SHOULD CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS BE CELEBRATED?
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) is generally considered to be a great explorer during the Age of Exploration. Specifically, he is credited with being the first European explorer since the Vikings to explore the New World for Europeans. He made four famous voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1504, which have proved to be some of the most important events in all of world history.
Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492 has been celebrated throughout history and across both the Americas and in Spain. For example, in the United States, Columbus Day occurs every year on the second Monday of October, to roughly correspond with Columbus’ arrival on his first voyage. Some argue against celebrating Columbus as a historical figure due to the violence and brutality that resulted from his arrival and actions in the New World.
As such, some people have begun to question whether or not he should be a celebrated figure. Without a doubt, he left a lasting legacy on the world but perhaps not all of his actions led to positive outcomes. Consider the information below in regards to his true nature and decide for yourself if Columbus should still be a celebrated figure today.
POSITIVE ELEMENTS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
When considering whether Columbus should be still celebrated by modern society, it is first important to consider both the positive and negative aspects of his legacy. In terms of positives, Columbus is remembered and celebrated today for the accomplishments he achieved on his famous voyages to the New World.
In total, Christopher Columbus carried out four voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1504. These four voyages are incredibly significant in the history of the world, as they mark the beginning of European exploration in the New World and led to other major events, such as: the Columbian Exchange, and the mass migration of European settlers to the Americas. All four voyages were financed by the Spanish monarchs and caused other powerful European nations such as England, France and Portugal to carry out their own explorations of the New World.
As such, the first important thing to consider as a positive element of Columbus’ legacy is that he was the first European explorer to reach the New World. While some Vikings had arrived in North America some 400 years earlier, Columbus’ arrival in 1492 marked the first recorded visit by Europeans to the area. For instance, Columbus kept a journal of his voyage and upon returning home he spread news of his findings which fundamentally altered the world. In fact, Columbus had written a letter while still aboard the ships on the return trip home, which was later published and spread news of the voyage throughout the rest of Europe. In the letter, he discussed his findings, including wealth and people. As well, he wrote about his belief that he had sailed to the Indian Ocean and that we had arrived near mainland China. The letter was important in helping spread the news of Columbus’ discovery and inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Therefore, Columbus can be credited with beginning the major explorations of the New World by numerous other European explorers.
A second important aspect of Columbus’ legacy was that his second voyage to the New World in 1493 led to the Columbian Exchange. The cargo and people that Columbus brought with him on the second voyage started a ‘grand exchange’ and revolution between the New World and the Old World that would alter the world forever because he had brought with him seeds, plants and livestock that were not originally occurring in the New World. The major exchange between the two worlds centered on the exchange of plants, animals, and diseases. Although the exchange began with Christopher Columbus it continued and developed throughout the remaining years of the Age of Exploration. Ultimately the Columbian Exchange impacted the social and cultural makeup of both sides of the Atlantic and dramatically impacted the people living in these regions. For example, Bartolome de las Casas, who lived from 1484 to July of 1566 and was a 16th-century Spanish historian and friar, wrote about Columbus’ impact on the world. Las Casas commented that Columbus was: “the first to open the gates of that ocean which had been closed for so many thousands of years before... It was he who gave the light by which all others might see how to discover. His discoveries changed the lives of both Europeans and the people of the Americas: new plants and animals crossed the ocean, millions of people migrated, new empires rose and fell, new countries and cultures began.” Therefore, Columbus had a profound impact on the course of history and directly led to many of the aspects of our modern lives.
A third positive aspect of Christopher Columbus was the determination he portrayed. For example, his goal of sailing west to find Asia was not fully supported at the time and many people believed that it was an impossible feat. As such, some people commend Columbus for following his dream and fighting for the opportunity to carry out the voyage. In fact, Columbus approached King John II of Portugal in 1485 in regards to his plans of carrying out a westward voyage to Asia. At the time, European monarchs were the best source of financial support for explorers who wished to carry out voyages as part of the Age of Exploration. As part of his plans, Columbus requested three ships and one year to cross the Atlantic Ocean and return to Europe. Ultimately, John II rejected Columbus on the belief that a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was impossible. Columbus returned in 1488, to again ask for financial support of a voyage from John II. However, the Portuguese king again rejected Columbus’ plan. At the same time that he had been proposing his westerly route idea to John II in Portugal, Columbus was also seeking financial support from other monarchs in both England and Spain. While Henry VII of England rejected him as well, he gained some support from the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Columbus first proposed his idea to them in 1486, but a deal wasn’t reached until January of 1492 when they granted him financial support for his journey. As such, Columbus embarked on his westerly route across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 1492 in search of a shorter and more direct route to Asia.
