Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was an Italian explorer hired by Spain to reach Asia in 1491; instead he discovered a continent, and in four voyages explored the West Indies from 1492 to 1502. His discovery resulted in Europeans exploring and settling the Americas, and Columbus became both a symbol of the new world and an iconic hero for the age of exploration.
As conservative historian Wilcomb Washburn explains, if Columbus had not discovered the New World, the process of European discovery might have been very different. Rather than standing as a symbol of inexorable forces, Columbus is better seen as a representative of the spirit of inquiry, Christian religious zeal, and the notable achievements of Western Civilization.
Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian; Cristobal Colon in Spanish) was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. His father was a weaver, tavern keeper, and political appointee. Christopher was uneducated; he learned to read and write as an adult. Then he read widely. Genoa was a great seaport for the Mediterranean. He became a sailor and traveled widely in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Sometime in the mid-1470s, he settled in Portugal, joining the colony of Italian merchants in Lisbon, a cosmopolitan city at the center of Portuguese maritime activity in the Atlantic. He married into a prominent family in Lisbon, but his wife died soon after their son, Diego, was born in 1480. Columbus was a master mariner and adventurer, and a devout Catholic who saw religious goals in converting the Asians. He now had connections to the Portuguese court, important ties to Madeira and Porto Santo islands, and at least some wealth.
For centuries, Asia's lucrative commodities, such as spices, had brought European traders overland. That route was now closed and by the 1480s Portugal took the lead in opening ocean routes to Asia, sailing south around Africa into the Indian Ocean, using superb navigational aids they had invented, maps they kept secret, and excellent ships. products directly.
Hearing many tales of legendary Atlantic voyages and rumors of land to the west of Madeira and the Azores, he studied books and maps. Columbus became convinced that Asia could be reached by sailing due west from Europe. Columbus's ideas about the size of the world and a westward route to Asia probably evolved piecemeal. His conjectures were based on discoveries of islands in the Atlantic (the Canaries, the Azores, the Cape Verdes, the Madeiras), rumors of additional islands, findings of unusual plant material and even human bodies drifting in from the western ocean, and by wide reading in academic geography, including Imago mundi (Image of the World) by the French theologian Pierre d' Ailly and the Geographia the ancient scientist Ptolemy.
He accepted Marco Polo's erroneous location for Japan—as 1,500 miles east of China—and Ptolemy's underestimation of the circumference of the Earth. Therefore, he concluded, Japan was about 3,000 miles to the west of Portugal—which was barely within the extreme range of existing ships. In 1484, Columbus sought support for an exploratory voyage from King John II of Portugal, but he was rejected. The Portuguese believed it was too far for their ships.
In 1485 Columbus went to Spain, where he spent seven years trying to get support from Queen Isabella I of Castile. She favored his cause and provided a salary. Once Spain was unified in 1492, Isabella and her husband King Ferdinand of Aragon were ready to fund a major voyage. The moderate cost would be offset by spectacular returns, they figured. They promised to grant Columbus noble status and the titles of admiral, viceroy, and governor-general for any islands or mainland areas he discovered. The office of admiral would give Columbus the right to judge disputes that arose in commercial matters, that of viceroy would make him the personal representative of the monarch, and that of governor-general would enable him to act as supreme civil and military authority.
Isabella furnished him with three ships (The Niña, The Pinta and The Santa Maria). Leaving August 3, 1492, from the port of Palos, he sailed for months without sight of land while his crew was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the voyage believing themselves to be sailing towards their deaths; they began plotting mutiny.
Finally they came to land in the West Indies (October 12, 1492). When they explored a little they found the native Arawaks to be friendly and wrote such in his diary: "They offered to share with anyone, and when you ask for something, they never say no."
They found many new things that no European had ever seen before. Columbus thought he had landed in India, so he called the native people "Indians" - a designation which remains common to this very day. As they prepared to return to Spain the Santa Maria ran aground on a coral reef and could not be repaired. Further establishing the kindness of the Arawaks, Columbus noted that the they were so kind, that after the shipwreck, the Arawaks labored for hours to save his cargo, and were so honest that not one thing was missing. Columbus saw the shipwreck as a sign from God and established a trading outpost he called Navidad (after the Christmas holiday).
However he still had the Nina and Pinta, and so he took most of his crew up the Windward Passage and onward to Spain. The king and queen were amazed by the colorful birds and strange foods that Columbus brought with him. Columbus was then called Admiral.
