In the 1400s, Western Europeans rapidly modernized, experienced a social mobility never before imaginable, developed high forms of art, and used technology in new ways. The Renaissance that had started in Italian city-states had spread north, and throughout Europe there was a sense that the world was waiting to be explored, discovered, conquered and civilized by those who were brave and eager enough. The Renaissance was a time where European artists and intellectuals rediscovered the beauty of the ancient Greek and Roman artists and intellectuals. City-states in Italy grew wealthy from trade with the East through the Mediterranean Sea, and countries in Western Europe wanted to be able to go directly to the East by the ocean, without having to go through the Mediterranean Sea and dealing with middle men. In 1492, the Spanish finally succeeded in liberating Spain from the African Muslims who had controlled them for over 700 years! After this 700 year war, Spain was filled with unbound confidence and believed it was a chosen country to explore, Christianize, and conquer the world.
Ocean travel is challenging, but the European mindset, Spanish confidence, new technology, and vision of Christopher Columbus made such a huge journey possible. Christopher Columbus grew up in the Republic of Genoa. His dream as an adult was to sail west from Europe and go straight to Asia, where he could open up new trade routes with China. Nobody, of course, knew that in between Asia and Europe were the Americas. Nearly all sailors knew that the Earth was round, however, no sailor knew how far the journey from Europe to the next continent was, and there was fear of starving on ship if Asia was not reached. The Asian invention of the astrolabe, an instrument that made travelling at night and away from shore possible, helped sailors like Columbus have greater confidence to sail far away.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, fresh from their victory over the Muslims in 1492, agreed to allow Columbus to use Spanish ships and men to go on his quest. Columbus set out in three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. His goals were to find a new trade route to Asia, to find gold and bring it back to Spain, to claim new land for Spain, and to spread Catholic Christianity throughout the world. After approximately 30 days, Columbus found the new land, however, as we know, it was not Asia, it was an island in the Bahamas. Columbus believed he had found India and called the natives “Indians.”
Columbus made four different journeys to the Bahamas, established Spanish forts, was completely unsuccessful in finding any gold, and was arrested by the Spanish for being an incompetent and tyrannical governor of the new lands. Columbus’ men were so intent on finding gold that they mistreated many of the Indians they came into contact with. There are historical accounts of torture and murder by some of Columbus’ men. Columbus was either unable, or unwilling to stop them. The group of Indians Columbus first encountered, the Tainos, were extinct 50 years later. Most Indians who came into contact with the Spanish and other Europeans died from diseases, such as small pox. The natives did not have these diseases, and had no immunity built up against them. The Spanish King and Queen eventually arrested Columbus, had him brought him back in chains, tried him for incompetence and for the cruel treatment some of his men perpetrated against the Indians, and jailed him. In six weeks, the King released him.
Columbus’ legacy in the new world is mixed. He discovered America and opened up new lands for the rest of the world. Before Columbus, Indians in the Americas worshipped many gods, many practiced torture and polygamy, and some practiced cannibalism as a way of life. Europeans who came and eventually settled the Americas brought monotheism, ended polygamy, and brought literacy to the Indians. Eventually, the United States of America was founded, as was all other modern nations of North and South America. Columbus’ discovery of America was the beginning of the founding of these modern nations. Columbus has also been the focus of those who argue that the European conquest of the Americas was an immoral act against the Indians. European disease, such as small pox, is believed to have killed up to 90% of the Indian population. And, the superior strength of Europeans meant that it was easier to destroy the Indian culture.
Before the 1960s, American students and historians focused on the positive elements of Columbus’ discovery of America, and all America celebrated him. In 1971, Columbus Day became a federal holiday. After this, however, certain states began to take away the celebration of Columbus. In California, for example, students do not celebrate Columbus Day, and a public school teacher may hear his colleagues berate Christopher Columbus. In New York, however, Columbus is heralded as a hero, and New York City has a huge Columbus Day Parade that involves over 35,000 people every year. Unfortunately, over time, many American students do not even know anything about Christopher Columbus.
Was Columbus a hero or not? That is a great question to ponder on Columbus Day, which is a federal holiday in the United States of America, celebrated on the second Monday of October. In many states where Columbus Day is not celebrated, students have stopped learning about him altogether.
1. What did Columbus discover?
2. Who was he sailing for?
3. How did Californians celebrate Columbus in the 1970s?
4. Why do some Americans dislike Columbus today?
5. What is your opinion of Columbus? Was he a great man, a villain, neither? Explain your answer.