A fourth positive aspect of Christopher Columbus was his skill as a sailor. For example, for his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Columbus embarked on a trip across waters that were relatively unknown. As such, he needed to use his skill as a sailor to complete the trip. The crossing of the Atlantic took the three ships about five weeks. Columbus’ knowledge of the winds present in the Atlantic Ocean allowed the three ships to use the ‘easterlies’ to sail west from the Canary Islands until the ships reached the Caribbean. Furthermore, Columbus and the crew knew that they were nearing land by the different items they found floating in the water. For instance, Columbus noted the following in his journal on October 11th, 1492: “The crew of the Pinta saw a cane and a log; they also picked up a stick which appeared to have been carved with an iron tool, a piece of cane, a plant which grows on land, and a board. The crew of the Nina saw other signs of land, and a stalk loaded with rose berries. These signs encouraged them, and they all grew cheerful. Sailed this day till sunset, twenty-seven leagues.” As well, all three ships that Columbus took on first voyage (Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria) were medium-sized and were designed for use in and around the Mediterranean Sea. This means that they were not meant for use on the open ocean. Therefore, some people view this as justification for celebrating Columbus as an excellent sailor.
NEGATIVE ELEMENTS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
When considering whether Columbus should be still celebrated by modern society, it is first important to consider both the positive and negative aspects of his legacy. While Columbus is remembered today for his famous voyages to the New World, he is also known as someone who carried out brutal and cruel actions against countless numbers of other people.
Therefore, the first thing to consider as a negative element of Columbus’ legacy is that he exploited and enslaved the indigenous people that he encountered in the New World. More specifically, upon arriving in the Caribbean, Columbus and the crew encountered several different groups of indigenous peoples, including: Lucayan, Taíno, and Arawak. In his journal, Columbus noted that the people he encountered were peaceful and friendly. For instance, Columbus made an entry in his journal on October 12th, 1492 in which he commented: “Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.” This highlights the controversial nature of Christopher Columbus today as while some celebrate him for his accomplishments, many others also condemn him for his treatment of the indigenous peoples that he encountered. For instance, he further commented that “these people are very simple in war-like matters… I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
Furthermore, when he was unable to secure the gold that he hoped on his second voyage, Columbus and the settlers began to capture and enslave the Taino people that lived on the island of Hispaniola. There are reports that at least 1600 Taino were enslaved by either being transported back to Spain or by being forced into slavery on Hispaniola. For instance, approximately 560 slaves were shipped to Spain with many dying along the way. Therefore, today some people argue that Columbus should not be a celebrated figure and argue against honoring him with holidays such as Columbus Day in the United States.
The second main negative of Columbus’ arrival in the New World was that he and the other Europeans in his crew inadvertently spread diseases to the indigenous peoples that led to mass deaths. For example, the Taino people, which Columbus first encountered on the island of Hispaniola, suffered from the spread of European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus. While Columbus did not purposefully spread these diseases to the indigenous peoples, it cannot be ignored that his arrival to the New World caused the mass deaths of many. For instance, some historians have reported that the Taino indigenous population on the island of Hispaniola was depopulated by as much as two-thirds by 1496, just 4 years after the arrival of Columbus to the island on his first voyage. This highlights the impacts of European diseases along with the cruelty and enslavement that Columbus carried out against the indigenous people.
The third negative aspect of Columbus was his mistreatment of his own people. During his third voyage to the New World, the settlers of Hispaniola revolted against Columbus’ rule as Governor and the Spanish Crown was forced to respond. Eventually, Columbus was replaced as Governor in the colonies by Francisco de Bobadilla. Columbus was disgraced amid accusations of his tyrannical and unjust rule. For instance, when Bobadilla arrived at Hispaniola, he heard complaints against Columbus’ rule, including the methods used by Christopher himself and his two brothers (Bartholomew and Diego) which had ruled over Hispaniola in Christopher Columbus’ absence. As part of his report to the Spanish Crown, Bobadilla stated that he heard claims of the use of torture and mutilation to govern. The report included firsthand accounts from both supporters and enemies to Columbus and discussed some of the many different brutal acts that he used. For example, he supposedly ordered to nose and ears to be cut off of a man found guilty of stealing. As well, according to the report, Columbus’s brother Bartholomew ordered a woman to have her tongue cut out when she spoke badly about Columbus. As a result of these accusation, Columbus and his brothers were arrested and returned to Spain as prisoners.
The fourth negative aspect of Columbus was that his ‘discovery’ of the New World was done in error. At the time, Columbus believed the Earth to be much smaller than it actually is and believed that instead of ‘discovering’ a new land mass, he had in fact sailed to Asia. For example, believing he had arrived at the Fareast of Asia, Columbus referred to the people he came across as ‘indios’, which translates to ‘Indian’ in English. In fact, in a report on his first voyage he wrote that he believed he was sailing in the Indian Ocean. “On the thirty-third day after leaving Cadiz I came into the Indian Sea, where I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance.” Columbus’ error persists to this day, as indigenous peoples in the Americas (especially in Canada and the United States) have been referred to as Indians for much of the time since Columbus’ arrival. With that said, the term is generally considered inappropriate today as indigenous peoples in the United States are most commonly referred to as Native Americans, while in Canada they referred to as First Nations. Furthermore, there is strong evidence to show that Vikings actually arrived in the New World some 400 years before Columbus, meaning he was not the first European to explore the region. Therefore, some have argued that Columbus should not be celebrated as his discovery was done in error and others made the discovery much earlier.