“A Man Among the Gentiles”

George Reynolds, Janne M. Sjodahl

This man, who was separated from the Lamanites by many waters and who was prompted to cross those waters, was Columbus.

Christopher Columbus, or, as his name is written in Spanish, Cristól Cólon, was born in Genoa (or vicinity), Italy in the year 1436. Neither birth place nor birth date is known with absolute certainty. The parents were Domenico and Susanna Fontanarossa Colombo, both belonging to families of weavers.

Christopher Columbus, at a very early age went to sea. He became familiar with the routes followed by the merchantmen in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In 1477 he went to Iceland and Frislanda (supposed to be the Faeroislands), and a few years later he spent some time on the Gold Coast, in Africa.

Notwithstanding his life as a sailor, Columbus found time to study languages, astronomy, and the science of navigation. He became also an expert map maker—all necessary accomplishments for the fulfilment of his mission.

In 1470, Columbus after a battle with pirates, escaped to Lisbon, where many prominent geographers and navigators lived. Here, at a religious service, he saw a young, noble lady, Philippa, the daughter of the governor of Porto Santo, then deceased. They were married, and for some time they lived with her mother on the estate. This was situated on a little island three hundred miles out in the ocean. The governor had left a number of maps and valuable notes on navigation, and Columbus studied these thoroughly. In this quiet resort, the thought of going out west on the mysterious expanse of water may well have ripened in the mind of the young adventurer.

At this time, Genoa, Florence and Venice commanded the commerce of the Mediterranean. They brought silks, and other costly fabrics, and spices from Persia and India. These were carried by camels across the deserts to the Red Sea and the Nile, and then by ships over the Mediterranean to Europe. Those who commanded the trade routes became wealthy and powerful. The great question of the age was, therefore, how to reach the East by some cheaper and more convenient route than by the sea. Columbus was one of the few at that time, who believed that the East, with its fabulous wealth of gold, perfumes and spices, could be found by sailing west. Consequently, he laid his plan before the king of Portugal. This monarch seems to have looked upon the daring scheme with favor. But he could not afford to invest large sums on a problematic enterprise, the country being impoverished by war. He submitted the question to learned men who, as usual, did not agree. A trial expedition was sent out secretly, and the leaders of this dishonest attempt to rob Columbus of the fruit of his labors, returned after a few days and reported that you might as well expect to find land in the sky as in that waste of waters. Columbus, on learning that the Portuguese king had played a trick, decided to appeal to the rulers of Spain.

During seven long years Columbus importuned King Ferdinand for a hearing. But he was generally regarded as a visionary. Even the children in the streets knew him as one mentally unsound. When, at last, the learned council condescended to make a report, it was to the effect that the plan was too foolish to merit attention. “It is absurd,” they said, “to believe that there are people on the other side of the world, walking with their heels upward, and their heads hanging down. And then, how can a ship get there? The torrid zone through which they must pass, is a region of fire, where the very waves boil. And even if a ship could perchance get around there safely, how could it ever get back? Can a ship sail uphill?”

With such arguments the wise men of Spain were about to drive Columbus out of the country. In fact, he decided to go to France. But, fortunately, the queen, Isabella, had as much to say in such matters as her royal consort. And she listened to friends of Columbus. She was even willing to raise money on her jewels to defray the expenses of a voyage. But this was not required of her. Luis de Santangel, who held the keys to the treasury of Aragon, looked after the finances. The agreement between the regents and Columbus was signed on April 17, 1492. Columbus shed tears of joy. He had reached the goal, after eighteen long years of labor, disappointments and heartache.

Columbus is described as a man of commanding presence, tall and powerful, fair, ruddy complexion, and blue-grey eyes. By the time he sailed for the new world, his hair had turned white. His bearing was courteous and his conversation was captivating. Notwithstanding all discouragement, he never lost faith in his divine calling and mission.

