Christopher Columbus, Hero and Villain

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Christopher Columbus, Hero and Villain

Modified from an article by Christine Gibson, former editor at American Heritage magazine

Columbus’s arrival in the New World,

a moment of some pomp and ceremony as imagined by a chromolithographer about a century ago. (Library

of Congress)

If a student graduates with only one date memorized, it is likely 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, even as his life remains clouded in obscurity. Who is Columbus today?

The history of his life is guesswork and is from unreliable sources. Centuries of Americans have filled in the blanks according to their preferences. He kept a log of his first voyage west, but it is lost; all that remains is a summary by a Spanish priest, who had little sailing knowledge and distorted many passages. Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, helped recover his dad’s weakening reputation by writing a biography about him in the 1530s. But, Ferdinand was only 17 when his father died, and he waited years to record his memories. Columbus himself shares blame: he shared contradictory and untrue stories. No one can say for sure where and when he was born. He avoided admitting his age. However, according to some evidence, many believed he was born in Genoa in 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. He then moved to Portugal in the 1470s. There, as a sailor involved in trading goods, he mastered navigation, and he traveled to Madeira, Africa’s gold coast, England, and Iceland.

But the profitable spices of India and China seemed just out of reach, even for someone as well traveled as Columbus. He had read the works of Marco Polo, who claimed to have traveled through Persia and India to China in the 1200s. But Muslims blockaded the territory to get to there. So Europeans needed a route that avoided the Middle East. Columbus had an idea - he proposed to sail west to reach the east. Most educated people of Columbus’s time knew the earth was round. But they didn’t know its size and whether or not a sailor could circle it without starving or dying of thirst. Columbus believed he could.

Using estimates, Columbus calculated the earth’s circumference to be 19,000 miles, almost 6,000 miles too small. He was also off in his location estimations of Asia and Japan. He expected to reach Japan 2,700 miles west of the Canaries, 10,000 miles short. 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 and equipping three ships, he set from the Canary Islands in September. Using a compass, stars, and estimations, he uneventfully steered through mostly calm waters. But when the ships passed the point where they had expected to find land, the crew got restless. On October 6, after 30 days at sea, the Santa Maria boat crew demanded to return to Spain. Columbus met with the captains of the other two ships, who agreed to keep going. By October 10, those captains felt restless too. Food was spoiling, and the water was good just over a month. Columbus agreed to turn around if land was not found in two days. On October 12, a crewman on the Pinta spotted a white beach in the distance. Hours later, Columbus sailed ashore in the Bahamas.

America remembers Columbus at sea, but he spent months in the Caribbean in the fall and winter of 1492. When he and his men disembarked, members of the peaceful Taino tribe greeted them. Columbus, convinced he 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.”

In January 1493, Columbus brought six Tainos home with him. They got to Spain in April, with turkeys, pineapples, tobacco, and hammocks. The king and queen welcomed Columbus as a hero and made him an admiral. The Tainos were received ceremoniously, clothed, baptized, and given Christian names.

Columbus’s second trip to America was grander and more unforgettable than his first, and is the voyage that he is criticized for today. He sailed in style, arriving in the Caribbean with 17 ships and 1,300 Spanish military men, farmers, craftsmen, and clergy, in November 1493. They aimed to convert natives, but Columbus’s description of “incredible amounts” of gold and spices provided the real drive. Many accounts describe Columbus as a rigid, paranoid man who felt it was his destiny to reach Asia. He even made his crew swear that they’d landed in China, which was not true. He gave each native (Tainos) 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, so rape and forced marriages were common. But disease was the most devastating thing for the natives. With no resistance to European diseases, the Taino succumbed to smallpox and typhoid. 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, and half died en route. He crossed the Atlantic again in 1498, to act as colonial governor, but management weaknesses and ineptitude got him arrested in Hispaniola; they escorted him back to Europe in shackles. After acquittal in court, he persuaded the king and queen to allow him one last voyage. Supervised this time, he dropped anchor in Panama in October 1502. He suspected he found an isthmus, but jungle and limited supplies and crew prevented him from discovering the Pacific. He went home with four rotting ships in November 1504 and died a year and a half later, convinced that he explored Asia.

