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1. A brief overview of Columbus’s life
Although hailing from Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus (1451 -1506) began to live in Lisbon, Portugal in his twenties. The Portuguese capital was the great maritime center during a golden era in the Age of Exploration. It was here that he met pilots and navigators who carried with them the rumors of the existence of islands farther west. Such tales of distant lands and the perilous sea routes leading to them must have caught the imagination of young Columbus. Columbus was by no means a unique visionary genius or intrepid adventurer who wanted to go where no one had gone before, exploring new horizons and frontiers. The Age of Exploration was fully underway, and new sea routes were constantly being discovered. Columbus was but one among many who believed land could be reached by sailing westwards (Columbia Encyclopedia 2005).
Neither was he a pioneering scientific thinker who believed and tried to prove that the earth was round, when everyone else of his time believed the earth to be flat. In fact, the notion that the earth was spherical was widely prevalent during his time, although not universally accepted or scientifically demonstrated. Even the great Italian poet Dante, who lived much before Columbus, considered the earth to be a sphere. Columbus was not the first European to reach the new world, either. The Vikings before him had repeatedly crossed the Atlantic and even established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland. The importance of his rediscovery of another world on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is deeply associated with the particular historical significance of the age he belonged to, when Spain and other countries of Europe were beginning to seriously consider the possibilities of colonization and expanding their empires.
The uniqueness of Columbus stems from his tenacity in adhering to the dream of discovering a new sea-route to the east by traveling west. His determination to realize his “Enterprise of Indies” was unrelenting, and he vehemently lobbied the Spanish royalty for sponsoring a voyage across the unknown seas, and finally succeeded in obtaining the funds and resources, setting sail on perhaps the most historic sea voyage ever made in August of 1492. Over a month later, he came across the some of the many islands splattered across the Atlantic, adjacent to the great North American continent. Columbus undertook three more major explorations across the Atlantic in the next ten years, thus paving the way to the bridging of the Old World and the New World. He was chiefly instrumental in ushering in a major new epoch in the Western civilization.
2. The forging of a heroic image
Columbus assumed heroic proportions in the record of world history, partly because of his accomplishments and partly because of the consequences of the processes he set on the move. The enormous success of his 1492 voyage won fame as soon as he returned to Europe, and its global implications became apparent by the end of the sixteenth century (Morison, 1961). Only a heroic individual could be credited with changing the dimensions of the world that Europeans knew in 1492. However, like a number of classic heroes to whom he was often compared, Columbus was far from being perfect in his character and in his abilities. The sixteenth century writers who glorified his memory rarely mentioned his flaws, though they may have been aware of them. Nineteenth-century Americans identified Columbus with the spirit of the frontier, with the heroism of people leaving the security of settle homes to search for a new life. They admired his invention of bold new ideas and viewed his life as a challenge to established tradition and authoritarian regime. At times people even viewed Columbus as a giant intellectual, far ahead of the scholars of his time. They credited him with vast scientific learning. In the fancied imagination of these people, Columbus had the soul of a Renaissance man who was bent on breaking the walls of medieval superstition. Thus, over the decades and centuries, Americans appropriated Columbus as a symbol of everything they admired in themselves as a nation (Sale 2006).
3. The historic Columbus emerges
“[Christopher Columbus] has allowed it to be believed, he as taken trouble to have it believed, that his discovery was the result of a laborious working out of a scientific conception, whereas in fact it was solely due to material and practical information secretly obtained from another and by so doing he has usurped before posterity a place to which was not entitled. Nothing can wash his character clear from this stain…”
– Quoted from To America and Around the World: The Logs of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magella. (Caso 1990).
Many aspects of the unsullied portrait of Columbus came directly from his own writings and from those of his closest supporters. Even in the nineteenth century, this one-sided portrayal was contradicted by hard evidence from other sources. Far from being an accomplished scholar or a misunderstood genius, Columbus held wildly inaccurate views of the world. From a limited reading of academic geographers and religious sources, he came to picture an earth reduced in size by one-third, with Japan located at the longitude of the Bahamas. It was this mistaken view, and his fanatic conviction regarding it that prompted him to amass resources and set off on a daring voyage across the vast oceanic spans. Contrary to most commonly held belief that lingers on to our day, people of his time were not afraid that they would fall off the edge of the world and into the abyss if they pushed too far into the ocean. The real fear in crossing the Atlantic was one of the distances involved. Columbus, however, garnered courage owing to his grossly erroneous estimations of these distances. Columbus’s discoveries have therefore to be attributed to a particularly distorted view of the world, and not some great new truth he believed and championed. His discoveries were highly serendipitous (Morison, 1961).
