The Truth About Christopher Columbus

Was Columbus a Hero or a Villain?

Christopher Columbus in the New World

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On the second Monday of October each year, millions of Americans celebrate Columbus Day, one of just two federal holidays named for specific men. The tale of Christopher Columbus, the legendary Genoese explorer and navigator, ​has been retold and rewritten many times. To some, he was an intrepid explorer, following his instincts to a New World. To others, he was a monster, a trader of enslaved people who unleashed the horrors of the conquest on unsuspecting Indigenous societies. What are the facts about Christopher Columbus?​

The Myth of Christopher Columbus

Schoolchildren are taught that Christopher Columbus wanted to find America, or in some cases that he wanted to prove that the world was round. He convinced Queen Isabella of Spain to finance the journey, and she sold her personal jewelry to do so. He bravely headed west and found the Americas and the Caribbean, making friends with Indigenous peoples along the way. He returned to Spain in glory, having discovered the New World.

What's wrong with this story? Quite a bit, actually.

Myth #1: Columbus Wanted to Prove the World Was Not Flat

The theory that the Earth was flat and that it was possible to sail off its edge was common in the Middle Ages, but it had been discredited by Columbus' time. His first New World journey did help fix one common mistake, however: it proved that the Earth was much larger than people had previously thought.

Columbus, basing his calculations on incorrect assumptions about the size of the Earth, assumed it would be possible to reach the rich markets of eastern Asia by sailing west. Had he succeeded in finding a new trade route, it would have made him a very wealthy man. Instead, he found the Caribbean, then inhabited by cultures with little in the way of gold, silver, or trade goods. Unwilling to completely abandon his calculations, Columbus made a laughingstock of himself back in Europe by claiming that the Earth was not round but shaped like a pear. He had not found Asia, he said, because of the bulging part of the pear.

Myth #2: Columbus Persuaded Queen Isabella to Sell Her Jewels to Finance the Trip

He didn't need to. Isabella and her husband Ferdinand, fresh from the conquest of Moorish kingdoms in the south of Spain, had more than enough money to send someone like Columbus sailing off to the west in three second-rate ships. He had tried to get financing from other kingdoms like England and Portugal with no success. Strung along on vague promises, Columbus hung around the Spanish court for years. In fact, he had just given up and was headed to France to try his luck there when word reached him that the Spanish king and queen had decided to finance his 1492 voyage.

Myth #3: He Made Friends With the Indigenous Peoples He Met

The Europeans, with ships, guns, fancy clothes, and shiny trinkets, made quite an impression on the tribes of the Caribbean, whose technology was far behind that of Europe. Columbus made a good impression when he wanted to. For example, he made friends with a local cacique on the Island of Hispaniola named Guacanagari because he needed to leave some of his men behind.

But Columbus also captured and enslaved other Indigenous peoples. The practice of enslavement was common and legal in Europe at the time, and the trade of enslaved people was very lucrative. Columbus never forgot that his voyage was not one of exploration, but of economics. His financing came from the hope that he would find a lucrative new trade route. He did nothing of the sort: the people he met had little to trade. An opportunist, he captured Indigenous people to show that they would make good enslaved workers. Years later, he would be devastated to learn that Queen Isabella had decided to declare the New World off-limits to enslavers.

Myth #4: He Returned to Spain in Glory, Having Discovered the Americas

Again, this one is half-true. At first, most observers in Spain considered his first voyage a total fiasco. He had not found a new trade route and the most valuable of his three ships, the Santa Maria, had sunk. Later, when people began to realize that the lands he had found were previously unknown, his stature grew and he was able to get funding for a second, much larger voyage of exploration and colonization.

As for discovering the Americas, many people have pointed out over the years that for something to be discovered it must first be “lost,” and the millions of people already living in the New World certainly didn’t need to be “discovered.”

But more than that, Columbus stubbornly stuck to his guns for the rest of his life. He always believed that the lands he found were the easternmost fringe of Asia and that the rich markets of Japan and India were just a little farther away. He even put forth his absurd pear-shaped Earth theory in order to make the facts fit his assumptions. It wasn’t long before everyone around him figured out that the New World was something previously unseen by Europeans, but Columbus himself went to the grave without admitting that they were right.

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

Since his death in 1506, Columbus’ life story has undergone many revisions and been interpreted by historians in a variety of ways. He is vilified by Indigenous rights groups today, and rightly so, yet he was once seriously considered for sainthood.

On the positive side, Columbus was a talented sailor, navigator, and ship captain. He bravely went west without a map, trusting his instincts and calculations. He was very loyal to his patrons, the king and queen of Spain, and they rewarded him by sending him to the New World a total of four times. And yet, while Columbus might have had some admirable qualities as an explorer, most popular accounts of him today fail to highlight the significance of his crimes against Indigenous peoples.

Columbus did not have an abundance of admirers during his time. He and other explorers brought awful diseases, such as smallpox, to which the Indigenous men and women of the New World had no defenses, and their population is estimated to have declined by as much as 90%. Columbus was also a heartless enslaver who took men and women away from their families in order to lessen his failure to find a new trade route. Many of his contemporaries despised these actions. As governor of Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, he was a despot who kept all profits for himself and his brothers and was loathed by the colonists whose lives he controlled. Attempts were made on his life and he was actually sent back to Spain in chains at one point after his third voyage.

During his fourth voyage, he and his men were stranded in Jamaica for a year when his ships rotted. No one wanted to travel there from Hispaniola to save him. He was also dishonest and selfish. After promising a reward to whoever spotted land first on his 1492 voyage, he refused to pay up when sailor Rodrigo de Triana did so, giving the reward to himself instead because he had seen a “glow” the night before.

Those who voice disdain for anti-Columbus historians may feel like the explorer's legacy is shouldering the weight of crimes that not only he committed. It is true that he was not the only person who enslaved or killed Indigenous peoples, and perhaps written histories should more explicitly acknowledge this fact. In this way, Columbus might then be more widely seen as one of several major but problematic explorers who collectively contributed to the decimation of Indigenous civilizations in the New World.

Additional References

  • Carle, Robert. "Remembering Columbus: Blinded by Politics." Academic Questions 32.1 (2019): 105–13. Print.
  • Cook, Noble David. "Sickness, Starvation, and Death in Early Hispaniola." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2002): 349–86. Print.
  • Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
  • Kelsey, Harry. "Finding the Way Home: Spanish Exploration of the Round-Trip Route across the Pacific Ocean." Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific. Ed. Ballantyne, Tony. The Pacific World: Lands, Peoples, and History of the Pacific, 1500–1900. New York: Routledge, 2018. Print.
  • Thomas, Hugh. "Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan." New York: Random House, 2005.
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