After his death, his son wrote a biography to restore his name. This set up the seesaw Columbus’s reputation would ride for centuries, particularly in America. The shift in his importance is not new; his reputation has been reinvented since the birth of the U.S. to mirror our evolving national identity.

With his growth in popularity as a national symbol, towns began celebrating Columbus Day in the 1860s. It became a national holiday in 1971. But as minorities gained a louder voice in American culture, and as others grew less comfortable with the country’s actions as a superpower, Columbus’s maltreatment of the Taino got more attention. His critics wonder how anyone can forget his misdeeds and enjoy a holiday in his name. But Americans have always ignored the parts of the Columbus story they didn’t like.

Arguments rage today about whether he “discovered” America, since people already lived here, and Europeans (the Vikings) had been here before. But it is inarguable that he was the first to record his findings and make ongoing follow-up trips possible. So his voyages, unlike those of earlier explorers, acquainted Europeans 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.

Part I: In the blanks provided, write down which paragraph from the story the statement summarizes.

  • ____Arguments continue about whether Columbus discovered America, but no one argues that he acquainted Europe with the “New World” and helped caused Europeans to settle in the Americas.

  • ____Because of the way he acted on his travels, Columbus’s reputation was questionable so his son wrote a book about him to restore his father’s name.

  • ____Celebrating Columbus day is questionable, but Americans have always disregarded the parts of Columbus’s story that they did not like.

  • ____Columbus began sailing at a young age and thus had the opportunity to master navigation during the course of his life.

  • ____Columbus brought back some Taino’s as “gifts” to the king and queen of Spain, who welcomed him as a hero and made him an admiral.

  • ____Columbus needed the help of kings and queens to finance his trip, even though he had inaccurate estimations about the size of the world and the locations of the countries in it.

  • ____Columbus spent time on the Caribbean islands and met the peaceful Taino’s, who greeted him with gifts. Columbus felt they needed religion and language.

  • ____Columbus’s second trip to America was more unforgettable because he had a larger crew, more ships, and this is when Columbus began to enslave the Tainos.

  • ____Even though Columbus was a skilled navigator, people of his time had problems finding a short route to India and China so they could trade for spices.

  • ____Most of Columbus’s voyage was uneventful, but his crew drew restless when it seemed as though they would not reach land. They finally spotted land.

  • ____The stories of Christopher Columbus and the way people have judged his character have changed throughout time.

  • ____The stories of Christopher Columbus are sketchy and often unreliable.

  • ____Upon return to Spain in 1496, Columbus faced problems: he kidnapped natives for slaves, did not find much gold, and had his governorship taken away. He convinced the king and queen to let him sail more but returned home in despair and dies soon thereafter.

Question 1: Main Ideas of Passage

***Remember: Main Ideas represent the ENTIRETY of a passage, not merely sections or specific examples.***


The main idea of the passage is: Columbus had characteristics that made him both a hero and a villain.


DIRECTIONS: Provide supporting details from the reading that PROVE that this is the main idea. In other words, if I took you to court and told you to prove to me the main idea of the passage is that Columbus had characteristics that made him a hero and villain, what evidence from the reading could you provide to convince me that you are correct?

Part 2: (A): Find FIVE of the bolded words in this article that you do not know or understand. (B): Fill in the table.

Name of Word

What you THINK it means (does not matter if this is right or wrong)

WHY do you think it means that?

Look up the ACTUAL definition of the word and write it below




Yes No

Yes No

Yes No

Yes No

Yes No

Want extra-credit? Find 5 more words (1 extra point for each word)! Then recreate this table on your own sheet of paper.
Part III: Write a MEL-Con paragraph arguing whether or not Columbus is a hero or villain. Use the graphic organizer below to help you outline before you write your paragraph.

Summarize your main idea below. Restate it in a different way.

Binder Section: Homework Assignments Assignment #7

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