The majority of school children in the Americas know the name of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish; Cristoforo Colombo in Italian), as well as the names of the three boats – the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria – which sailed across the Atlantic from Europe in search of a new route to Asia.
The old school rhyme “Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in 1492”, sears not just the name of the explorer into memory, but also the year of his great discovery.
The basic story gets retold time and again in countless history books, but what tends to be glossed over is any uncertainty or controversy surrounding Columbus.
Columbus: First American Hero
Often times, Columbus is presented as the first American hero; his divinely inspired voyage romanticized by tales of life-threatening storms, pending mutiny and 11th hour salvation. Of the maiden discovery voyage itself, however – as is the case for much of his early life – little is known. Even the place of his birth is disputed (though it is widely accepted by historians that Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy).
If not for Columbus, the World Would Still be Flat
One of the biggest myths surrounding Columbus is the flat earth theory and his being instrumental in disproving or debunking that the world was flat. The fact is most people – Europeans and Native Americans included – already knew that the world was round and had known so for hundreds of years.
The popularity of the notion that Columbus was instrumental in aiding to enlighten the world as to its roundness can be accredited to Washington Irvin’s best selling 1828 Columbus biography. Anthropologist Jack Weatherford states that there existed measurements of the earth’s diameter and circumference accredited to scientist Erastosthenes dating to the 3rd century B.C.
Old World Exploitation of the New World
Recently, much has been written and opined on regarding Columbus’ exploitation of the native people of the Americas. James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, writes of the impact that Columbus had regarding race relations as well as his influence over the transformation of the New World. Loewen states that Christopher Columbus established “two phenomena… the taking of land, wealth, and labor from the Indigenous people” which lead to ” their near extermination and the transatlantic slave trade which created a social underclass”.
How Columbus viewed the natives of the land he’d “discovered” went from complimentary and positive to hostile and critical. In a journal entry the day following his landing at Guanahani (now San Salvador), October 13, 1492, Columbus writes of the Arawak as being a fast-learning, intelligent people. Columbus was also impressed by their physical appearance referring to them as attractive and well built.
In his later writings, while trying to justify war and enslavement of the natives, Columbus described them as cruel and stupid.
Two Perceptions of Columbus
James Muldoon’s article in Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, expresses the duality behind the way Columbus has been perceived, “people once saw him as initiating the civilizing and Christianizing process in the Americas, but now people condemn him for initiating slavery and genocide.” It is not impossible for both of these portraits of Columbus to be accurate.
Whether viewed in a positive or negative light, Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic not only expanded the empire of Spain and opened trade routes, but it also divided time into pre and post Columbian eras. It is not a matter of political correctness to know and comprehend the conquering European’s treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. It is simply a matter of fact.
- “Christopher Columbus”. Funk & Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia. 2002
- Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Touchtone. New York. 2007
- Muldoon, James. “Christopher Columbus”. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. 2005. Vol. 2 p390
- Tunnell, Michael O. “Books in the Classroom: Columbus and Historical Perspective”. Horn Book Magazine. Mar92, Vol. 68 Issue 2, p244-247, 4p
- Weatherford, Jack. “Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus”. Baltimore Evening Sun.