The Greek geographer Strabo, who lived during the time of Christ our Savior, understood this too. Most reasonable men agree the earth is round. The one thing we can’t agree on is how large it really is.”
Cornelius leaned back in his old chair, hearing the wood joints strain against his ample weight. The fire popped behind him, and Columbus turned to poke at the blackened pit. The merchant took a look around. The home was a small wooden shack overlooking the ocean. Scantily furnished. A stone fireplace. A single bed. A pair of wood tables, both of them covered with maps, papers, and parchments. How did Columbus provide for himself? Not very well, it seemed. But there was something about the sailor, something compelling that drew the merchant in.
Columbus kicked at an ember that had popped out of the fire, moving it back into the hearth, then turned back to face his visitor. “Around 200 B.C., a Greek, Eratosthenes, estimated the earth’s circumference to be close to 24,900 miles. I think that is too large. The Moslem geographer Alfragan has calculated the circumference to be much less than that and I am convinced that he is right. Basing my thinking upon his calculations, I conclude that the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan is no more than 2,400 miles, and 3,550 miles to China. If that is all it is, then such a voyage is certainly possible.”
The Italian was silent a very long time before he finally shook his head. He’d made up his mind. Christopher Columbus was a fool. He didn’t care if the sailor was convinced that his life was guided by God. Columbus was a sailor, not a mathematician or a geographer. He wasn’t trained in the higher thoughts. He had no education. No influence. No money. If God truly was so disposed to support him, why hadn’t he been born into a royal family? If God intended for him to be successful, why hadn’t He provided him with the proper background? Good information? A family patron? Any of the tools that were necessary to be successful in this world? God graced those He loved, and this man was anything but graced.
The sailor was a good man, but many good men were fools.
Columbus watched the Italian, then looked away. He’d seen the expression on his face, the sullen look that had suddenly clouded his eyes. He was familiar with such expressions. He’d seen them many times before.
Leaning from the fire, he lifted a finger at the man. “Hear me, Cornelius, and mark my words. Thousands of men have wondered at the possibility of crossing the great Atlantic. Thousands have talked about it. Planned it. Considered such an undertaking and how it might be done. But I’m not here to talk about it! I’m not here to ponder or pontificate. No, I’m going to do it! I am certain that I will. And it isn’t me that guides me there, it is so much more than that.” He tapped the map resting on the table, pointing to the Canary Islands. “This place, these islands, they are the key to how I’ll do it. No one understands that yet, but I know that it is true!”
It’s worth noting that Columbus’s estimate of the earth’s circumference was much smaller than what it actually is. In reality, it is 10,600 miles from Europe to Japan, and 11,766 miles to China. And it’s ironic that his belief in his own miscalculations was one of the things that gave him the confidence and courage to proceed.
In Search of a Patron
Once he had decided on a course of action, Columbus needed funding and support.
A patron was required fare for any explorer of that era. The patron was first and foremost necessary to help fund the enterprise, to assemble the ships, and to aid in convincing a crew to sign on. Further, a discovery of new lands permitted a claim of ownership, but such claim had to be made in the name of the sovereign or ruler of a nation.
It’s interesting to note that Columbus was not asking for much. Besides official sponsorship, which was at that time somewhat freely given, the sum of money he sought was relatively small: approximately two million maravedis, or the equivalent of $78,000 today, about the same as the annual income of a mid-level Spanish aristocrat in his day. In addition, Columbus sought certain titles and positions, a tenth of the wealth he might discover for the crown, as well as the possibility of other compensations.
Beginning in 1484, Columbus actively began searching for such a sponsor. For the next eight years, he traveled throughout Europe, penniless and alone, seeking after his goal. He worked doggedly, enduring the scoffs and scorns of those around him. Seven times he would provide formal proposals to various parties. Seven times he would be denied.
1. He first approached the King of Portugal, João II, a logical choice, for the Portuguese were the most successful explorers of the Atlantic. A committee of experts was assigned to consider Columbus’s proposal, which called for several ships to sail for Japan.
The proposal was rejected—apparently because the experts did not believe in Columbus’s calculations of distance and were uncertain about his geography. It was also possible that the king believed that Columbus was driving too hard a bargain, demanding too many honors and concessions should he be successful.
