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 consensus—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 obscurity. Who is Columbus today?
The recorded history of his life is a tissue of conjecture and foggy reminiscence, and centuries of Americans have filled in the blanks as 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 Bartolome de las Casas, who had little nautical knowledge and garbled many passages. Columbus’s son Ferdinand helped revive his flagging reputation with a biography in the 1530s, but Ferdinand was only 17 when his father died, and he waited years to record his memories. Columbus himself shares blame, as he himself spun contradictory 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.
Genoa at that time was a small but bustling port, and Columbus likely first went to sea at a young age on a trip for his father’s textile business. By his early twenties he had crisscrossed the Mediterranean for a variety of local merchants. Hemmed by a Muslim blockade of the Middle East, he moved to Portugal in the 1470s. There, as a merchant mariner, he mastered navigation, and he traveled to Madeira, Africa’s gold coast, England, and even Iceland.
But a veritable gold mine hovered just out of reach of a trader even as well traveled as Columbus: the lucrative spices of India and China. He had read the works of Marco Polo, who claimed to have journeyed over land though Persia and India to China in the 1200s. Given the Muslim blockade, however, European merchants needed a route that avoided the Middle East. No one yet had sailed south around Africa, but Columbus had an even better idea. Influenced by Ptolemy and the Florentine cartographer Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, he proposed to sail west to reach the east. Most educated people of Columbus’s time did know that the earth was round; what was in dispute was its size and whether or not a seafarer could circumnavigate it without starving or dying of thirst. Columbus believed he could. The king of Portugal rejected his proposal, so he brought it to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. They finally backed him in 1492.
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 an uncanny sense of dead reckoning, 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 sailed ashore in the Bahamas.
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 disembarked—where, exactly, is another matter in dispute—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. Our Lord pleasing, at the time of my departure I will take six of them from here to Your Highnesses in order that they may learn to speak.” Indeed, when he set sail for home in January 1493 he brought six Tainos. Together they reached Spain in April, bearing 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 indelible. His crew ostensibly aimed to convert the natives, but Columbus’s description of “incredible amounts” of gold and spices no doubt provided the real drive. This is the voyage for which he is vilified today. By most accounts a rigid, paranoid man with a messianic sense of destiny about reaching Asia, he as his first act made his crew swear that they’d landed in China. Later he gave each native older than 14 a quota 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 ailments, the Taino succumbed to smallpox and typhoid in droves. 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 the Old World, and half of them died en route. He crossed the Atlantic again in 1498, to act as colonial governor, but administrative weakness and ineptitude subsequently got him arrested in Hispaniola by an envoy of the crown, who escorted him back to Europe in shackles. Still, after acquittal in court, he persuaded the king and queen to allow him one last voyage. Supervised by a comptroller, he dropped anchor in Panama in October 1502. He returned home with four rotting ships in November 1504 and died a year and a half later, convinced to his last breath that he had explored Asia.
In the decades after his death, his son wrote a laudatory biography to restore his name, still sullied by the arrest, to glory. This set in motion the seesaw Columbus’s reputation would ride for the next five centuries, particularly in America. The recent shift in his stature is nothing new; he has been constantly reinvented since the birth of the United States to mirror our evolving national identity. During the anti-British years after the Revolution and War of 1812, he replaced the Englishman John Smith as the country’s premier explorer. During the age of Manifest Destiny, he morphed into the original expansionist, his sins justifying the government’s conquest of Native Americans. By the Gilded Age he was a pioneering trader, and as the United States amassed its first colonies it looked to him as the first American empire builder. Italian and Spanish immigrants deemed him their patron saint.
With his growth in popularity as a national symbol, towns began celebrating Columbus Day in the mid-1860s, and it became a national holiday in 1971. However, his modern detractors wonder how anyone can forget his misdeeds and enjoy a holiday in his name, but in fact Americans have always ignored the parts of the Columbus story they didn’t like. 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, acquainted the people of Europe with the existence of the New World. In so doing, he opened the door to European settlement of the Americas—and all the devastation, innovation, and reinvention that came with it.
By Jane Runyon
When historians write of the Aztec civilization, they are actually referring to a merging of several tribes of natives. The largest tribe was called Mexicas (Muh-hee-kas). It is thought that this tribe originated in the northern part of what is now Mexico. The people in the Mexica group spoke a common language. This language was called Nahuatl (NAH-wah-tuhl). Over the years, people began to refer to all the peoples as Aztec. Many words from the Aztec language have survived into modern times. Mexico, avocado, and chocolate are words that had their beginnings in Aztec.
The combined Mexicas tribes came to Mexico in the 1100s. Their capital became known as Tenochtitlan. A series of bridges and causeways were built to connect the islands in the swamp. The city could be defended from enemies by taking up the bridges. Access to the city was treacherous without the bridges. The merged tribes lived together in the city. They elected a leader. This leader was not the all-powerful leader seen in Europe at that time. The leader of the Aztec people was selected by a group of elders. Leaders did not inherit the title when their fathers died. The leader had to discuss all decisions with the elders and the priests. This changed somewhat in the 1500s when Montezuma II became the leader. He did away with the council of elders. He didn't take complete control, however. He still consulted with some of the elders before he made big decisions.
