For many years, historians treated Columbus as a hero - they emphasized his bravery and his sailing skills and ignored or downplayed any negative information about him. As historians have uncovered more information, it has become clear that Columbus was cruel and barbaric in his treatment of Native Americans; that he was completely wrong about his belief that he had reached Asia and the Indies - and he was motivated by simple greed, not a desire for knowledge or exploration. The lesson of Columbus is the idea that history is a map and like any map, it can emphasize certain features (or facts) while ignoring others. Like a map, history distorts reality. Sometimes this makes things easier to understand but in other situations, it hides the truth.
The story of Christopher Columbus has gone through many revisions over the past few hundred years. Most of our wrong ideas about Columbus come from a very popular biography of Columbus, published in 1828 and written by a bestselling author of the era named Washington Irving. The main myths or misconceptions that Irving made popular are as follows: first, that he bravely maintained the world was round when everyone else thought it was flat. This is simply not true: a Greek philosopher named Eratosthenes proved it by 200 BCE and every educated European of Columbus’ era knew the earth was round. Next, there is the idea that Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Well, obviously, the honor of discovery should go to the Native Americans. But further, we know that Vikings actually settled briefly in North America (in Newfoundland) about 1000 AD. Finally, there is the belief that Columbus was only motivated by a desire for knowledge and exploration. As we will see today, the writings and diaries of Columbus make it very clear his primary motivation was money and profit. The story of the Legend of Columbus illustrates how easily history can be distorted; how the truth can get replaced by lies.
Columbus was Italian (not Spanish or Portuguese). He was born into a middle-class family in Genoa, Italy and became involved in sailing at a young age. He gained much valuable experience sailing merchant ships (caravels) all up and down the west coast of Africa. Columbus was also completely self-educated; he had no formal schooling. But he read a wide variety of books – he was an early example of how knowledge became more widely spread as books became cheaper and easier to get after the invention of the printing press (about the same time as the year of Columbus’ birth).
Regarding his self-education, from the historian Edward Morgan: “Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading and clings to in defiance of what anyone else tries to tell him.”
Things came together for Columbus in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had completed the Reconquista that same year and were desperate to find new sources of revenue. They thought that if Columbus was right, they would be able to tax the profits made by a brand-new, short sea route to China. And if Columbus was wrong, they weren’t going to be out very much money (he just needed three small ships). Columbus’ end of the deal called for him, if successful, to receive the noble title ‘Admiral of the Ocean Seas’; governorship of any newly discovered lands and ten percent of any profits.
It is rumored (but not proven) that Columbus heard stories of America from Viking sailors who still remembered the stories of “Vineland”(the Viking name for what is now Newfoundland in Canada). We do know for sure (because we have his journals) that Columbus dramatically misjudged the size of the Earth – he thought it only half as big as it actually is – and he maintained this incorrect belief until the day he died. Columbus thought he was sailing for China and when he encountered islands in the Caribbean, he assumed those islands must be part of Japan. There is an interesting story about the voyage: Ferdinand and Isabella promised a cash prize to the first sailor to sight land. One of the sailors named Rodrigo was the first to sight land on October 12, 1492 but in his official report, Columbus claimed he had been the one to first spot land, a day before Rodrigo and Columbus claimed the cash prize. This gives you some insight, perhaps, into the true character of Columbus.
The tribe Columbus made first contact with in the Bahamas is known as the Arawak. In other parts of the Caribbean, they are referred to as the Taino. They lived in villages, in large huts that housed multiple families. They lived from fishing and a little hunting and a lot of farming – mainly corn, yams and cassava (which is a root vegetable also known as ‘yucca’ or ‘manioc’). They had clothes and could spin and weave but had no iron or steel or guns or any kind of domesticated animal (except dogs). They did often wear small gold earrings – which had deadly consequences, for it convinced Columbus that gold must be plentiful in those islands. As for the picture on the slide, it depicts a modern-day Dominican woman dressed in a traditional Native costume. While the Arawaks and Tainos were utterly destroyed by European contact, their genes still survive in the current natives of the Caribbean.
The Arawak welcomed Columbus and his men and gave them gifts and food. Columbus saw no evidence of great wealth amongst the Natives he encountered in the Bahamas. The Arawak had plenty of food and good shelter but there was no evidence of spices. As for gold, the Natives had small gold earrings – and this led Columbus to believe there must be a source for the gold somewhere nearby. He kidnapped some Natives and tried to force the information out of them. It is important to emphasize the difference in responses: the Arawak welcomed the Europeans peacefully and with hospitality. The Europeans responded by kidnapping some Natives by force.