2. Disappointed but undaunted, Columbus moved on to Castile. The marriage in 1469 of the Castilian queen, Isabella, and the king of Aragon, Ferdinand II, had created a nation that would become known as Spain in 1516. Columbus and his son, Diego, sailed there in the middle of 1485. At the time, Columbus had no money—in fact, he left substantial debts behind him in Lisbon—and upon arriving in Spain at the port of Palos, he abandoned Diego at a monastery at La Rabida, a practice not uncommon at the time for parents unable to care for their offspring.
For the next six and a half years, he undertook a determined effort to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the wisdom of his voyage. There was much to be gained by patronage from Castile. Perhaps most important, they had recently conquered the Canary Islands, which meant that the westernmost harbor at San Sebastian would be available for Columbus’s use. His plan had been to sail southwest to the Canary Islands and then straight west. (This decision was perhaps the most important, although unpredictable, decision that Columbus was to make.)
Another appealing aspect of Castile was that the king and queen shared Columbus’s belief that it was destiny that the wealth from the success of his mission would be used to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. Ferdinand and Isabella had inherited the title “King and Queen of Jerusalem.” This was symbolic of the popular view, the result of prophetic writings by Abbot Joachim of Fiore and others, that a king of Aragon would be responsible for the liberation of Jerusalem as a precursor to the ushering in of the Millennium. Columbus was familiar with the writings of Joachim, and he firmly believed that the inspiration upon which he depended for success was a gift from God for the purpose of helping him fulfill the prophecy regarding Jerusalem.
Spain was also an appealing target for patronage because it was then engaged in a fierce competition with Portugal for dominance of trade routes and acquisition of new lands and possessions.
In May 1486, Columbus was given an audience by Queen Isabella in which he presented his vision of a westward voyage with great enthusiasm and confidence. After the meeting, his hopes were lifted, but unjustifiably so.
In late 1486 and early 1487, a panel of “wise men, learned officials and mariners” was commissioned by the king and queen to evaluate Columbus’s proposal.13 The proposal was not rejected outright, but taken under consideration. However, it was the consensus of the panel that Columbus’s estimated distance to Indies couldn’t possibly be accurate. (In this, of course, they were correct.)
While the panel considered the proposal, Columbus was put on a small retainer to help him survive, which ended in June of 1488. At that point he still had not heard from the commission.
3. Discouraged, Columbus turned his attention back to Portugal. Unfortunately for him, since he had left the country, Bartolomeu Dias had sailed around the southern tip of Africa under the flag of Portugal. King João II had found his route to the Indies, and he no longer had any interest in Columbus’s dream.
4. Undaunted, Columbus sent his brother Bartholomew to England, where he was rejected by counselors to King Henry VII, who characterized Columbus’s proposal as being vain. Bartholomew then turned to France, where he was still living when Columbus sailed in 1492.
5. In 1489, Columbus traveled back to Castile to await a decision from the royal commission. These were hard times for Columbus, and it is not known how he provided for himself. Though he remained absolutely convinced that his proposed expedition would be successful, his critics were nearly unanimous in their rejection of his geography and estimates of distances. He wrote of how so many had considered his proposal and “unanimously treated it with contempt,” forcing him to face “fatiguing opposition.”14 (Indeed, the way he was treated during his six-and-a-half-year effort stayed with him, and he mentioned it often in later years.)
Finally, in 1490, the commission spurned Columbus’s proposal, determining it would take a voyage of three years to reach Asia. They further concluded that, even if he did encounter Antipodes, he would not be able to return.
At the time, Ferdinand and Isabella were engaged in the siege of Granada and were too preoccupied to pay much attention to the Columbus proposal. Though they did not accept their commission’s outright rejection, they told Columbus to come back later.
6. Columbus delayed for another nine months before deciding he couldn’t wait any longer. Turning his back on Castile, he set out for France to pursue a new patron in King Charles VIII. Completely dejected, he returned to Palos to retrieve Diego, where he met the head of the monastery, Fray Juan Perez, a man who had at one time been the confessor to Queen Isabella. Dismayed that Columbus would be giving up on Castile, he promised him another audience with the queen. Columbus reluctantly agreed. Fray Juan sent a letter to the queen, and she soon responded with an invitation for Columbus to proceed to court, including enough money for him to purchase suitable clothing and a mule.
