The date seems to be one of the few things we have in this story with fair precision. It was Aug. 3, a Friday in the old Julian calendar; in 1492, an auspicious year.
The place was Palos de la Frontera, a village with a good harbor in southwestern Spain, on the Río Tinto by the confluence with the Odiel River, close to the Gulf of Cádiz and the North Atlantic beyond.
Spain was in the 23rd year of the unified reign of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Four months before, they issued the Alhambra Decree stipulating that practicing Jews had until July 31 to leave Spain. Forced by pogroms, nearly three quarters of Spain’s Sephardic Jews had already converted to Catholicism. About 50,000 were being expelled. (The edict was not revoked until 1968.) These were also the years of the Inquisition, which targeted Muslims as well as Jews who had converted, and entailed torture including the burning alive of suspected heretics.
Spain was a semi-feudal kingdom with pretensions. Life for the average citizen was difficult and short. The nobility, not much better off, were bound by male primogeniture, which meant the first-born male would inherit everything; and there would be a lot of poor, second- and third-born sons ripe for adventuring.
Christopher Columbus was in Palos that day making last-minute arrangements. He was just beyond 40 years old, likely having been born in the Republic of Genoa, where he would have been known as Cristoforo Colombo – and as a descendant of Jews on one side of his family; and then in Spain as Cristóbal Colón.
He had convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to sponsor his voyage to the Far East to capture its riches and convert its heathens, based on his self-professed skills as a navigator. Then he sailed west from Palos.
He embarked with 87 crewmen on the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, a company of sailors, carpenters, painters, coopers, servants and physicians as well as converted Jews and second and third sons who had little to lose. Their licensed object was to spread the one true faith and to enrich their sovereigns and themselves by trade or plunder, the two could be hard to distinguish.
Nine weeks later, they made landfall in the Bahamas, where they encountered the Taíno and Arawak people, whom Columbus dubbed “Indians.” Notably, these Indians had gold, which they wore as earrings.
“They ought to make good and skilled servants,” Columbus wrote in his journal. “I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion.” And, ominously, “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
Here we have in a nutshell almost all that follows in the New World from that Aug. 3 departure, the good and the bad. It is such a seminal event in world history that we have no ready comparison.
There are people today, not a few of them in Colorado, who want to see monuments to Columbus in America taken down because they signify conquest, colonization and the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. That’s all true.
Whether Columbus’ first voyage signified more besides is complicated, alas. The short answer is it clearly does, which is why we cannot imagine what the Western Hemisphere would have become had Europeans not invaded it, something that seems bound to have happened, in 1493 if not in 1492; or in 1501.
We don’t have to celebrate it, but we do need to see, Columbus or not, it is a bell that cannot be unrung except in science fiction.