Why did Columbus take his journey?  Though this is a complex question, it has sometimes been summarized with the "three G's":

  • God
  • Gold
  • Glory

The medieval mind might hesitate at the thought of seeking these things all at once, but during the Renaissance, the three were not seen as incompatible.

Columbus' expedition spotted land on October 11, 1492 and landed on October 12, 1492 (Columbus, Diario 11 Oct. 1492).(1)

The second book published in England about "the newe India," Richard Eden's

1553 translation of Sebastian Münster's universal cosmography (Eden

vii), introduced England to some of new India's racier inhabitants.

As the Admirall departed from the Iland of the Canibales, and went foreward on his viage, he passed by many Ilandes: among the whiche was one called Matinina, in whyche dwell only women, after the maner of them, called Amazones, as he learned of the men of the Ilandes which he brought with him into Spayne at his fyrste viage, and saued them from the fearsenes of the Canibales. (30)

Münster and Eden preserve Columbus' association of the Amazons with a savage tribe called the Canibales. These "mates" of the women were the members of an all-male tribe living on an island to the west of Matinino. Columbus' native informants called this island either Carib or Caniba, with its inhabitants being 'caníbales' (Columbus, Diario 17 Dec. 1492, 13 Jan. 1493). The most notable feature of this tribe was a certain dietary practice succinctly noted by Columbus.

[H]i carne humana vescuntur. (Columbus, Four Voyages 14)

They eat human flesh.

This "discovery" inspired the imaginations of those back home and even affected their languages. 'Caníbal' and its cognates have largely displaced the cognates derived from the Greek anthropophagos(anthropophagos) that had until then been the dominant terms in western European languages for those who ingest human flesh.

The juxtaposition of Matinino and Caniba recapitulates the ancient association of the bloodthirsty Scythians with the Amazons (Herodotus 4. 64-65, 110-117). Like the ancient Gargarians (Strabo 11. 5. 1), the men of Caribe made the annual pilgrimage to Matinino to mate with the women; sons were sent to the men, and the women kept the daughters (Diario 16 January 1493). Winds, leaky ships, and incompetent native Americans who did not know how to point the exact direction of the islands kept Columbus from reaching his fantasy islands of cannibals and Amazons (Diario 16 January 1493).

Columbus described the native Americans in terms of their beauty, their nudity, "their cowardice, and their apparently spontaneous and natural subservience to the Spaniards" (Zamora 173). Barbaric cannibals of Carib, effeminate natives, and masculine, independent women all demonstrated the need for the establishment of a proper hierarchy that would bring salvation to the ruled and fortune to the rulers.

Columbus' feminization of the territories he was exploring took a rather strange turn. The familiar myth is that Columbus sailed west to prove the world was round. Many people have also been taught that Columbus adopted the idea of the earth's size and spherical shape from Ptolemy and that Columbus was simply the first to apply that theory to reaching the east by travelling west. However, in the Relación del Tercer Viaje, Columbus modified the Ptolemaic theory of the spherical earth. Ptolemy's mistake was in thinking that the whole world was as round as the hemisphere he inhabited (215). Columbus speculated that the earth had a bulge, having the form of a pear (de la forma de una pera) or of a ball with a bulge like a woman's nipple (una teta de muger allí puesta; Textos 215). The world's "nipple" (peçón) was in the East, where he thought he was, along the equator (215). Because of its height, it was the part of the world closest to heaven.

. . . y qu'esta parte d'este peçón sea la más alta e más propinca al cielo. (Textos 215)

upon part of which is the nipple, which is the highest and closest to the heavens.

Columbus believed that the Earthly Paradise (Paraíso Terrenal) was located at the top of the breast, which was a gradual incline rather than a steep mountain.

Columbus' geography here bears the stamp, not so much of Ptolemy, as of Dante. Dante placed Purgatory on the opposite side of the world from Jerusalem, so that sunrise at Purgatory was sunset at Jerusalem (Dante, Purgatorio 2. 1-9). Dante's Purgatory was an island mountain with seven levels, each of which was dedicated to purging one of the deadly sins (Musa viii). The poet makes his way up the mountain until he reaches the top, which is the "place chosen for the cradle of humankind" (luogo eletto / a l'umana natura per suo nido), that is, Eden (Dante 28. 77-78). Columbus differed from Dante in that his mountain had a mild incline, whereas Dante's mountain was difficult to climb, especially at first when more sin weighed down the penitents (Dante 12. 115-126). Furthermore, Columbus does not identify the rise under the terrestrial paradise as Purgatory. Entrance to Columbus' paradise could come only through divine will (voluntad divina), but Columbus believed he had drawn nigh unto that paradise (Textos 218), just as he identified the Canaries as the mythic Blessed Isles (las islas Fortunate, que son las Canarias; 217).