7. Sometime in the later part of 1491, Columbus appeared before the queen. He was again told to subject his proposal to a commission of astronomers, mariners, and philosophers who would investigate the technical aspects of the proposal. Upon completion of their investigation, the matter was to be referred to the Royal Council of Castile, which was made up of royalty and ecclesiastical authorities. It appears as if the technical commission approved the plan but the Royal Council rejected it. Columbus was told that his enterprise was absolutely and finally rejected. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella informed Columbus of this decision personally, after which he was ushered from the court.
Seven and a half years wasted! Seven and a half years of personal and financial hardship. Seven and a half years of being forced to defend himself from fools and kings.
With no other option, Columbus put his meager belongings into his saddlebag, mounted his mule, and, in the company of his loyal friend Fray Juan, began the long journey for France.
A day into their journey, they were overtaken by a royal messenger. Columbus was to return immediately! Without explanation, he was ushered into the presence of the queen and miraculously informed that his proposal had been accepted.
What caused the queen to change her mind? Some speculate that Luis de Santangel, keeper of the king’s private purse, had gone to the queen and begged for her support. Others mention the queen’s personal confidence in Columbus, despite the objections and condemnations of the most educated and powerful men within the kingdom. Maybe it was the queen’s own intuition. We don’t have enough evidence to really know.
Columbus believed it was simply the will of God.
But, as we shall see, it was critically important that he have the support of Spain. Had his patron been from England or Portugal or any other country, Columbus would have failed.15
On the third day of August, 1492, a small fleet made its way from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Sixty-five feet long and twenty-three feet across, the Nina and Pinta were three-masted caravels typical of the ships that plied the Mediterranean Sea at that time. The third ship, the Santa Maria, was slightly larger, perhaps seventy feet long, and also had three masts. The Santa Maria, by virtue of its larger size, was the flagship of the small expedition. The three vessels were manned by a combined crew of eighty-eight men.
The course selected by Columbus was of immense importance to the success of the expedition. Sailors who depend on the wind, as did Columbus, need the wind behind them in order to propel them forward. Most of the explorers who attempted Atlantic voyages before Columbus had set out from either the Azores or Bristol, where they found themselves tacking against a constant west wind. Making minimal progress, it wasn’t long before they surrendered to the inevitable. Just seven years before, Fernao Dulmo and Joao Estreito had been commissioned by their king to sail west for forty days. They departed from the Azores, but the voyage came to nothing, for they couldn’t overcome the constant headwinds, which forced them to join the ranks of many others who had attempted to sail across the Atlantic but failed.
Columbus chose to begin his transatlantic voyage by sailing 700 miles to the south, to the Canary Islands. By so doing, he picked up the northeast trade winds, which could propel him all the way to the Americas. When he returned, he first sailed to the north, where he picked up the westerlies that drove him home.
Some historians have speculated that such a critical decision must have been the result of knowledge Columbus had acquired on one of his previous sailing experiences. Some have said that he may have had this information imparted by an “unknown” pilot. How he became aware of such an important secret is never fully explained.16
But this simple fact remains: The Canary Islands were controlled by Spain and, in fact, were Spain’s only major possession in the Atlantic. If Columbus had been sponsored by England, France, or Portugal, he would have likely chosen—or been forced—to leave from either the Azores or Bristol. In that event, he would have failed, and we would not remember his name.
Catching an easterly wind on September 6, the three ships left the harbor at San Sebastian on the Canary Island of Gomera and headed due west.
It is interesting to imagine what might have been on the minds of the men aboard those three small ships. The spirit of adventure and the promise of shared wealth will sustain a great adventurer only so far. As these men headed into the complete unknown, aboard ships of dubious worthiness on the high seas, captained by a man who was a complete stranger to them and a foreigner to boot, fear and doubt would have to have been constant companions. As they sailed to the west, day after day, with the winds generally behind them, they must have asked themselves whether there would ever be winds from the west to take them home.
In order to convince the Castilian king and queen, as well as his own crew, Columbus had said that the voyage from the Canaries to the Indies would be a “few days,” a term subject to interpretation. That representation, important for getting the crew on board, began to be a problem once they were at sea. The crew’s expectations of a brief voyage required constant attention by Columbus after just a short time. The most pressing problem for Columbus was this: At what point would his crew simply give up?
Hoping to keep the crew’s concerns to a minimum, Columbus purposely reported the length of each day’s voyage as shorter in distance than it actually was. By this means, he led his crew to believe that they were not all that far from land.
