Christopher Columbus’s Legacy: Hero or Villain

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Every year of primary school, on the second Monday in October, we were presented with an idealistic, heroic image of the discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. We were told that he was the first to step foot in America and the first to propose the notion that the world is round. When we grow older many of us never stop to question all the claims about Columbus.

It has now been well established, not only that Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first to locate the new world, but also that the idea of a spherical earth predates the famous explorer by hundreds, if not thousands of years. In fact, when we do extensive research on the subject, we find that Christopher Columbus was a cold, calculating conqueror, if not a genocidal invader on par with Hitler. This viewpoint can be proven simply by looking at one of the few primary sources of Columbus’s voyages: his diary.

Columbus’s Diary

Columbus’s distain for life is immediately manifested upon first landing in the Americas. In his October 12 log he conveys his belief that the “people are ingenious, and would be good servants.” The next day on October 13 he writes of his search for riches thusly: “I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold” I gathered from them by signs that round the island would be found a king who possessed large vessels of gold, and in great quantities.

On October 14 Columbus talks of conquering the indigenous population: “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased,” despite noting the previous day that the natives were “inoffensive people.” On the fifteenth, he writes of the attempted escape of one of the captives he had taken from San Salvador three days earlier: “The fugitive rowed for the land too swiftly to be overtaken; having landed, some of my men went ashore in pursuit.”

He also notes that the natives who witnessed the event believed the prisoner committed some offense and was justly jailed: “It appeared to them that we were honest people and that the man who had escaped from us had done us some injury.” Based on this wording we can surmise that even Columbus believed himself to be a dishonest person.

He also writes: “It was in order to favor this notion that I… gave the man the presents above mentioned. .. All I gave him was not worth four maravedis” (presumably a very small sum). After several relatively uneventful days Columbus left the region.

Columbus’s Second Voyage

Shortly after he returned to Spain Columbus was given seventeen ships and over twelve-hundred men for a second voyage to the New World, with slaves and gold being the overt objectives. He arrived in Haiti in 1493 and found the natives sadly lacking in war skills. Now Columbus had hit his stride.

He had a helpless indigenous population and enough people to control them all at once. In 1495 he took sixteen-hundred native slaves and shipped five-hundred back to Spain; nearly half died en route. The remaining eleven-hundred (as well as all other Indians over fourteen) were forced to gather a fixed amount of gold every three months or face having their hands cut off. Unfortunately, the gold just wasn’t there. Many of them fled, only to be hunted down with attack dogs and killed.

The native Arawaks attempted to put together a resistance but were quickly crushed by the technologically superior Europeans. Mass suicides became commonplace among the Indians, as did the killing of infants (in order to save them from having to face the Spaniards). In two years, 125,000 natives were killed. By 1650 no trace of the Arawak tribe was found on the island.

Columbus’s Bottom Line

While Christopher Columbus was unequivocally a pioneering explorer and inspiring figure, we must also learn of his disdain for humanity and his greed. His actions led, directly and indirectly, to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of natives. The sound of Columbus’s anchor dropping off the coast of San Salvador was the first stanza in the requiem of the indigenous population.