This is “The Landing of Columbus” by an American artist, John Vanderlyn. It was painted in the 1840’s and is on display in the rotunda of the United States Capitol building. What assumptions can you make about the Europeans, based on this painting? What assumptions can you make about the natives? How are the natives reacting to the Europeans? How do the Europeans react to the natives?
Columbus continued to believe (until his death) that the islands he was discovering were actually off the coasts of China or India. So he referred to them as the “Indies” or the “West Indies” – and thus, the natives were called “Indians”. He told Ferdinand and Isabella that the new lands contained “many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold” when in fact, he had searched the rivers and found NO gold. He told investors that the New World contained “many spices” when in fact, he had found none. As his first voyage had made no money at all, Columbus “doubled down” and returned to the New World with 17 ships and 1200 men – and the priority of finding gold, spices or some way to make money for his investors back in Spain.
Columbus used his 17 ships and 1200 men to explore the Caribbean and try to find gold or spice. He was unsuccessful. Thee were small amounts of gold around – the Taino used gold to make earrings. So Columbus and his men told Natives they had to turn in a fixed amount of gold every 3 months. Those that failed had their hands chopped off. Those Natives that tried to escape were hunted down by Spaniards on horseback and with war dogs. The Taino fled into the forest- but already, many of them were beginning to die from European diseases like smallpox. Others began to commit suicide from the hopelessness of their new situation. In 2 years, on the island of Hispaniola alone, over 125,000 (!) Natives (HALF the original population) were either killed, died from disease or committed suicide.
By 1495, desperate for profit, Columbus rounds up 1500 Taino and sends them back to Europe to sell as slaves. Most of the Natives died in captivity and the high death rates made exporting slaves a money-losing activity. So the Natives were kept in the New World and used as slave labor on Spanish farms and in Spanish mines. They were literally worked to death. Newborn Native babies died soon after birth, because their overworked mothers could produce no milk to feed them. Other Native mothers began drowning their babies, to save them from slavery. By 1515, the Native population on Hispaniola is down to about 50,000 (from about 500,000 before Columbus came). By 1550, only FIVE HUNDRED Natives will be left on the entire island.
The “Columbian Exchange” refers to the transfer of plants and animals from the Old World (Europe and Asia) to the New World (and vice versa). The Big Three that transferred from Europe to America were the grains like wheat, barley and oats; the farm animals like cows, pigs and chickens and sadly, the third was disease. The main diseases that transferred from Europeans to Natives were smallpox, measles and diphtheria (diphtheria is like a very severe strep throat). Natives had no immunity to these diseases and suffered mortality rates as high as 95%. Europeans had been exposed to these diseases for centuries and had built up some resistance to them.
The most important transfers from the New World to Europe were all plant-based. Corn and especially potatoes became crucial foods for many European populations. For example, in Ireland in the 1800’s, something like 75% of all the calories consumed by the typical Irish person came from potatoes. The tomato became a mainstay of Italian cooking. And while corn was never popular amongst Europeans as a food, it became an important crop for feeding animals. Other important plants included tobacco (encountered by the English in Virginia in the early 1600’s) and chocolate (encountered by the Spanish in Mexico in the 1500’s). The only disease that crossed from the New World into Europe was a venereal disease: syphilis, which took decades to kill its victim and had little effect overall on the European population.
Columbus was governor (viceroy) of the Caribbean territories he discovered until 1500. That year, Spanish officials accused him of cruelty and incompetence and had him returned to Spain. Columbus was not only cruel to the Natives; he ordered harsh punishments on his Spanish colonists, including mutilating people accused of theft and in one case, he had a woman’s tongue cut out because she criticized him. Columbus died in 1506, still maintaining that he had discovered a new route to Asia (“the Indies”). About the same time, scholar and explorer Amerigo Vespucci proved that the “Indies” were not part of Asia, but part of an entirely new continent. Because Amerigo was right and Columbus was wrong, we now live in “America” instead of “Columbia”.
Why do we have 2 different views on Columbus? Why was he considered a hero for so long and is now considered an evil villain? Historians can use their own points of view (their “ideology”) to distort history – they can leave out facts and emphasize others. If you leave out ALL reference to his many cruelties and crimes and focus only on his superb navigation skills, Columbus might seem like a bit of a hero. But if you focus on the way he treated the Natives, all the navigation skills in the world cannot make up for his horrible actions. In the US, we have tended to ignore or deemphasize the experience of the Native Americans. This has distorted our history. The Natives are seen as an obstruction that has to be cleared away in the name of “progress” instead of as a proud people who had genocide committed against them by Europeans. We will do our best to look at all the facts and all the points of view as we tell the story of America.
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