As they sailed west, where, to their understanding, no men had ever sailed before, the explorers were beset by two recurring problems. First, there was a series of false sightings of land. Each false sighting caused morale to suffer. Second, the farther west they sailed, the more fearful the men became that they might not find a favorable wind to take them home.
By the last week in September, it appeared the crew would mutiny. The men weren’t stupid. They could go below and see that their supplies were diminishing. They could count the barrels and estimate how many days of water they had left. There was talk of the greedy Genoese leading them to their death so that he could become a wealthy master. Why not just heave him over and return home and tell the king and queen that he had fallen overboard? Columbus sensed their treason by the gloomy looks, the silence when he passed by, the gatherings of small groups of men looking furtively in his direction. His reaction was to speak softly and to act with even more confidence, which momentarily bolstered the crew’s morale.
On the seventh of October, Columbus made a slight adjustment in his course that proved critical. Observing a large flock of birds flying southwest, and remembering that the Portuguese had discovered the Azores by following a flock of birds, he set a course in the direction they had flown. It is clear this slight adjustment determined the entire outcome of the voyage.
First, had he continued due west, the fleet might well have headed beyond the islands of the Caribbean and been caught up in the Gulf Stream. They would then have been carried by that powerful current and made shore in Florida, then been carried past Georgia and the Carolinas. Had this occurred, no gold would have been encountered, the voyage would have been considered unprofitable, and the sponsorship of a second voyage might never have occurred.
Second, had their course not changed, it might have taken a full day more to sight land. The events of the next few days reveal how critical that single day may have been.
On October 9, the captains of the Nina and Pinta demanded a meeting with Columbus. The wind was light, which made it possible for them to assemble on the Santa Maria, where the other captains demanded that the search for land be abandoned and that finding a way home become the priority. Columbus agreed that if land was not found in three days, he would follow their desire.
By October 10, the men could endure no more. The false sightings of land, the lack of flotsam or weeds that would have indicated that land was near, more than thirty days out of sight of land (far more than recorded man had ever endured), the fact that they had long passed the point where their leader had predicted land would be found—all these disappointments simply proved too much.
A confrontation between the crew of the Santa Maria and Columbus resulted in open mutiny. Columbus “cheered them up in the best way he could,” reminding them of the advantages that success would bring. But he also made it clear that notwithstanding their fears, “ . . . he had to go to the Indies, and that he would go on until he found them, with the help of our Lord.”17 Still, despite his strong intent, he also promised that if land was not sighted within two or three days, he would turn back.
As evening fell on day one, he knew his time was very short.
Aboard the Santa Maria,
Somewhere in the Western Atlantic
IT WAS BAD AND HE KNEW IT.
The men were angry and losing confidence and, worst of all, consumed by growing fear. How much farther could they go? Their supplies were growing short. The sun beat mercilessly upon them. They could picture ittheir faces dead and rotting, their skin tanned from the sun to blackened leather, their bodies hollowed cores, three dead ships full of dead men that continued sailing west.
Columbus sensed their fear. He sensed their rebellion. He had asked his men to trust him, but they didn’t trust him anymore. He had pushed too far.
One way or another, the next twenty-four hours would change their course. That was all the time he had now. They would either find land or they would kill him. They would either find land or they would abandon their mission and set sail to turn back, a disastrous decision that would lead to all of their deaths, for they couldn’t tack against the trade winds that had been blowing them on this course.
After all these years, after all the sacrifices, all the pleadings, all that he had risked and given up, all that he and his men had suffered through, it all came down to this.
One day to find land, or it was over.
Columbus rolled over on his tiny bed. He listened to the water slap against the hull, estimating their speed from the force of the rushing sound. Twelve knots. Maybe a little slower.
His tiny stateroom was dark, though there was a hint of moonlight bleeding through the crack underneath the door. There was a full moon outside, and before retiring for the evening he had stood on the starboard side of the ship, watching the moonrise, the huge yellow orb a welcome face upon the far horizon, its dim light casting shadows across the whitecaps that glistened on the sea.
Lying on his bed, he listened to the night crew. All was quiet on the ship.
One day. Maybe two. That was all the time he had to live. And in that moment, alone against his crew, alone against the open ocean, alone against the winds and the vastness of the sea, alone against the realities of every waking moment, he finally had to wonder . . .
