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The Truth About Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?


Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The Truth About Christopher Columbus

Millions of people around the world celebrate Columbus Day every October 12. 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 slave trader who unleashed the horrors of the conquest on unsuspecting natives. 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 Isabela of Spain to finance the journey, and she sold her personal jewelry to do so. He bravely headed west and found the Americas and Caribbean, making friends with natives 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 therefore possible to sail off the edge of it was common in the middle ages, but 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 that 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 near the stalk.

Myth #2: Columbus persuaded Queen Isabela to sell her jewels to finance the trip.

He didn't need to. Isabela and her husband Ferdinand, fresh from the conquest of Moorish kingdoms in the south of Spain, had more than enough money to send a crackpot 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 natives he met.

This one is partially true. 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 chieftain on the Island of Hispaniola named Guacanagari because he needed to leave some of his men behind.

But Columbus also captured other natives for use as slaves. The practice of slavery was common and legal in Europe at the time, and the slave trade 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 some natives to show that they would make good slaves. Years later, he would be devastated to learn that Queen Isabela had decided to declare the New World off-limits to slavers.

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