Less well known was a voyage by Columbus to the Gold Coast in West Africa in 1481, sponsored by King John II of Portugal. In contrast to the Eurocentric myth of disorder and barbarism prevalent in Africa, during this voyage Columbus encountered civilized communities and well-established states with very complex social, political, and economic structures. At the time of Columbus’s visit, the most impressive medieval Moorish (West African) empire, Songhay, was still in existence. Its noted center of scholarship, Timbuktu, the home of the world-renowned higher educational institution, the Sankoré University, still possessed a great deal of its splendor. Columbus who visited the Portuguese fortress of Elmina on the Gold Coast, was impressed by the riches of the land, especially its gold. But as an explorer, Columbus learned valuable lessens in geography and oceanography.
This undoubtedly sparked his interest in a voyage westward across the Atlantic, which he erroneously believed would take him to India and establish direct access to the coveted riches of the Orient. More importantly, Columbus’s voyage to West Africa may have laid the groundwork for the first contact between that part of Africa and the Americas. A few West Africans were said to have returned with him to Europe and eventually accompanied him on his voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1504. Some scholars, however, have suggested the possibility of an African presence in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.
The argument is that some West African people, probably from the Senegambia area, were known to Native Americans prior to arrival of Columbus. The most forceful argument along these lines has been provided by Rutgers linguist and anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima, who marshalled an array of archaeological, historical, and botanical evidence to argue his case. The United States and West Africa: Interactions and Relations pg. 18 Because Columbus has been such an important figure in the collective imagination of Americans, what we make of him affects both how we view our history and imagine our future. In what follows, I wish, first to detangle Columbus’s motivations from the accusations that have been brought against him and then to trace briefly the apocalyptic scenario and the place of Jerusalem that figured so centrally to his quest. To distance ourselves from his religious views obscures how deeply influential they have been, and continue to be in our national and political consciousness. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages that Led to America pg. 236
The principal factor which governed Columbus’s life and motivated his activities was—as he put it in a letter to the Spanish monarchs—to spread the light of the Gospel throughout the world and enlist the newly converted peoples in the life-and-death war with the empire of Muhammad. His ultimate goals included the “recovery” of the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, in preparation for the Kingdom of God. In fact, it was his deep religious convictions in prophecy which, according to The New Millennial Manual, enabled him to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to finance his “Enterprise of the Indies.” And the “Enterprise” was to be the first stage in a new Crusade which would enable the Spanish monarchs to “recapture” the Holy Land and restore the Christian faith there. Throughout his life, Columbus insisted that Providence was always guiding his steps and directing his efforts.
In fact, at the end of his first voyage, and in a letter to the Spanish court dated February 15, 1492, Columbus said that the Bible was his lifetime roadmap for the fulfillment of divine prophecies and the rebuilding of Zion. This letter was subsequently printed and translated into many European languages. In it, Columbus summed up his global program “to conquer the world, spread the Christian faith, and regain the Holy Land and the Temple Mount.” During the last voyage (1502-04), Columbus recorded in his journals that he heard voices and saw visions of God urging him on to carry out His mission. This belief in a Providential mission is what motivated Columbus to so relentlessly pursue his project of the “Enterprise of the Indies.” He wrote:
Who would doubt that this light, which urged me on with a great haste continuously, without a moment’s pause, came to you in a most deep manner, as it did to me? In this my voyage to the Indies, Our Lord wished to perform [a] very evident miracle in order to console me and others in the matter of this other voyage to the Holy Sepulcher [Jerusalem]. To realize the originality as well as the significance of Columbus’s missionary efforts and zeal to fulfill the “prophecies,” one should remember that his campaign preceded the Protestant Reformation and the resulting emphasis on Old Testament prophecies and missionary drive.
This zeal and literal interpretation of sacred prophecies led Delno West to describe Columbus as “the first American hero with all the rights and privileges, myths and legends, and criticisms the title carries.” In his obsession with the rebuilding of Zion and the preparation for the Coming Kingdom, Columbus anticipated the early Puritan settlers of the New World, the nineteenth-century end-times churches and missionary establishment, and the present-day American grand plans for the world. In essence, Columbus’s program is a roadmap for the modern campaign of the Christian Right in America today.
See PAUL BOYER’s Did Christopher Columbus see himself on an apocalyptic mission?..
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