When Columbus sailed back to the new world in 1493, he found no sign of Navidad or of his crew. It is unknown what became of the crew, but one widely believed theory is the local Indian population grew tired of being harassed for gold and killed the sailors. Columbus then built a new settlement called Isabella (after the queen), then left it in the charge of his brother Diego and went exploring. He was puzzled that his maps of the east did not match with what he had seen. When he reached modern day Cuba he believed that this was the mainland and forced his crew to swear that it was. He also discovered Jamaica shortly afterwards. On his second voyage Columbus was able to sail back exactly to the same place as on his first voyage, despite poor navigating techniques of the time period. Some attribute this fact to divine providence.
When he returned to Isabella he found it in a state of confusion that he was unable to control. Because there was no gold he sent 500 Indians to Spain as slaves against the will of the king and queen. This brought much ridicule on Columbus. He sailed back to Spain to defend himself and the king and queen refused to furnish him with the necessary ships for continued exploration for three years.
When rumors of the confusion in Isabella reached Spain the king and queen sent Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate. Bobadilla arrested Columbus and his brother in the name of the crown, took charge of Isabella forcefully and sent them back to Spain. Columbus begged for one more chance to explore “Asia”. The monarchs gave him four broken down ships. His fleet was beaten with storms and he was forced to give up his last journey. He started back for Spain, but his ships were on the verge of collapse and he was forced to stay at Jamaica. He sent one of his crew to Isabella in a canoe to get rescue ships. Seven months later the ships came and took him back to Spain.
Establishment of Slavery
Following his arrival, Columbus established ruthless slavery, including sexual slavery, of the natives. He wrote to a friend in 1500: "A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand." His enslavement of the natives in his gold mines was so brutal that within 2 years, 125,000 natives (half the population) were dead. Columbus himself wrote: "We shall take you and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault."
Bartolome de las Casas, a Catholic priest wrote, in the "History of the Indies" published in 1875, "... Slaves were the primary source of income for the Admiral (Columbus) with that income he intended to repay the money the Kings were spending in support of Spaniards on the Island. They provide profit and income to the Kings. (The Spaniards were driven by) insatiable greed ... killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples ... with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty."
Also documenting Columbus' cruel legacy, Father Fray Antonio de Montesino, a Dominican preacher, in December 1511 said this in a sermon that implicated Christopher Columbus and the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples: "Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before..."
Local inhabitants who resisted Columbus and his crew had their ears or noses cut off, were mauled by attack dogs, skewered with pikes and shot. Reprisals were so severe that many of the natives committed mass suicide and women began practicing abortions in order not to leave children enslaved. The population of Haiti at the time of Columbus's arrival was between 1.5 million and 3 million. Sixty years later, every single native had been murdered.
Elsewhere in his book "History of the Indies," De las Cases detailed the reasons for the population decrease: "Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides. . . they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . . . and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated.... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write...."
For his cruelty, Christopher Columbus and his brothers were sent back to Spain (on August 23, 1500) in chains by Spanish Governor Francesco de Bobadilla for mistreating Natives in the section of Hispaniola now known as Haiti. They were imprisoned for six weeks in Spain but King Ferdinand released them, seizing their profits from enslavement of the natives.
Columbus died in Spain at the age of 55. He still believed he had reached Asia at the time. The notion that Columbus died in poverty and relative anonymity is a myth. Although not wealthy, he was living comfortably (economically speaking). Physically, he was in pain from severe arthritis.
It is also a myth that Columbus proved that the world was round. Europeans had known for centuries that the world was round. Columbus's disagreement with the experts was that he thought that the Earth was much smaller, and that he had enough supplies to sail to India.
The Memory of Columbus
Columbus has remained since the quest for independence a malleable and durable American symbol. Although ignored during most of the colonial period, he was, during the 1760s-1890s, interpreted and reinterpreted to fit our national character and used to mold a collective identity. This progress can be traced over three periods: as Columbia (an allegorical figure symbolizing liberty); as Columbus (an individual masculine explorer who sanctioned Manifest Destiny); and as Columbianism, a late-19th century patriotic symbol involving cultural and political hegemony and various ethnic and religious identities. During this evolution of "discovering" Columbus, a significant amount of material culture surfaced in American art, monuments, coinage, and in various civic events. This led to a multiple set of uses of Columbus as a model or official icon by various organizations to help shape their identities. The discovery of Columbus also grew as new methods of communication and the development of various media in the visual arts replaced the oral tradition and elementary school prose of the 18th century. This adaption of Columbus as a national symbol created conflicting contexts for many, such as Protestants ignoring Columbus's Catholicism. All three periods signify steps in the nation's search for self-identity.
