Columbus in the New World: Was the Discoverer of America a Hero or a Villain

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Christopher Columbus landing in America, 1492

Christopher Columbus has been vilified as the man whose discovery of the Americas brought death and destruction to native cultures, beginning the pattern of exploitation.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, American school children learned patriotic songs like “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.” Columbia, identified with Christopher Columbus, was a nickname for the United States and several popular tunes incorporated it. Columbus was seen as a hero, a role model, and worthy of honor. Columbus Day in October was begun as a tribute to the man who, according to one biography written for American children in the 1950s, “added to the map one of the biggest and richest continents of the world.”

Yet by the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, Native Americans, supported by other people of color, protested the honor and demonstrated at Columbus Day parades. What had happened to change the perceptions of Columbus?

Differing Views of the Columbus Voyages

Major anniversaries tend to encourage deeper scrutiny of famous men and women that have been honored for generations. This was true in the case of Columbus. Historians like Howard Zinn portrayed the explorer as a self-serving exploiter who inaugurated decades of hardship and mass death for native populations. Instead of a hero, Columbus became the symbolic scapegoat of the advance guard of European efforts resulting in the destruction of native cultures.

Other historians, like Daniel Boorstin, chose to see Columbus through the lens of accomplishment. Boorstin credits Columbus with three “momentous discoveries.” “Besides finding land that Europeans had not found before, he discovered both the best westward sea passage from Europe to North America and the best eastward passage back.” Others argue that the “discovery” of America was inevitable and had it not been Columbus, it would have been another European.

By 1492, Europeans had already sailed deep into the Atlantic, acquiring island groups like the Azores and the Canary Islands. Portugal had been at the forefront of these efforts, rounding the tip of Africa and establishing trade depots along the western coast of Africa.

The Precedent of Columbus and Native Populations

Historians like Howard Zinn present well documented evidence that Europeans like Columbus could not and did not appreciate indigenous cultures. Conquistadores like Cortes and Pizarro lusted for gold and silver, stopping at nothing to pillage the Aztec and Inca cultures. Even the later arrival of English colonists in North America reflected ambivalence toward native cultures. Puritans had no trouble justifying the obliteration of the neighboring Pequot Indians in the name of religious legitimacy.

Columbus himself took local Arawak Indians back to Spain as slaves, and imposed upon the remaining Indians strict quotas for bringing him gold. Even before the great influx of Africans to the Caribbean plantations, native populations were used as slaves. Spain’s great silver mine at Potosi produced vast quantities of silver because thousands of Indians were forced into bondage.

Why People of Color Protest Columbus

The four voyages of Columbus began a long-term effort to colonize the “New World,” first by Spain and then by England and France. The process involved subjugation of the local Indian populations and the widespread introduction of Africans as plantation slaves. Naturally, descendants of these groups are loathe to afford any honors to the man they consider the architect of subsequent chaos and destruction.

Columbus Day has become subdued as a result. Many Columbus Day parades are more celebratory of his Italian origins, enabling Italian-Americans to honor not necessarily the man himself, but the later role played by Italian immigrants to North America.

Christopher Columbus has become the “lightening rod” for groups seeking a high profile historical figure to cast in the role of villain. Because of this, “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” is politically incorrect in current society. The rehabilitation of Columbus will occur when special interest groups realize that Columbus was a product of his time, his culture, and his religious beliefs.

Sources:

  1. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Random House, 1983)
  2. John R. Hale, Age of Exploration (Time, Inc., 1966)
  3. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (on-line edition) Chapter One
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