Further, if there is anything Columbus zealously championed, it was not knowledge, science and truth but religious dogma. The Columbus that nineteenth-century Americans portrayed as suffering at the hands of narrow-minded clerics in fact used biblical passages as significant geographical evidence in his campaign to persuade the authorities. Deeply influenced by the Biblical apocalyptic visionaries, his professed goal was to hasten the conversion of the world to Christianity, before it comes to an end. As early as his first voyage, he suggested that all profits from his enterprise should be used for the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem form the Muslims. In his later years, he even began to hear voices and see visions; his life came to be dominated by religious ideas and ideals (Sale 2006).
When we look at Columbus’s personality, the myth of lone rebel and an incurable dreamer falls flat. Columbus always had his mind very much on the practical side of things, despite his religious inclinations. He was an experienced businessman and an accomplished deal-maker, able to attract funding from both public and private sources to support his voyages. And far from being an individual standing alone against a hostile world, Columbus seems to have been quite sociable, taking comfort form having family and friends close by when he was on land. He also never sailed from Europe with fewer than ninety or hundred others to accompany him. The historic Columbus was much more complex, and certainly much more human and fallible, than simple heroic legends portrayed him, and continue to portray him, especially in books meant for children.
4. Columbus’s crime against humanity
The simplified heroic version of Columbus' life owes much to the hugely popular biography published by Washington Irving in 1828. Irving's main goal was to retell a familiar story in an appealing fashion, not to reinterpret or detract from a man who had become popular icon in the United States. The hero-worship of Columbus reached its peak around the year 1892, the 400th anniversary of historic voyage. However, at the same time, there emerged several scholarly publications on the life and times of Columbus contributed by Americans such as Henry Harisse, John Boyd Thatcher, and Justin Winsor (Pelta 1991).
Winsor turned out to be the first great American debunker of the heroic version of Columbus's life. Moreover, Winsor could not be dismissed easily, for his careful examination of Columbus's character and accomplishments was based on the documentary record and presented in a spirit of unbiased scholarship. Winsor portrayed Columbus as a daring mariner with great powers of persuasion and extraordinary dedication to his goals. However, he also revealed Columbus as an inept administrator, so full of self-righteousness that he openly disobeyed royal instructions and brought many of his troubles on himself. In addition, there have been many quite valid allegations of dishonesty and fraud on Columbus, in diverse matters. However, such relatively minor shortcomings of character and ability are of no significance, especially in a person of such a historic stature. The focus of all criticism leveled against Columbus, in the last one and a half century, is on Columbus’s real motives in undertaking his explorations, his attitudes towards and dealings with the natives, and the terrible impact of the process of colonization he initiated (Clarke 2002).
Columbus unashamedly waged war against the native inhabitants of the Caribbean and enslaved hundreds of the natives, hoping to profit from a transatlantic slave trade. He even angered the Spanish crown by waging war and taking slaves in direct contravention of a royal order, although under appropriate circumstances warfare against the Indians or their enslavement could have been justified by European laws and precedent. That was only the beginning. The European-fueled decimation and enslavement of the native populations which was to follow in the wake of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, was something Columbus started both in spirit and deed (Parker 1995).
5. The legend persists
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the depiction of Columbus as the first slave trader in the New World hardly enhanced his reputation. With Winsor's work, and the accumulated scholarship surrounding the fourth centenary of 1492, a more balanced portrayal of Columbus claimed a place beside the heroic portrayal that continued to dominate American historiography (Sale, 2006). However, a balanced portrayal of Columbus's character and accomplishments could not make its way into school textbooks. A number of scholars have done a good job of explaining their knowledge about Columbus to a broader public who were raised on the simplistic notion of Columbus as the unblemished hero. There has, however, been too much resistance to any attempt to show Columbus as a fully rounded human being, with vices as well as virtues.
Caso, A. (1990). To America and Around the World: The Logs of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. Boston, MA : Branden Publishing Company, Inc.
Clarke, H. (2002). Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism. Muskogee OK : A & B Distributors
Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004. The. Columbus, Christopher. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Retrieved 18 March 2007 from http://www.bartleby.com/65/co/ColumbusC.html
Morison, S. E. (1961). Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. Princeton : Princeton University Press
Parker, C. 1995. Christopher Columbus: A Question of Character and Accountability. Retrieved 18 March 2003 from http://muweb.millersville.edu/~columbus/papers/parker-1.html
Pelta, K. (1991). Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History is Invented. New York : Lerner Publications Company
Sale, K. (2006). Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, Second Edition. London : Tauris Parke Paperbacks