Christopher Columbus: Not an American Hero
Every kid in elementary school is taught the story of the famous explorer Christopher Columbus who sailed across the ocean in 1492 and discovered America. Children are taught that he was a hero. Columbus even has a U.S. holiday dedicated to him that takes place on the second Monday of October to celebrate the anniversary of his arrival in the Americas. Columbus was born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa, which is now Northwestern Italy. He eventually moved to Spain, where he convinced the Spanish monarchy to fund an expedition to find a new trade route to the Indies, which is what Europeans then called Asia. In 1492, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain with three ships: the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Niña. He landed on an island in the present-day Bahamas and established a settlement there. He made a total of four journeys to the Caribbean and South America from the years of 1492 to 1504. Columbus is widely credited for laying the groundwork for European colonization of the Americas. Something that children aren’t taught in school is about all of the terrible things Columbus did on his voyages to the New World. Christopher Columbus wasn’t a hero. Columbus didn’t ever find a route to Asia, wasn’t the first European to travel to the New World, and treated the natives of the places that he explored horribly.
Columbus set sail on his first voyage to find a new and safe route to China, India, Japan, and the Spice Islands, but he never found one. By the end of the fifteenth century, it was extremely difficult to reach Asia from Europe traveling by land. Many Europeans wanted to get to Asia since it was said to have an abundance of gold, silk, and spices. It was hard to avoid encountering hostile armies, and the route was long and challenging. Portuguese had already solved this problem by using the sea. They sailed south by the coast of West Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus wanted to find another way to Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic for a quicker and safer journey. When Columbus left to find this new route, he ended up landing on an unknown island in the Bahamas that he called San Salvador. He believed that he was successful and assumed that he reached in an outlying island in China, but he landed in South America. Columbus called the indigenous people of the lands he explored “Indians” because he truly believed that he reached the Indies. For months, Columbus and his men continued their journey by visiting the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. He thought Cuba was mainland China and that Hispaniola could have been Japan. After establishing the settlement Villa de la Navidad in present-day Haiti, Columbus set sail back to Spain. He visited the Americas three more times and never realized that he sailed to the wrong place. To his dying day, he claimed that he reached Asia.
Although he gets most of the credit, Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first European to set foot in the Americas. Norse explorer Leif Erikson is generally considered to be the first European to reach North America, around five hundred years before Columbus reached the Americas. The exact details of Leif Erikson’s life remain unknown, but historians believe he was born in Iceland around 970 A.D. and raised in Greenland. Erikson sailed to Norway from Greenland around 1000 A.D. There, King Olaf I of Tryggvason converted him from Norse paganism to Christianity. Olaf commissioned him to spread Christianity across Greenland. One account of Erikson’s life suggests that on the way home to Greenland, his ships drifted off course and ended up on the coast of North America on a place that he named Vinland. Another account writes that Erikson had heard of Vinland from another seaman named Bjarni Herjólfsson, who is thought to be the first European to sight the east coast of North America. This account suggests that Erikson sailed to North America on purpose and landed first in an icy and barren region he called Helluland, thought to be what is now Baffin Island. Next, he went to a region he called Markland, which is believed to be present-day central Labrador, Canada. Erikson left Markland and found Vinland and built houses there before returning to Greenland. For many years, the exact location of Vinland has been debated. In the 1960s, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine discovered remnants of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost tip of the province of Newfoundland in Canada. After a few years, the excavations there helped turn what was largely fiction into fact. Not all historians agree that L’Anse aux Meadows is where Vinland was located, but the evidence there did prove that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in the New World.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding the life of Christopher Columbus is in regards to the way he treated the indigenous people that he encountered during his travels. Columbus first landed on an island in the Bahamas that was inhabited by native people from the Arawak tribe. When Columbus and his crew first came ashore, they were greeted with gifts. The Arawak people were very willing to trade with the Europeans. He took their kindness for weakness and ignorance by taking some of the natives by force to get information about the land. In return for funding his voyages, Columbus promised to bring back gold and spices back to Spain. He was rewarded ten percent of profits, governorship of the new lands, and a noble title. He used the natives to try to find gold and gain wealth. Columbus saw that the Arawaks wore small gold ornaments in their ears and took some of them aboard his ship as prisoners so that they could take them to the source of gold. After sailing to Cuba and Hispaniola, he found bits of gold in the rivers and was given a gold mask by a local chief. This led Columbus to inaccurately believe that the New World contained fields of gold.
He would continue to use the natives in an attempt to find gold throughout the rest of his travels. He sailed back to Spain from his first voyage with native prisoners, but many of them died on the journey. The sailors Columbus left behind at his fort, Villa de la Navidad, took women and children for sex and labor. On his next voyage, Columbus intended to obtain more slaves and find an abundance of gold. He went to Haiti and ordered everyone fourteen years and older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. They were given copper tokens to put around their necks when they collected the gold. Natives found without a token usually had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death. After the Europeans realized there was no more gold to be found, they took the natives for slave labor. The natives worked so hard that thousands of them died within the course of a few years. Columbus also forcibly converted the natives to Christianity. Another negative consequence of Columbus’s expeditions to the New World was the introduction of diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza to the indigenous people that lived there. The Europeans had already been introduced to these diseases and had built up immunity to them. Although the Europeans didn’t intend for it to happen, these diseases decimated the population of natives.
While the controversy surrounding Columbus is becoming more widely known, many people still view him as a hero. His accidental encounter of the Americas allowed Europe to settle and expand new territory. While this is true, other European explorers would have likely made it to the Americas not long after he did because of technological advancements taken place in Europe during the time. The colonization of the Americas had awful consequences for the native people who had been living there for many years before the arrival of Columbus. One of Columbus’s biggest accomplishments was the start of the Columbian exchange. The Columbian exchange was the movement of goods, food, people, livestock, diseases, and ideas between the New World, West Africa, and Europe. There were multiple positive effects of this exchange. New foods and livestock were introduced across the world, which helped people economically and agriculturally. New ideas and technology were also spread, advancing society in the continents. Negative consequences also came out of the Columbian exchange. With the growth of new foods, many more slaves were needed for labor. Diseases were also spread to both the people of the New World and the Europeans.
In conclusion, Christopher Columbus was not the hero that he’s made out to be to children. Spain funded his voyages for the goal of finding a new way to travel to Asia, but Columbus never found one. He believed he did and falsely told Spanish court that he had succeeded in his mission. Columbus also didn’t discover the Americas for Europe like many are led to believe. A Norse explorer, Leif Erikson, first set foot in the Americas nearly five centuries before Columbus did. Evidence found in the twentieth century has proved that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach the New World. The last thing that disproves Columbus’s reputation as a hero is his moral character. During his voyages, he treated the natives of the islands he visited with cruelty. He brutally enslaved many natives, forced them to convert to Catholicism, had their limbs cut off when they couldn’t find the gold he wanted, and introduced a variety of fatal diseases to their populations. Knowing about the negative things Christopher Columbus did during his life will help change the way that students learn about him in schools. It will also make our understanding of him more accurate.
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