Christopher Columbus: Man or Myth

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Above: Which of these pictures do you think looks most like Columbus?

Christopher Columbus: Man or Myth

By The Library of Congress


After five centuries, Christopher Columbus remains a mysterious and controversial figure who has been variously described as one of the greatest mariners in history, a visionary genius, a mystic, a national hero, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist.

Columbus' enterprise to find a westward route to Asia grew out of the practical experience of a long and varied maritime career, as well as out of his considerable reading in geographical and theological literature. He settled for a time in Portugal, where he tried unsuccessfully to enlist support for his project, before moving to Spain. After many difficulties, through a combination of good luck and persuasiveness, he gained the support of the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando of Spain.

The widely published report of his voyage of 1492 made Columbus famous throughout Europe and secured for him the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and further royal [money]. Columbus, who never abandoned the belief that he had reached Asia, led three more expeditions to the Caribbean. But intrigue and his own administrative failings brought disappointment and political obscurity to his final years.
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Above: (Left) European painting of Columbus being given gifts by the natives. This shows how the Europeans viewed the natives. (Right) A map of Columbus’ first voyage (which was one of four to the “New World”).

Christopher Columbus

By Calista McCabe Courtenay (1917 Elementary School Textbook)
With all that we know of the seas to-day and with our big ships and splendid furnishings, we cannot imagine what a sacrifice it was for those men to follow Columbus into the wilderness of waters…. Columbus was so sure he would find Asia somewhere westward… So he set forth, happy and hopeful…

Many days went by and no land was seen. Then they were cheered by little birds that came singing in the morning and fluttered about the ships till evening. Still no land was sighted. Columbus felt sure he must be near islands, but he did not want to leave his course to find them… But the Admiral kept sailing steadily westward.

Three weeks after leaving the Canary Islands, Martin Pinzon shouted from the Pinta, “Land! Land!” Off to the southwest, land seemed to be against the sky. Columbus fell upon his knees and the men thanked God in prayer… Can you fancy how Columbus felt on his little ship? …

The dawn spread slowly [the next day] over sky and sea, and a low island appeared, fresh and green with trees. Unclothed people were running in crowds to the beach. They seemed full of wonder at the strange sight… The naked savages had never before seen such splendor and thought gods had come down from the sky to visit them.

The day when Columbus first stood upon this land of the western world was Friday, October 12, 1492. Remember this date. It is one of the golden days of history! … The people of the world cannot measure what they owe to Columbus. Had he been discourages by the ignorance and indifference, disappointments and hardships, jealousies and jeers, which so long delayed him; had he been faint-hearted when his men mutinied, the great prize would have escaped his grasp.

Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress [Excerpt]

From: People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

"They... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.
Columbus wrote:

"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?
The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage "as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask." He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities."
Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. …
Questions on Reading 1-1:
1. How can there be such different accounts of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas?

2. Whose account of Columbus do you agree with more, Calista McCabe Courtenay or Howard Zinn? Explain why.




The Explorers: Heroes or Criminals?

Directions: Using your reading from your packet you are to create hero plaques and wanted poster for your explorer, Columbus. With your reading and notes you will need to do the following

  • Write three one sentence explanations for why your explorer should be praised (to be put on the back)

  • Write three one sentence explanations for why he should be condemned (to be put on the back)

  • Use bold and detailed visuals to represent each explanation of why he should be praised or condemned. These can be incorporated into the pictures of your explorer or placed in separate parts of the plaque or poster.

Your paragraphs should be structured in the following format:





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