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The Truth About Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

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The Truth About Christopher Columbus

The Monument to Christopher Columbus, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Christopher Minster

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 further 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. He is vilified by indigenous rights groups, yet was once seriously considered for sainthood. What’s the real scoop?

Columbus was neither a monster nor a saint. He had some admirable qualities and some very negative ones. He was not a bad or evil man, simply a skilled sailor and navigator who was also an opportunist and a product of his time.

On the positive side, Columbus was a very 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. He took slaves from those tribes that fought him and his men: he seems to have dealt relatively fairly with those tribes that he befriended, such as that of Chief Guacanagari.

But there are many stains on his legacy as well. Ironically, the Columbus-bashers blame him for some things that were not under his control and ignore some of his most glaring actual defects. He and his crew brought awful diseases, such as smallpox, to which the men and women of the New World had no defenses, and millions died. This is undeniable, but it was also unintentional and would have happened eventually anyway. His discovery opened the doors to the conquistadors who looted the mighty Aztec and Inca Empires and slaughtered natives by the thousands, but this, too, would likely have happened when someone else inevitably discovered the New World.

If one must hate Columbus, it is far more reasonable to do so for other reasons. He was a slave trader who heartlessly took men and women away from their families in order to lessen his failure to find a new trade route. His contemporaries despised him. As governor of Santo Domingo on 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 on Jamaica for a year when his ships rotted: no one wanted to travel there from Hispaniola to save him. He was also a cheapskate: after promising a reward to whomever 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.

Previously, elevation of Columbus to a hero caused people to name cities (and a country, Colombia) after him and many places still celebrate Columbus Day, but nowadays people tend to see Columbus for what he really was: a brave, but very flawed, human being.

Sources:

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.

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