It was on August 3, 1492, that Columbus with three vessels—the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nia, with 90 souls on board—set out from Palos, Spain. It was on October 12, the same year that Columbus with a retinue of officers and men set foot on the beach of an island which he named San Salvador. Columbus was dressed in a gorgeous military suit of scarlet, embroidered with gold, for how did he know whether he was not to meet some splendidly arrayed potentate in this land? Had he not arrived in India, of which country Marco Polo and others had told such wonderful tales? At all events, he was prepared. But as soon as he landed, he prostrated himself and on bended knees kissed the ground. Then he planted a cross and took possession of the country in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella. The natives who witnessed these to them incomprehensible ceremonies, he called Indians, because he supposed that he had reached an island off the coast of India.

The nationality and birthplace of Columbus have frequently been discussed. A few years ago, on January 14, 1922, to be exact, an Associated Press dispatch from Lisbon, Portugal, announced that a member of the Portuguese Academy of Science, Senor Patrocinio Ribeiro, in an address to the academy, had maintained that he was born in Portugal.

That announcement came shortly after a prelate, the Right Rev. Mgr. Rey Soto, during a visit in New York, had stated that Columbus was of Jewish lineage. He claimed that this had been proved by documents at the home of ancestors of the great sailor, in Spain. He said Columbus knew this but concealed it because of the persecution that raged against the Jews at that time.

There is nothing in itself improbable in the assumption that Columbus had the blood of Israel in his veins. On the contrary, his character and his mission were of such nature as to lend some color to that assumption. Nephi saw him “among” the Gentiles, but that does not necessarily mean that he was a Gentile. I am inclined to the view that Nephi, when stating that he was “separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters,” in reality says that they were brethren and that was the main element that separated them from each other. But, be that as it may, the following lines are of interest in this connection:

"The story of the Jews in America begins with Christopher Columbus. On Aug. 2, 1492, more than 300,000 Jews were expelled from Spain...and on Aug. 3, the next day, Columbus set sail for the west, taking a group of Jews with him...Columbus himself tells us that he consorted much with Jews. The first letter he wrote detailing his discoveries was to a Jew. Indeed, the eventful voyage itself which added to men‘s knowledge and wealth ’the other half of the earth,’ was made possible by Jews.

"The pleasant story that it was Queen Isabella’s jewels which financed the voyage has disappeared under cool research. There were three Maranos or ‘secret Jews’ who wielded great influence at the Spanish Court: Luis de Santangel, who was an important merchant of Valencia and a ‘farmer’ of the royal taxes; his relative Gabriel Sanchez, who was the royal treasurer; and their friend, the royal chamberlin, Juan Cabrero ... Santangel craved permission to advance the money himself, which he did, 17,000 ducats in all, about $20,000, perhaps equal to $160,000 today.

“Associated with Columbus in the voyage were at least five Jews: Luis de Torres, interpreter; Marco, the surgeon; Bernal, the physician; Alonzo de la Calle, and Gabriel Sanchez...Luis de Torres was the first man ashore... He settled in Cuba.” (The International Jew, Dearborn, Mich., 1920, p. 33)

On January 4, 1493, Columbus set sail on the Nina for Spain, having left 40 men at Fort Nativity, as a beginning of a colony. He reached the harbor of Palos in Spain, on March 15. His first voyage ended in a blaze of glory. The story of his return and achievements flew from mouth to mouth. Bells were ringing, and torches were blazing in the streets at night. Their royal majesties wept for joy, when thinking of the palaces and riches that would be theirs, as their reward for having beaten the Moors at Granada and driven the Jews out of Spain.

Columbus made three more voyages. He cruised in the Caribbean, discovered the island of Trinidad and the South American coast at the delta of the Orinoco, and he coasted along the coast of Honduras. But the vision of Nephi does not include the later experiences of Columbus. In opening the way across the deep between the Gentiles in the Old World and the descendants of Lehi in the New, his mission was fulfilled.

Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1