Period: Christopher Columbus Score___/
If a schoolchild graduates with only one date committed to memory, it is likely to be 1492, the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” A really good student may even be able to reel off the names of his three ships. But common knowledge—and agreement—stops there. In recent years the Columbus story has darkened, with the once-heroic explorer turned into a conqueror guilty of rape and genocide. But Columbus’s accomplishments have always been remembered differently by every generation in the land he found, even as his life—apart from that fateful moment 515 years ago today when he stepped ashore in the New World—remains clouded in mystery. Who is Columbus today?
The recorded history of his life is full of holes. The fact of the matter is there is a great deal about Columbus we simply do not know. Due to this, Americans have filled in the blanks with what ever best suited their times. Much of what is known about him comes from unreliable sources. He kept a log of his first voyage west, but it has since been lost; all that remains is a summary by the Spanish priest Bartolommeo de las Casas, who had little knowledge of navigation and garbled many passages in the log. Columbus’s son Ferdinand helped revive his reputation with a biography in the 1530s, but Ferdinand was only 17 when his father died, and he waited years to publish the book. Columbus himself shares blame, as he himself told exaggerated and frankly untrue accounts of his life. No one can say for sure even where and when he was born (he avoided admitting his age), although most evidence points to Genoa and the summer or fall of 1451.
As a young man, Columbus was passionately interested in sailing and exploration. As he matured and advanced in his education Columbus developed a theory that he hoped would bring him enormous wealth. Columbus theorized that because the world was round, one could sail westward and eventually reach China and the rest of eastern Asia. Why the focus on China? China and eastern Asia was home to many valuable spices which could be brought back to Europe and sold. A successful spice trader could make a fortune. While Columbus possessed the knowledge and determination, there was one essential item he did not have…money. When the ruling families of the powerful Italian city states would not finance his expedition, Columbus turned to Queen Isabella of Spain.
After recruiting 90 crewmen in Andalusia and outfitting three small ships, he set off from the Canary Islands in September. Using a compass, the stars, and strong confidence in his abilities, he steered through largely calm waters. Most of the voyage was uneventful, but as the ships passed the point where he expected to find land, the crew grew restless. On October 6, after 30 days at sea, the crew of the Santa Maria demanded to return to Spain. Columbus met with the captains of the other ships, and they agreed to press on, but by October 10, even they despaired of ever reaching their destination. Dried food was spoiling after weeks in the moist air, and the water, stored in wooden barrels, was good for little over a month. Columbus promised that if they had not found land in two more days, they could turn around. At 2 a.m. on October 12, a crewman on the Pinta spotted a white beach in the distance. Hours later, after 36 days at sea, Columbus set ashore on San Salvador Island in the Caribbean Sea.
America tends to remember Columbus only at sea, but he spent two and a half months in the Caribbean islands in the fall and winter of 1492. When he and his men arrived on the island members of the peaceful Taino tribe greeted them. Columbus convinced he had found Asia, called them “Indians” and described them as “gentle” and having “generosity of heart.” He added, “They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion.
When he set sail for Spain January 1493 he brought six Tainos. Together they reached Spain in April, bringing pineapples, tobacco, turkeys, and hammocks. The king and queen welcomed Columbus as a hero and made him an admiral, while the Tainos were received ceremoniously, clothed, baptized, and given Christian names.
Columbus’s second trip to America may not be immortalized in children’s verse, but it was far grander than his first, and more controversial. He sailed in style this time, arriving in the Caribbean, with 17 ships and 1,300 Spanish military men, farmers, craftsmen, and priests, in early November 1493. The priests’ goal was to convert the natives to Christianity, but Columbus’s goal was to find GOLD. It is what happened next that has led many to believe Columbus was not a hero, but rather one of history’s villains. He ordered every native older than 14 a quota (specific amount) of gold to find per day. Those who failed had their hands cut off; those who resisted were killed. Many fled and were hunted down or starved. The Spanish hadn’t brought any women, and rape was common, as were forced marriages. But disease was the most devastating thing for the native population. With no resistance to European diseases, the Taino population was devastated by illnesses such as smallpox and typhoid fever. By the 1500s, their numbers had dropped from as many as 400,000 to a few hundred.
After exploring hundreds of islands but failing to find much gold, Columbus returned to Spain in 1496. He kidnapped some 500 natives to serve as slaves in Europe, and half of them died on the voyage to Spain. Columbus would make two more journeys to the New World in 1498 and 1501, but he never found the gold he was searching for, not did find a western route to China. At the time of his death, Columbus was considered a failure by most. It would take later generations to restore his reputation.
In the decades after his death, his son wrote a biography to restore his name. This set in motion the seesaw Columbus’s reputation would ride for the next five hundred years, particularly in America.
During the Revolutionary War, when anti British feeling was running strong, the colonists gave Columbus sole credit for discovering America rather than John Cabot, who had been financed by England.
In the early 1900’s when prejudice against Italian immigrants was at its peak, Columbus’s image as a hero was diminished, and other explorers were given more credit for discovering America.
By the 1950’s and 60’s prejudice against Italians has calmed, and once again Columbus was back on top. This feel-good view of Columbus would peak in 1971 when Columbus Day was declared a National Holiday.
Starting in the late 1980’s the tide turned once again against Columbus. Today Columbus’s treatment of the Natives has come under fire. Many people today accuse Columbus of committing genocide and other acts of cruelty against the native populations of the islands he discovered. His reputation as a great explorer has also come under fire:
Arguments rage today about whether he even “discovered” America, since not only did people already live here, but Europeans—evidence particularly supports the Vikings—had been here before. But it is inarguable that he was the first to record his findings and make possible ongoing follow-up trips, and so his voyages, unlike those of earlier explorers, made it possible for others to explore the New World. In so doing, he opened the door to European settlement of the Americas.
Is Columbus a hero or villain? It is likely that this question will be debated for many years. Perhaps though, we are asking the wrong question. Could it be that Columbus is neither hero nor villain, but simply a man, who like many others in history are capable of greatness and evil.
Identify two things that Columbus has been accused of in recent years
Explain, specifically why there is a lack of reliable information concerning Columbus ?
Explain why Columbus was so interested in finding a route to China
Why was Columbus forced to turn to Queen Isabella of Spain?
Why did Columbus’s reputation receive a boost during the American Revolution? _
Why was Columbus’s image as hero diminished in the early 1900’s?
How do you feel about Christopher Columbus?