Sometime after midnight, a sudden knock sounded at his cabin door.
He hesitated, sucking in a quick breath.
Had they finally come to take him and throw him overboard? Would they come for him in the darkness? It would be easier, wouldn’t it? If he had any allies—and he didn’t think he did—they would be asleep.
The knock sounded again, this time more urgent.
He took another breath and stood to face them.
The night lookout was standing at the door. “Look at this, sir!” he whispered urgently, shoving a patch of greenery in his face.
Columbus took the sprig of green and stepped into the narrow hallway, then a few paces out onto the main deck. A lantern was burning at the helm, and he moved toward its light.
Holding the broken branch to his eyes, he examined it more closely. Green leaves. A tiny white flower. A freshly broken limb. He touched the leaves, feeling their freshness.
A fresh branch broken from an unseen patch of land during the storm the night before.
They were close.
They had to be close.
He closed his eyes and prayed.
The first true signs of land settled the men. On October 11, they found a piece of board, then a little stick that appeared to have been fashioned into a shape by a man.
Anticipation of sighting land grew to a nearly unbearable level. The men were anxious and fidgety and always searching, their eyes hardly leaving the horizon.
At 2:00 A.M. on the twelfth, under a moon slightly past full, the call went out. LAND! LAND ON THE HORIZON! The lookout on the Pinta had sighted a mound of darkness against the moonlight. A mighty cry rose up from the crew, though it was tempered—the men had been disappointed with false sightings of land before. But as dawn broke, what they had been watching in the moonlight became clear.
It is not known with certainty which of the islands of the Caribbean Columbus had discovered. Most likely it was Watling Island. Columbus promptly named it “San Salvador”—Saint Savior.18
Columbus returned to Spain with the Nina and Pinta in March of 1493, having visited a number of islands, including the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola, where he left behind a small colony. (The Santa Maria had foundered on Christmas Day, 1492, at Navidad on the island of Hispaniola.) He was greeted with great acclaim. He was to make three more voyages to the Americas, exploring more of the islands of the Caribbean and sailing along the coast of Central America before he died in 1506.
What If ?
What would have happened if, about the time Columbus was born, China had not experienced such a dramatic inward turn? How would our world be different if China had continued to explore or even had colonized the New World? What would have been the fate of Europe if Columbus had not discovered the New World when he did? What if that discovery, which raised the wealth, the vision, the imagination, and the focus of the European nations, had not occurred until many years in the future? Would Europe have continued to suffer decline? Would it have had the means or the will to withstand the armies of Islam?
The impact on Europe of Christopher Columbus’s discovery was immense. The weak and struggling Europe of 1492 was soon left behind. The New World became the source of unimaginable wealth in gold, silver, and other minerals for the European nations that followed Columbus to the West. New foods were imported that would become staples for the people of Europe, including corn, potatoes, and tomatoes. The New World would become the source of life-saving drugs. Most important, it became the place for the people of Europe to spread to, escape to, become free in, the geographical area encompassing the Christian world more than doubling instantly.
The morale of Europe changed dramatically in just a few years. Strong monarchs brought a new level of security to the continent. The Church was challenged by the Reformation and began to purify itself. The discovery of a New World triggered new thoughts, ideas, and inventions. Human thought now knew no bounds, as the earth itself seemed unbounded. The tenuous seeds of freedom and liberty found a place to take root, to grow slowly, eventually to ripen and spread.
That is what Columbus did for Europe.
What did he do for the rest of the world?
What if Columbus had not developed the faith that his mission was ordained of God, a faith that sustained him through rejections, ridicule, and mutiny?
What if Columbus had not been shipwrecked in Portugal, where he acquired the knowledge and skills to carry out his voyage?
What if he had not made the geographical miscalculations that gave him the courage to undertake the voyage of a “few days”?
What if Castile had not agreed to become his sponsor and Portugal, France, or England had? In that event, he would have sailed into the wind and, like all the others, he would have failed.
At what point in history would someone else have come forth with Columbus’s combination of grit, stubbornness, knowledge, experiences at sea, ability to sell his concepts, navigation skills, and qualities to captain a ship? Some say it surely would have happened sooner or later. But with Europe in malaise and Islam on the rise, it might have occurred much later. Meanwhile, would Europe have fallen to militant Muslim armies first? Might the New World have become another conquered land ruled by the Koran?