It was Montezuma II who was leading the Aztecs when Hernan Cortez landed on the southeastern shore of Mexico in 1519. The city of Tenochtitlan was several hundred miles away. Cortez had heard about cities of gold. He was determined to become a rich man by conquering these cities of gold. When he landed on the shore of Mexico, he heard about the city to the west and decided that it would be his target. To be on the safe side, Cortez made friends with small tribes he met along the way. He knew that these tribes were the enemy of the Aztecs. He decided that he needed all the help he could get. Cortez heard about more than the gold in Tenochtitlan. He heard about the human sacrifices. He heard that enemies were captured in battle instead of being killed. They were brought back to the capital city. There they were either turned into slaves or killed to satisfy the hunger of the Aztec gods. One story was told of 84,000 sacrifices being made in a four day period to appease the gods.
Cortez showed up at the Aztec capital and was surprised to be welcomed as a guest. What he didn't know was that a priest had had another dream. In this dream, one of their gods had come to the city disguised as a bird. When Cortez and his men showed up in full armor with large feathers on their helmets, the Aztecs decided that they must be the gods that the priest had seen.
By June 1520, the Spanish had overstayed their welcome. Fights broke out among the Spanish soldiers and the citizens. The Spanish massacred many citizens including Montezuma II. They fled the city for their own safety. The Spanish returned the next spring and cut off all means of access to the city. This is called a siege. There was no way for the people of the city to get supplies. They had to depend on what supplies they had. They were able to hold out until August of 1521. At that time, the Spanish entered the city and completely destroyed it. It is estimated that over 15 million people lived in or near Tenochtitlan before the Spanish arrived. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, the Spanish brought with them a weapon more deadly than guns. The Spanish introduced smallpox to the natives. These natives had never been exposed to a disease like this and had no immunity against it. During the siege of the Spanish in 1520 and 1521, an epidemic of smallpox hit the capital city. It has been estimated that up to half of the citizens died from small pox during this time. This disease has often been given as a major reason for the conquest of the Spanish over the Aztec people. By 1581, it is estimated that only 2 million Aztecs had survived.
By Jane Runyon Far to the south of Mexico, the largest empire of the western hemisphere was established. At its height, Inca land covered most of the western edge of what is now South America. This empire began somewhere around 1200 A.D.
About 1438, the Incas decided to organize their kingdom. The land they had acquired through war and through peaceful negotiation was divided into four sections, the northwest, southwest, northeast, and southeast. At the corner where each of these sections met was the city of Cuzco. If the Incas found a territory that they wished to add to their kingdom, the leader sent messages to the leader of the territory. He offered them luxury goods and protection if they joined the Incas. The weaker territories couldn't pass up this opportunity. The children of the territory's leader were sent to Cuzco. Here they were trained in ways to govern the territory and to be good rulers. They then went back to their homes and did the bidding of the Inca leaders.
The leader of the Incas was called the Inca. The Inca usually remained in the same family. It was tradition that the son of the Inca would be the leader of the empire's military forces. One such son was able to take territories in what is now Peru and Bolivia. He also took parts of Chile, Argentina, and Columbia. Territories conquered by the Inca were required to pay taxes to the ruler. Since there was no official money system, the taxes could be paid with goods or even by working for the empire. It was understood that each family under Incan rule would provide one member of the family to work in the silver and gold mines. When this person died, another would be sent to take his place. It has been told that the tax collectors even took lice from the heads of people too old to work or unable to work. This was a sign that everyone was responsible for tribute of some kind.
A Spanish conquistador named Francisco Pizarro landed in Panama in the early 1520's. By 1526, he and his men had reached the Inca territory. They knew right away that this was a very wealthy kingdom. It didn't take Pizarro long to decide that this was a territory that Spain needed. It also didn't hurt to know that conquering this kingdom would make him a very wealthy man. He went back to Spain to tell the king of his findings. The king sent him back in 1532 with orders to make this kingdom a Spanish territory.
Pizarro had only 180 men to the Inca's army of over 80,000. The new leader of the Inca was Atahualpa. He had just become the leader after defeating his own brother in a civil war. Smallpox had killed many of his people. He looked at Pizarro as someone who could help him maintain control of his country. Pizarro and Atahualpa met with a few of their people. A Spanish priest tried to explain Christianity to the Incan leader. Both sides had trouble understanding each other. Pizarro got tired of trying to explain things to the Incan leader and finally took him prisoner.
Atahualpa tried to bargain with the Spaniards. He offered to give them enough gold to fill the room in which he was being kept. He offered twice that much silver also. Pizarro took the gold and silver. He then had Atahualpa executed, saying that he had committed crimes against his own people. Although another Inca was put on the throne, the Spanish were now in control of Cuzco and the Inca Empire. By 1572, all traces of Inca rule had been erased from the vast empire. The Spanish were brutal leaders. They destroyed all of the innovative systems that the Incas had created for farming, trade, and government. The courage of the
Incan people to resist Spanish rule served as an inspiration to generations in future.
Objective 1 Homework Questions: Answer each in a complete sentence.
Why did Columbus sail to the New World?
How did Columbus treat the Taino people that he encountered? Give two specific examples.
How did diseases like smallpox affect the Tainos?
Why were many tribes unhappy with the Aztec rulers?
Why did the Aztecs welcome Cortez into Tenochtitlan?
How did Pizarro defeat the Incas?
Answer in a complete paragraph.
Do you think that explorers and conquerors like Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro are villains, heroes, or something in between? Why? Explain your answer with specific examples and details from the articles.