When you pass on at the end of your life, you would like to know that you were remembered for something. Every person feels that way. Christopher Columbus was no exception.
Columbus was a man wanting to make his mark in the world and to be remembered after his death. He was ambitious. He wanted fame. He was like many people today. From there it all gets a little confusing as to who remembers him how and what they remember him for. Some see him equivalent to Satan while others see him as a great explorer. Let us look deeper into either the greatest explorer or the luckiest lost sailor the world has ever known.
Background On The Man
Sometime around 1451 Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. The earth did not shake. The skies did not sing. Time did not stop to celebrate. But if the whole world knew of the future of this child, they either would have pampered his upbringing or sent hired killers to dispatch of him. It all depends on your perspective.
He grew up learning the ropes as a sailor and yearned for the sea. When he was 19 years old, he began to fulfill that dream. In learning the stars and the currents, he also began to read books on sailing and the world that lived far away. He began to read where well-known philosophers and scientists such as Erastosthenes thought that the earth was smaller than most believed. This would bring the India they eagerly sought much closer across the ocean than others thought as they continued on their long treks through dangerous territories for spices. If he could show that India could be reached quicker by sailing west, the whole balance of European power could be shifted.
Myth Around Columbus’ Adventures
There has been a myth roaming around about the general idea of the world during Columbus’ day. Many of us were raised believing that everyone feared that the horizon they saw out over the ocean was the edge of the world and anyone who neared it would fall off. This makes great cartoons, but it does not reflect the real thoughts that were held. Everyone accepted the fact that the earth was round. From there, arguments began to go back and forth over how big it really was. Columbus chose to believe a smaller scale and upon drafting his argument set out to convince the powers that be that he knew the answer and was the man for the job. He never set out to prove the earth was round.
Door after door was slammed in his face as he looked for someone to foot the bill. Portugal said no. Italy said no. France said no. Spain said, “Set around, and we’ll see if the winds blow in your favor.” Spain did not see this as the chance they were waiting for. They didn’t salivate when given the proposal. Instead they liked to hoard information and see how the European chessboard was played out before tossing an idea onto the playing field. You never knew when something that is nothing today could be the ace up your sleeve tomorrow. So Columbus waited and waited.
Proposal after proposal was given. Years went by. Despite what we have been told, it did not happen overnight. Finally Queen Isabella looked at her husband and said that it might be time to give a chance to this crazy idea of reaching India by a shorter route. If it proved to be true, they could be the largest player in this empire expansion game they were playing. If they were wrong, they would pass it off as just exploring some silly whims and continue their international dance of intrigue.
Columbus was on his way. The Crown would not pay for the entire voyage. They were not that desperate. Columbus had to convince other investors to throw their gold in along with the Crown. It took awhile, but eventually Columbus had the necessary funds to complete his journey. The problem now was that there were no boats that could make such a long journey. Everyone assumed that there were no landmasses between Europe and India so stopping to freshen the load was not even in the plan. The ship had to make it all the way there with enough provisions for all the crew. The results were the now well-known Pinta, Nina, and the Santa Maria.
Before leaving, the matter of hammering out the business details had to be addressed. A contract was drawn up between Columbus and the crown. If any new lands were discovered, Columbus would be given the title of Admiral of the Ocean Seas and the governorship of all new lands. He would also receive 10% of all revenue from the finds. Not such a bad deal. Satisfied, Columbus set sail in 1492.
The weeks began to go by and the sailors were getting restless and not too thrilled with Columbus’ leadership style, but one thing that he inadvertently discovered could be one of his greatest finds. He discovered the trade winds to his advantage to make time. Instead of heading due west, he fell into the winds and let them guide in the general direction. It didn’t make him a better leader but a lucky sailor.
After five weeks land was spotted. To Columbus, it must had to be one of India’s outlaying islands. Today we know it as San Salvador in the Bahama island chain. We know now how off course he was as it was nowhere near India, but let’s keep in mind that right now in his mind he is standing in India.
The New Land
The first natives he met were the Lucayan tribe who were promptly called Indians since they obviously were in India. They were a peaceful group with few weapons used only for their daily survival. Needless to say the Spanish took one look at this and summed up easy conquering of these simple-minded people. Exploration continued through some of Cuba and Hispaniola. Columbus knew that he had not yet reached mainland India but it had to be close looking at the dark skin of the natives.
Land was discovered. India had supposedly been found. Columbus was successful! He left thirty-nine sailors behind to settle (known as La Navidad) and await his return with more men and ships. He did not find gold laying in the sand so the next best thing to show that his trip was not for nothing was to take back another kind of prove. He kidnapped about 20 natives to show the King and Queen that he had made it.