Columbus' projection of gender differences onto the globe itself, with his feminine world nipple in the eastern hemisphere, may have been idiosyncratic, but he had precedents. Catholics of Columbus' day were accustomed to images of the Virgin Mary suckling the infant Jesus; this was taken as a sign of the material blessings God offered his followers.  Ancient polytheists worshipped the world as "Mother Earth." Even the monotheistic Hebrews thought of their nation as a "land flowing with milk and honey."

  1. Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her:
  2. That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.
  3. For thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees.
  4. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
  5. And when ye see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb: and the hand of the LORD shall be known toward his servants, and his indignation toward his enemies. (Isaiah 66: 11-14)

Columbus' theory of the Earthly Paradise grew out of his religious views, which also provided him with a noble mission in his exploration. His version of Christianity provided him an identity distinct from the heroes examined hitherto. Earlier heroes had established their heroic ethos by killing Amazons or subjugating them to the proper hierarchy. Columbus' personal ethos arose partly from his desire to carry Christ to the heathen. Cummings argues that Columbus revealed this self-identity through his signature. One of Columbus' favorite signatures was the following:


(Cummings 5; Columbus, Textos 283, 289, 290, 291, etc.)

While the top three lines are "enigmatic" (Cummings 5), the fourth line is a play on Columbus' first name. The first element,'Xpo', is a standard scribal abbreviation of the name 'Christ' based on its Greek form (Christos).(2) 'Ferens' is the present participle of 'fero', a Latin word meaning 'bear' or 'carry'. "Columbus, aware of the legend of the saint who carried Christ across the river, expresses in his signature a high concept of his own significance as the man who bore Christ and his faith across an ocean" (Cummings 5).

Beginning with Columbus' discovery, the conversion of the native inhabitants became an abiding concern to Europeans as they sought to fulfill the injunction to "teach all nations" (Matt. 28:19). When describing the differences between native Americans and Europeans, Columbus wrote of the "lack or deficiency" of the natives (Zamora 159). Native Americans lacked courage, clothes, language, and religion (Zamora 159-161). Columbus had barely made landfall before he had concluded that the inhabitants had no religion.

Y creo que ligeramente se harían cristianos, que me pareçió que ninguna secta tenían. (Columbus, Diario 11 Oct. 1492)

And I believe they would become Christians without much resistance because it appeared to me that they did not have any religion.

Although some Spaniards advocated the destruction of the native Americans because they were too inferior spiritually to become Christian, official church and state policy (sometimes honored in the breach) was that native Americans could become Christian and that they should be converted by love, not force (Taufer 39). Although the Spanish placed all non-Christians in the general category of pagan, there was some diversity within that category (Taufer 44). Moors and Spanish Jews were seen as internal threats to Spanish unity and stability (Taufer 43). The Ottoman Empire was an external threat; it had advanced into the Balkans, moved to the Danube, pushed into Greece, and even taken Constantinople in 1453, an event still fresh in Europeans' minds (Hussey 79-84). As remote pagans, native Americans did not pose a direct threat. Furthermore, native Americans had not yet rejected Christianity as had the Jews, Moors, and Ottomans and therefore had a stronger claim to tolerance. Hopefully reason and persuasion would lead the native Americans to Christ (Taufer 43-44).

In addition to his desire to spread his beliefs, Columbus journeyed in search of wealth and glory.

By his fourth voyage, fortune had turned against him. He wrote rather bitterly to Ferdinand and Isabella that just when he was about to discover gold, he and his brothers were clapped into irons & thrown in the brig of a ship. "Seven years I was at your royal court, where all to whom this undertaking was mentioned, unanimously declared it to be a delusion. Now all, down to the very tailors, seek permission to make discoveries." He wishes to have his honor restored and to be freed to continue his search for gold.

1. Because of the number of versions of Columbus' Log, I refer to the entry dates rather than to the page number of a particular edition.

2.The system of abbreviations of sacred names and words is known as nomina sacra. It was developed by early Christian scribes in part as a way of conserving paper. (Metzger 13-14). Even today it has not completely died out, despite the efforts of those who bemoan the use of 'Xmas' as a nomen sacrilegum.