In the 19th century the works of historians Washington Irving, George Bancroft, and William Prescott created the scholarly foundations for American celebration of Columbus's achievements. Irving created a highly romantic description of Columbus's landing in A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). 19th century American painters and graphic artists conjured up romantic images to match those found in the book. The image portrayed in Irving's book and by the artists shows Columbus finding a sparsely populated virgin land inhabited by lightly clothed "savages" to whom he introduced a "superior" culture and the blessings of Christianity. The mythical image also claims that Columbus planted the seeds of future American economic prosperity.
Americans celebrated Columbus's discovery of the New World and built numerous monuments to him in the late 19th century. The city of Columbus, Ohio was established in 1812. In addition, cities and towns, streets and health facilities, libraries, universities, schools, and in modern times sport teams bearing his name are symbols of his American stature. Columbus Day, is a national holiday in the United States, proclaimed so in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, primarily at the behest of Catholics and the fast growing Italian immigrant community who wanted a national holiday of celebration.
By the quincentenary celebration of his discovery in 1992, Columbus stood accused of genocide and ecocide. Columbus Day became controversial in the 1970s, as a matter of white guilt regarding the mistreatment of Native Americans. The main accuser was Colorado professor Ward Churchill (who was fired in 2007 for academic misconduct and falsifying history); he compared Columbus to Nazi Holocaust sponsor Heinrich Himmler, pointing to the genocidal outcome of Columbus's brutal practices in the Caribbean.
Columbus did return to Spain with a number of Indian slaves, and that slave labor was used in his quest for gold. Native populations died out primarily because of exposure to new Old World diseases.
Leftist protesters of the 1992 quincentennial celebrations of frequently used the term "genocide" to describe European treatment of the Indians, but they never defined genocide or provided sound evidence that Europeans practiced genocide. Historians should recognize the legitimate emotional source of these complaints, but counsel against the use of moral blackmail by groups who have something to gain from characterizing European treatment of Indians as genocidal. Historians should work to destroy "maleficent myths" about the past and expose complex origins of "current fortunes and misfortunes" without holding the descendants of those who wronged other peoples accountable for the deeds of their ancestors.
Besides the District of Columbia, and the province of British Columbia (Canada), numerous cities are named after Columbus, notably in Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio.
Legacy of Columbus
Columbus was a devout Christian, a fact that is often downplayed and ignored, who was rumored to have never sworn - unusual for a sailor at that time. On his ship his shipmates would frequently engage in religious worship. After his death it was thought he should have been named a saint for bringing the Christian faith to half the known world while Spain sent thousands of missionaries to the America's. It is because of Columbus that Latin American has the highest number of professing Christians.
- Bedini Silvio A., ed. Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia (1991); 787pp articles by 350 scholars; a major resource
- Bedini Silvio A. Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration (1998); 824pp encyclopedia
- Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Columbus: And the Conquest of the Impossible (2nd ed. 2001), 128pp; good, short, scholarly
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1942), 691pp; the best biography; written by an eminent conservative historian excerpt and text search
- Phillips, Carla Rahn. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1993) 340 pages, excellent popular biography
- online books about Columbus
- Taviani, Paolo Emilio. Columbus, The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages (1991), by the leading Italian expert
- Watts, Pauline Moffitt. "Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus's 'Enterprise of the Indies'". American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Feb., 1985), pp. 73–102; emphasizes complex religious motivations in JSTOR
- Wilford, John Noble. The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy (1991), the best popular biography; very well written
- Axtell, James. "Columbian Encounters: 1992-1995." William And Mary Quarterly 1995 52(4): 649-696. online edition; also in JSTOR, leading scholar reviews the major publications
- Axtell, James. "The Moral Dimensions of 1492," Historian 1993 56(1): 17-28. 0018-2370
- Bushman, Claudia L. America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero. (1992). 217 pp.
- Davidson, Miles H. Columbus Then and Now: A Life Reexamined. (1997). 609 pp.
- Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. (1990). 453 pp. nasty attack from the Left
- Schlereth, Thomas J. "Columbia, Columbus, And Columbianism." Journal of American History 1992 79(3): 937-968. in JSTOR
- Summerhill, Stephen J. and John Alexander Williams. Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural Politics, and Mythmaking during the Quincentenary. (2000). 219 pp.
- additional bibliography
- Wilcomb E. Washburn, "Columbus: Agent Of The Inevitable?" Continuity 1992 (16): 57-63. 0277-1446
- The people Columbus dealt with all knew the earth was round.
- Thomas J. Schlereth, "Columbia, Columbus, And Columbianism." Journal of American History 1992 79(3): 937-968. in JSTOR
- http://www.history.com/content/columbusday/holiday-history History of Columbus Day
- James Axtell, "The Moral Dimensions of 1492," Historian 1993 56(1): 17-28. 0018-2370