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Christopher Columbus: Just What Did He Do In 1492?
Is there a historical figure who has received as much praise and controversy as Christopher Columbus? I remember the lessons that came around Columbus Day every October when I was in high school, but over time the admiral’s image has been tarnished. Today, Native Americans protest Columbus Day parades, while other groups seek to keep the icon polished and on its pedestal. Since most of us are not historians, what are we to make of all the controversy? What is the truth about Columbus?
The standard story that was introduced to so many of us, certainly through the last of the Baby Boomers (my part of that generation), goes like this:
“In 1492, the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus set out with three ships funded by the king and queen of Spain. He was looking for a quick route to the trade-rich India and by doing so would prove that the Earth was round. He did not. He reached India, but instead discovered two new continents, North and South America. He brought European civilization and values to this New World, but died a poor and forgotten man when he returned. in Spain.”
It is a pity that history has recorded so little of the early life of Christopher Columbus. He was indeed born in the Kingdom of Genoa, but it is not certain whether he was born in the city or near it. However, by the standards of his time, Columbus was not an Italian.
In the fifteenth century, Italy was the name of the large boot-shaped peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, but it was not a united country. Instead, it was a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and small duchies, including Genoa, Venice, Naples, Florence, Rome and many others. Each of these states was independent and often hostile to each other. In the time of Columbus, a Venetian would have been quite angry if a Genoese was passed off as an “Italian”. The unification of Italy would not come until Garibaldi and his loyalists overthrew papal authority and declared Italy a nation in the late nineteenth century, four hundred years after Columbus.
However, Columbus was an expert sailor and navigator. Together with his brother Bartholomew, Columbus received maps from several countries and compiled the map that would show him the route he needed to take to find his new world. To do this, however, he and Bartholomew became cartographic spies, because in the 1400s, maps were closely guarded secrets, and stealing a map or information from a map often carried the death penalty. The Columbus brothers were so motivated by the lure of fame and fortune that they went ahead anyway.
Many people also know that Columbus had tried for many years to get support to make his voyage and had been turned down by financiers or king after king. However, in 1492, major political events would work in his favor. In that year, the Spanish had finally pushed the Moors out of their country. New Spain needed wealth, both to recover from the war and to take a place in the world. European nations had grown rich by importing spices and other goods from India, but by the early 1400s the land route to eastern Europe had been closed by the Ottoman Empire. The Portuguese and others had learned of a sea route that looped around southern Africa and the Indian Ocean. By the time Spain could become a maritime power, the South African route was well known and offered little profit to the Spanish.
This is where Columbus comes in. He promises King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he can create a new and faster route to India, sailing not south but west. The profit potential would be huge, but national coffers are limited. Columbus would take three ships, but they would be small and far from first class. There was nothing in his mission plan to “prove” that the Earth was round; The ancient Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans had all demonstrated this fact many times over, and it was common, if not common, knowledge by the 1400s.
DISCOVERY OR RE-DISCOVERY?
On October 12, 1492, Columbus reached the Bahamas. He thought he had reached most of the eastern islands of what we now call Indonesia, and therefore assumed that the natives were Indians. The very fact that there were natives meant that Columbus had discovered nothing new, although he had become a European to chart a route to the Caribbean and open it to European travel. Over the next few months, Columbus and his crews would briefly visit and explore several other islands, but never saw or landed in either North or South America. Columbus would not even know they were two large continents and would go to his grave convinced he had reached the East Indian islands.
There were no spices in the islands, the main article of Indian trade. Undaunted, the Spanish sought gold, silver, new fruits and vegetables (including tobacco), and animals, but these were insufficient, Columbus thought, to justify trade. When it was time to return to Spain from the first voyage, Columbus decided to take with him something that would bring a great profit to Europe: slaves. In this, at least, he was right. Slaves were extremely valuable and the Spanish slave traders would exploit the Caribbean peoples to near extinction (at which point they looked to Africa for new resources).
Columbus led three more expeditions to the new Spanish colonies in the East Indies. The profits were great and with the blessings of the church, under the extremely repressive Spanish inquisitors, slavery led to the impoverishment of the native peoples and revolts by the survivors. But native peoples could not afford what biologist and geographer Jared Diamond calls “guns, germs and steel.” Columbus, as provincial governor, had indeed become so corrupt that the Spanish King ordered his arrest and return to Madrid in chains. But once there, Columbus was acquitted and left to retire a rich man. He was also given the hereditary title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, which has been passed down among his heirs to the present day.
In fourteen ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
At fourteen and ninety-three, he had robbed everything in sight.
Then back to Spain o’er the ocean waves
To start his fortune by selling slaves.
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