We could sit and argue whether or not this act was humanitarian or not. Not many could say it was without fault. His reasoning for needing them was correct. His methodology was far from right. But in the culture of Europe of that time, there was nothing wrong in seeing a simple-minded group of people who were “lacking” in all ways as needing the support and authority of the advanced civilization. This would have been accepted by almost all at the time. The saddest part of all that makes the act even more barbaric is that only eight natives arrived in Europe. To Columbus it was better than none. To us, it was twelve too few.
Back to Europe
His arrival in Portugal in 1493 was exciting. Spain had found a route to India. This time the Crown did not hold back in its resources. The second voyage commenced in the fall of 1493 with 17 ships and 1200 men. Upon arriving at the settlement that Columbus had left in the new lands, only ruins could be found. Columbus did not let that vex him. He moved to the current day Dominican Republic and set up the settlement of La Isabela which also proved to be short-lived.
The Ugly Side
We could forgive Columbus for the kidnapping and voyage death of the natives…maybe. Things do happen, and we can do many good-intentional things with horrible results. But what was about to rear its ugly head on these islands would change how millions would view Columbus to this very day.
Genocide became the norm under Columbus’s rule in the new lands. He enslaved the natives and did not hesitate to murder any that he felt justified to do. The Crown needed gold. They saw only gold as a good return on their investment. He could not find them the gold they demanded in the quantity they desired. The natives did not have any on them. Where was it? Since he was the new guy in town, he would force the natives bring it to him. He ordered the natives to bring him gold. No gold, say goodbye to your hands. The Lucayan could not understand this thirst for gold. To protect their lives, they began to run away or commit suicide since this vast amount of gold was impossible to give. It did not exist. The death toll mounted.
His third voyage in 1498 showed the disfavor he was falling into with no treasures to show for all the hard investments put into it. This voyage included only six ships. He took this time to explore the cost of South America. But in the end, so much was the same. The settlers and the natives were discontent which led to more than one hanging. Upon arriving back in Spain, Columbus was arrested for mismanagement. Eventually he was released and set sail for a fourth voyage in 1502
This next voyage included four ships and lots of disappointments. A storm was coming, and the new governor of the colonies denied Columbus the permission to dock. The storm warning had to be a sham to get in and take back over governorship. Since all was well, the governor approved the sailing of 30 ships that held the first of real treasure that was found in the new world. Only 1 arrived in Europe due to the “imaginary” storm. Columbus spent his time in Honduras, Panama, and Jamaica. Needless to say, there were many issues with hostile natives as Columbus walked in and began assuming command of them. There was one time that the natives were pleasant and went out of their way to help Columbus. He predicted an eclipse which raised him very high in the natives eyes. His actions toward the natives never improved. He saw only harsh treatment as the only way to govern.
Upon his return to Spain, he was accused of barbaric acts and murder. He lost all assets and titles. In 1506, Columbus died knowing in his heart that he had discovered India. He had amassed wealth from his voyages and explorations but nothing ever came to him from the original contract with the Crown of Spain. He was buried in Seville. Later he was dug up and reburied in Hispaniola. Again he was dug up and reburied in Cuba. Eventually, he was removed yet again and buried back in Spain, though we now have our suspicions of that. In 1877 in Santo Domingo, remains were found that indicated that Columbus was buried there. In 2003 DNA results show that it might very well be the real resting place of Christopher Columbus.
Columbus had in fact discovered new lands that were mostly unknown to Europe, at least the vastness of it and how rich the lands were. He was not the first there as Lief Erickson of the Vikings had beat him, but the internet was not around to broadcast that news. But to the general population of Europe, this land was new. It was unexplored with so much to offer. Many argue the fact that the discovery was in actuality a failure since Columbus never did find what he intended to. India was still a long way off. But he did bring to the attention of the rest of the world that they were not alone and there were riches to be found. Unfortunately, the results of discovering new lands led to much sorrow and waste. The Europeans who came over were intent on getting as much out of the lands as they could. The results were the extinctions of many of the natives, destruction of land, and diseases.
Columbus’ travels gave Europe a foothold in the Americas and started a race with all the large European nations. He brought riches and potential back to Europe. Everything he gave was to the New World and was nothing good. He only brought death.
Should Columbus Be Honored?
So should Columbus be honored? He was the one who had a hunch and was willing to risk his life to prove it. He brought America into the picture. Columbus was a man who did not find what he meant to. In his ultimate goal, he failed. He also murdered many innocent people and was horrible as a leader. Should we honor him? He was a failure at everything and just lucked up on riches for the Old World.
To Columbus: Thank you for taking a risk. We wish that you had learned better manners and respect of others. Maybe the history of the Western world would have been different.