What if Columbus had not made the changes in course on October 7? If he had returned home with no gold, would the Spanish crown, or any other sovereign, have been willing to sponsor another voyage?
A Different America
What would have happened to the Americas without the Judeo-Christian influence that the Europeans brought?
To answer that question, it makes sense to ask what the Americas were like before Columbus’s discovery. There are those who contend that it was inhabited by noble people who lived peacefully and trod very lightly on the land—living in harmony with their fellowmen and with all of nature. But such was simply not the case.
The Americas were largely populated by warlike people with little regard for human life. The likelihood that they would have evolved into a society that would espouse the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seems impossibly remote.
Consider, for example, the Mexica, called by the Europeans the Aztecs. Rising from a captive state from about 1428 to 1440, they slowly increased their power and influence until they conquered all of the valley of Mexico and surrounding areas. The primary focus of their military prowess was the acquisition of human slaves for sacrifice. Aztec history reports the sacrifice of 80,000 people after one successful military campaign, just decades before the Aztecs were conquered by the Spaniards under Cortez in 1522.
The Aztecs had a highly advanced society in many respects. They had mastered the construction of large structures and certain aspects of agriculture, and craftsmen were treasured. All males were expected to go to school until they were sixteen years old. However, they were easily conquered by a small army under Cortez because their neighbors hated them for their bloodthirsty appetites and willingly joined the Spaniards in a war to destroy them.19
Another example of a civilization much advanced in agriculture, the arts, and even the sciences was the Inca culture of South America. By 1491, the Incas had used their military and economic power to gain control over one of the largest empires in history. They built 25,000 miles of roads, mastered the art of terrace-based agriculture, made advances in metallurgy, and employed a form of writing using knots in strings. The kings of the Incas minimized the likelihood of revolt by uprooting conquered populations and moving them to where they could be used to operate farms or construct massive public-works projects. But the Incas were also fierce warriors who followed the practice of skinning the leaders of their conquered foes. Their religion was sophisticated and complex, but it also involved human sacrifice, usually of children who were perfect in their physical beauty.20
What little is known about the pre-Columbian history of the Americas—whether of the tribes of the southwestern United States, the mound builders of the southeastern United States, the Plains Indians, or any of the other known inhabitants of North or South America—reveals that they were constantly at war, and had either been recently conquered or were conquering others. They may have been advanced in many ways and had sophisticated societies by many measures, but they were almost uniformly warlike people with little respect for individual rights.21
A Barren Field to Sow the Seeds of Freedom
The Americas, populated by such peoples, would never have been the place where freedom and liberty could have found a home. A society based on respect for the individual, and the creation of governments to protect the rights of the individual, were critical to the forming of this nation. Such ideas were far from reality in the existing cultures of the land.
It is worth noting that the argument can be made that the Europe of the fifteenth century was not much different from the Americas at that time. It is true that Europe in that age was made up of warring city-states and kingdoms, dominated by absolute monarchs, subject to immense cruelty, as displayed in the Spanish Inquisition, but to compare it with the brutality of pre-Columbian America would be fallacious. Most of Europe had come to recognize at least basic human rights, rights of private property, various religious institutions, and so forth. They had already written the Magna Carta, also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Freedoms), which required the king of England to proclaim certain rights, respect certain legal procedures, and agree that the will of the king was bound by the law. Though limited, the influence of the Magna Carta reached throughout most of Europe and was held as a model for many of the European kingdoms around it. It certainly became one of the foundational premises upon which the American political system would develop, and its influence can be seen throughout our history, in the development of the common law and within the Constitution itself.
Such was the foundation for the ideas of individual freedom and liberty throughout Europe. With a foundation based on Judeo-Christian values, the United States was able to evolve into a place where respect for human life became a priority, where the power of monarchs was restrained, and where personal liberty and freedom could be espoused. Considering the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants of the land, no rational argument could be made that a similar evolution would have occurred throughout the Americas on its own. 22
As It Happened
Through the centuries that followed Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, there came an influx of peoples who created a positive influence on the founders of this nation, eventually culminating in a miraculous mix that resulted in the creation of the United States of America. That wonderful mix of beliefs, people, influences, opportunities, and circumstances resulted in a nation that has survived with a written Constitution intact for over 220 years. That nation has been the source of great economic power and influence, has saved the world from the tyranny of fascism and communism, and has served as a force for stability and a beacon of hope for liberty-loving people for two centuries.
