So much has changed in 75 years. The sad history of what happened after one half of the planet encountered the other has so overwhelmed Columbus’ story that the holiday I celebrated as a child (“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two”) is almost embarrassing to modern American culture. Many places have even changed its name.
But I hope you’ll indulge this old lady her upbringing and allow her to look at this day from the perspective of the explorer and his crew.
Imagine yourself on a small, fragile, wooden ship—70 feet long, 23 feet wide–sailing a huge, unknown ocean with sails as your only power. You are at the mercy of wind and current, as well as the limited wisdom of your navigator. You get what sleep you can on the open rocking deck, washed by the occasional wave. You have one hot meal a day, if you’re lucky, of skimpy food eaten wherever you can find a place to sit. You strain your eyes and your senses, desperately looking for land but can find none.
Twenty days go by. Thirty. You begin to doubt yourself, the men you sail with, your captain. There may be no land ahead. You could sail forever. Starve to death. Die of thirst.
It was a test of faith and endurance. They very nearly failed it.
On October 10, Columbus wrote in his log, “they could stand it no longer. I reproached them for their lack of spirit.”
“…an all-out mutiny threatened. … Apparently, a bargain was struck whereby the men agreed to sail on for three more days, and Columbus agreed to turn back if no land was sighted in that time.” (“Columbus and the Age of Discovery”, Zvi Dor-Ner.)
On the very next day, the crew saw reeds and a carved stick float by. That night, Columbus saw a light “like a little wax candle, bobbling up and down” to the west. Later, a sailor on the Pinta thought he saw land in the moonlight. They tacked back and forth, waiting for daylight. Was it land at last or their too-eager imaginations? After all, they’d had other sightings…which turned out false.
At dawn on October 12th, after 33 days and nights at sea, they finally saw what they longed for—an island they christened San Salvador. A whole world, a culture as ignorant of them as they were of it, awaited. And the world was changed forever.
The goal they sought was a mere two days ahead …and they almost missed it.
In this strangest of strange years, it feels as if we, too, have been on a long sail across uncharted waters. Storm after storm rocks our fragile craft; we’ve lost all our landmarks. We don’t know where land is or even what it will look like when we get there. We’re worn and weary, not sure we trust our Navigator. The temptation, as it was for them, is to give up.
But the relief, the answers, the end we so desperately seek could be as close for us as it was for those old Spanish sailors.
If we but dig deep and endure.