Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day: a 'light' to remember

"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." ~ Jesus of Nazareth, from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16

"America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere." ~ Ronald Reagan, 1974

Today marks the celebratory discovery of the New World made by those three immortalized ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, which were led by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. It will be 519 years ago on October 12th since Columbus first set foot on the North American continent. 

The first known celebration of Columbus Day took place in New York City in 1792. Since then, FDR declared the national holiday on Oct. 12th (the official day of the discovery), then Congress later changed Columbus Day, in 1971, to be celebrated on the second Monday of October.

Much has been told and recounted concerning Christopher Columbus, his discovery and this American holiday. Over the years, we've been witness to many positive accounts and, particularly in recent years, many not so kind words for the explorer. Nonetheless, I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on Columbus' journal entries surrounding the discovery of the New Land in conjunction with the above quotes, with particular emphasis on that most profound beacon of 'light':

(Here is Columbus' account as his expedition approaches the islands of the Bahamas. Throughout, Columbus refers to himself in the third person as the "Admiral")

Thursday October 11

The course was W.S.W., and there was more sea than there had been during the whole of the voyage. They saw sand-pipers, and a green reed near the ship. Those of the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a pole, and they took up another small pole which appeared to have been worked with iron; also another bit of cane, a land-plant, and a small board. The crew of the caravel Niña also saw signs of land, and a small branch covered with berries. Everyone breathed afresh and rejoiced at these signs. The run until sunset was 27 leagues.

After sunset the Admiral returned to his original west course, and they went along at the rate of 12 miles an hour. Up to two hours after midnight they had gone 90 miles, equal to 22 1/2 leagues. As the caravel Pinta was a better sailer, and went ahead of the Admiral, she found the land, and made the signals ordered by the Admiral. The land was first seen by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana. But the Admiral, at ten o'clock, being on the castle of the poop, saw a light, though it was so uncertain that he could not affirm it was land. He called Pero Gutierrez, a gentleman of the King's bedchamber, and said that there seemed to be a light, and that he should look at it. He did so, and saw it. The Admiral said the same to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, whom the King and Queen had sent with the fleet as inspector, but he could see nothing, because he was not in a place whence anything could be seen.

After the Admiral had spoken he saw the light once or twice, and it was like a wax candle rising and failing. It seemed to few to be an indication of land; but the Admiral made certain that land was close. When they said the Salve, (Salve Regina) which all the sailors were accustomed to sing in their way, the Admiral asked and admonished the men to keep a good look-out on the forecastle, and to watch well for land; and to him who should first cry out that he saw land, he would give a silk doublet, besides the other rewards promised by the Sovereigns, which were 10,000 maravedis to him who should first saw it. At two hours after midnight the land was sighted at a distance of two leagues.

(Columbus ordered the three ships to halt and wait for daylight before venturing further.)

Friday October 12

The vessels were hove to, waiting for daylight; and on Friday they arrived at a small island of the Lucayos, called, in the language of the Indians, Guanahani. Presently they saw naked people. The Admiral went on shore in the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzon, and Vicente Yanez, his brother, who was captain of the Niña. The Admiral took the royal standard, and the captains went with two banners of the green cross, which the Admiral took in all the ships as a sign, with an F and a Y and a crown over each letter, one on one side of the cross and the other on the other.

Having landed, they saw trees very green, and much water, and fruits of diverse kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains, and to the others who leaped on shore, and to Rodrigo Escovedo, secretary of the whole fleet, and to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, and said that they should bear faithful testimony that he, in presence of all, had taken, as he now took, possession of the said island for the King and for the Queen his Lords, making the declarations that are required, as is now largely set forth in the testimonies which were then made in writing.

(Shortly after landing, many of the island's inhabitants assembled on the beach. Columbus gave them gifts of red hats and beads, while the natives reciprocated with gifts of parrots, cotton and other goods.)

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