America, as it evolved after the discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492, became the one place on earth where constitutional government, dedicated to a commitment to universal human rights and liberty, could have happened.
Christopher Columbus died, likely from a heart attack, in 1506. During his fourth and final voyage to the New World, when alone and frustrated, he told of hearing a “compassionate voice” that addressed him, saying, “O fool, and slow to believe and to serve thy God . . . what did He do more for Moses, or for David his servant, than He has done for thee?”23
1. See www.china.org.cn/e-gudai/6.htm; Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 64; Marrin, Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster, The Search for the Smallpox Vaccine, 32–33; “Smallpox Vaccine Revisited; The Smallpox Vaccine,” Medscape Today, to be found at www.medscape.com/viewarticle/447730_4; Clayre, Heart of the Dragon, 218–20; Stewart, Mysteries of History, 88–90.
2. For evidence that Zheng He knew the borders of eastern Africa, see Freedman, Who Was First, 25; Stewart, Mysteries of History, 90–91.
3. Information on the Chinese navy and its “Treasure Fleets” comes from Freedman, Who Was First, 20–38; Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas; Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America; Stewart, Mysteries of History, 86–93.
4. See ibid.
5. Freedman, Who Was First, 27–30; Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America; Stewart; Mysteries of History, 92.
6. Freedman, Who Was First, 33–34; Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, 179–80; Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, 55–56; Stewart, Mysteries of History, 93.
7. For information about the condition of Europe and the Western world at the time of Columbus, see Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 3–6; Sale, Conquest of Paradise, 3–46.
8. See Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 11.
9. Columbus, Book of Prophecies, 67 and 69.
10. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 237.
11. Ibid., 47.
12. Ibid., 56.
13. Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, 53.
14. Columbus, Select Letters, 105–6.
15. For accounts of Columbus’s efforts to obtain patronage, see Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, 45–65; Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 69–108.
16. See Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, 73.
17. Columbus, Journal of Christopher Columbus, 34–35.
18. For accounts of the voyage, see Columbus, Journal of Christopher Columbus; Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, 67–81; Horwitz, Voyage Long and Strange, 93–103; Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 153–228; Sale, Conquest of Paradise, 56–64.
19. See Mann, 1491, 115–32; Schweikart and Allen, Patriot’s History, 5–6.
20. See Mann, 1491, 64–92; July 7, 2009, http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/ latam/inca.html.
21. See Mann, 1491; Horwitz, Voyage Long and Strange.
22. For a complete discussion of the impact of Christianity on progress in the West, see Stark, Victory of Reason.
23. Columbus, Select Letters, 184.
by Janice - reviewed on June 08, 2010
I loved this book and was disappointed to know that these facts were never taught to me in high school or college. Thank you for amazing insights into our history and the miracles that made us free.
by Customer - reviewed on January 27, 2011
Not only is this a great book, but my 12 year old son was so intrigued by the story of the Battle of Midway he used it for a school history project and went to District with it. All of the seven stories shared are both informative, and inspiring. Rumors are that Chris and Ted have another book in the same genre. I look forward to it. I also hear that there is a group trying to get Chris Stewart to run for US Senate...
Historical information we should all have
by Roberta - reviewed on January 07, 2010
I was stunned at how much we didn't learn in American History. I am grateful for how events came about to make possible the discovery & establishment of this country. It helped me to know and remember that the United States is indeed a great country and we didn't get that way by luck. Yes, we have much to improve but what we have is amazing. This country is a blessed country. Even with our adversities, problems of all kinds, and challenges gallore, we are still thriving, and can and will do better.
Couldn't Put It Down
by Bob - reviewed on July 08, 2010
Got this book for my birthday. OK, I thought, the title sounds interesting. Then I started to read and I could not put it down. I finished it in 3 days! For me that was a miracle in itself. This book is riveting in the way it presents seven events that shaped our country in ways that could have doomed America had they gone the other way. It is awe-inspiring to realize the love that God has for this country, and this book helps one see that fact clearly! Another review said this book together with "The 5000 Year Leap" makes a duo that every citizen should read. I agree. Read together they could lift us out of the current malaise the country is in.
a wonderful book
by kelly - reviewed on July 05, 2010
This was a fantastic book. I have read many books lately about the importance of our country and it's founding, but this book is by far my favorite! The way the facts are presented is very inspiring. I think it should be required reading for all Americans. It would cause a groundswell of patriotism which our country is in desperate need of. Combine it with "The Five Thousand Year Leap" and you have one of the best U.S. history courses available.
by Vickie - reviewed on May 31, 2011
I loved this book and have used it to do a series of family home evenings with my children and grandchildren. It was also a great help in recently preparing a patriotic talk for sacrament meeting. I have recommended it to many people.
