Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Another Columbus Day has come and gone. Although it was “celebrated” with the usual denunciations and outraged wokeism concerning the Italian explorer’s alleged “genocide” against the natives, one influential voice came to Columbus’s defense: on October 11, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a proclamation, an excerpt of which follows:
“Columbus stands a singular figure in Western Civilization, who exemplified courage, risk-taking, and heroism in the face of enormous odds; as a visionary who saw the possibilities of exploration beyond Europe; and as a founding father who laid the foundation for what would one day become the United States of America, which would commemorate Columbus by naming its federal district after him.”
While all this is true, Columbus stands for and is a reminder of something else that is now little known if not completely forgotten: he was, first and foremost, a crusader—an avowed enemy of the jihad; his expeditions were, first and foremost, about circumventing and ultimately retaliating against the Islamic sultanates surrounding and terrorizing Europe—not just finding spices.
When he was born, the then more than 800-year-old war with Islam—or rather defense against jihad—was at an all-time high. In 1453, when Columbus was 2-years-old, the Turks finally sacked Constantinople, an atrocity-laden event that rocked Christendom to its core.
Over the following years, the Muslims continued making inroads deep into the Balkans, leaving much death and destruction in their wake, with millions of Slavs enslaved. (Yes, the two words are etymologically connected, and for this very reason.)
In 1480, when he was 29, the Turks even managed to invade Columbus’s native Italy, where, in the city of Otranto, they ritually beheaded 800 Christians—and sawed their archbishop in half—for refusing to embrace Islam.
It was in this context that Spain’s monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella—themselves avowed crusaders, especially the queen, who concluded the centuries-long Reconquista of Spain by liberating Granada of Islam in 1492—took Columbus into their service.
They funded his ambitious voyage in an effort to launch, in the words of historian Louis Bertrand, “a final and definite Crusade against Islam by way of the Indies.” (It, of course, went awry and culminated in the incidental founding of the New World.)
Many Europeans were convinced that if only they could reach the peoples east of Islam—who if not Christian were at least “not as yet infected by the Mahometan plague,” to quote Pope Nicholas V (d.1455)—together they could crush Islam between them. (The plan was centuries old and connected to the legend of Prester John, a supposedly great Christian monarch reigning in the East who would one day march westward and avenge Christendom by destroying Islam.)
All this comes out clearly in Columbus’s own letters: in one he refers to Ferdinand and Isabella as “enemies of the wretched sect of Mohammet” who are “resolve[d] to send me to the regions of the Indies, to see [how the people thereof can help in the war effort].” In another written to the monarchs after he reached the New World, Columbus offers to raise an army “for the war and conquest of Jerusalem.”
Nor were Spain and Columbus the first to implement this strategy; once Portugal was cleared of Islam in 1249, its military orders launched into Muslim Africa. “The great and overriding motivation behind [Prince] Henry the Navigator’s [b. 1394] explosive energy and expansive intellect,” writes historian George Grant, “was the simple desire to take the cross—to carry the crusading sword over to Africa and thus to open a new chapter in Christendom’s holy war against Islam.” He launched all those discovery voyages because “he sought to know if there were in those parts any Christian princes,” who “would aid him against the enemies of the faith,” wrote a contemporary.
Does all this make Columbus and by extension Ferdinand and Isabella—not to mention the whole of Christendom—“Islamophobes,” as those few modern critics who mention the Islamic backdrop of Columbus’s voyage often accuse?
The answer is yes—but not in the way that word is used today. While the Greek word phobos has always meant “fear,” its usage today implies “irrational fear.” However, considering that for nearly a thousand years before Columbus, Islam had repeatedly attacked Christendom to the point of swallowing up three-quarters of its original territory, including for centuries Spain; that Islam’s latest iteration, in the guise of the Ottoman Turks, was during Columbus’s era devastating the Balkans and Mediterranean; and that, even centuries after Columbus, Islam was still terrorizing the West—marching onto Vienna with 200,000 jihadis in 1683 and provoking America into its first war as a nation—the very suggestion that historic Christian fears of Islam were “irrational” is itself the height of irrationalism.
Note: The above account on Columbus was excerpted from and is documented in the author’s book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.