Interesting Premise, Poor Execution
by Clark - reviewed on October 12, 2012
This book puts forth an interesting and compelling thesis, but it is weakened by the extensive use of fictionalized accounts which often of little basis in fact. And unfortunately, the fiction is poorly written fiction. A stronger focus on history and less on fiction would have made the argument much more persuasive and compelling. Though well researched, the book is weakened by jingoism and unnecessary drama - let the facts speak for themselves and they will tell the story!
Every American citizen should be aware of/appreciate the miracles described in this book
by Becca - reviewed on October 30, 2009
Good news! For those of us who's minds were elsewhere during American History class, we've been given a reprieve with this book! Seven Miracles that Saved America is full of those significant events and inspirational stories that we should not only be AWARE of, but value as American citizens. It is a reminder to all of us, that those critical events in our U.S. history were not coincidence, but necessary for the survival of freedom as we know it. God has had a hand in protecting this country from the beginning, read this book to find out how.
The book was enlightening and inspiring.
by Lisa - reviewed on October 30, 2009
At a time in our history that feels harder and harder to slog through, this book brought me comfort and insight. The information is critical to all citizens to know and understand and is told in a very simple and even handed manner. Information that seems to have been held captive unless the reader was earnestly seeking, was easily accessible and I already feel more intelligent. Patriotism is not and should not be dead, and I surely appreciate the authors for being willing to step out of the herd and lead the way for a return to believing that America really is a miracle.
Not worth buying or reading
by Monte - reviewed on January 28, 2010
The whole premise of this book hinges on what some one (in this case the authors) think is "miraculous." The supposition that these seven events are some how "divine" is nothing more that Mormon myth. Taking the events one by one, let's look: 1. Columbus' discovery of the Americas was inevitable once he set sail. Sailing west from Spain leaves no destination but the Americas. If not Columbus, it would have been some one eventually. 2. The Jamestown colony did fail. The first colonist all died. The second attempt was successful. But the colonization of the Americas was again inevitable once they were discovered. 3. Mostly this battle depends on your definition of miraculous. 4. The writing of the Constitution was the work of many committed, knowledgeable, and enlightened men. They were drawing heavily from the the French Revolution and various writes of the Enlightenment. Mostly, they were protecting their hard won freedoms. 5. What documented prayer are the authors referring to here? 6. The Battle of Midway was won by superior military intelligence and better battle strategies than "extraordinary events." 7. To credit Ronald Reagan's survival to anyone other than the Secret Service is to manufacture events out of pure nothingness. To credit him with the demise of the Soviet Union or the spread of Democracy around the world is to deny forty years of Soviet economic failure and the work and legacy of countless freedom fighters in many countries throughout the world. People like Nelson Mandela, Anware Sadat, David Ben Gurion, Mhata Ghandi, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy just to name a few. So, save your money and your time. Buy factual book on history any learn what really happen, not some Mormon myth of historical events
The book stands on its own merits
by Brent - reviewed on February 14, 2010
Monte needs to learn his history a little better. In his attempt to discredit the book, he mentions that the Constitution learned lessons from the French Revolution. Despite the Constitution being written and submitted a year before the French Revolution started.
Wonderfully written and uplifting information
by David - reviewed on February 22, 2010
This book presents compelling information supporting the divine establishment and existence of the greatest country in the history of the world - America! One can argue that divine intervention had nothing to do with our success as a nation and a people, but where is the evidence that any other country in the history of the world has achieved the success achieved by America - without America's assistance - there are none! This country was established for a divine purpose regardless of what anyone some people may believe. Its continuation as a great and free nation and people will depend upon its worthiness to receive continued divine intervention to overcome political, economic, social, and geological problems such as the seven miracles described therein. No amount of ignorance or philosophical opinion(s) will prove otherwise. I highly recommended this book for every patriotic and grateful citizen. THIS IS A FIVE STAR BOOK