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School children across the United States immediately recognize the name Christopher Columbus. He has assumed iconic status as the instigator of European imperialism in the Americas. Much of the historical Columbus, though, became obscured by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mythology that valorized the sailor.
Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) first approached the king of Portugal in 1484 with a bold plan to reach Asia by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The king’s advisors, however, scorned Columbus’s ideas. Contrary to folklore, most educated Portuguese conceptualized the earth as a sphere by 1484. Skeptics of Columbus’s plans, in other words, did not believe that Columbus would sail off the edge of a flat world. Rather, Columbus’s dubious calculations about the size of the earth troubled many in the Portuguese court. Columbus proposed that only three thousand nautical miles separated Europe and Asia, a distance that ships of the day could easily traverse. Portuguese authorities did not know about the existence of North and South America, but they understood, based on their own calculations, that Columbus had seriously underestimated the globe’s size. Indeed, reaching Asia via the Atlantic would mean traveling a distance of 10,600 nautical miles, more than three times the distance Columbus predicted. Portuguese scientists conjectured that Columbus and his crew would starve before reaching Asia, and they likely would have had they not happened upon the Western Hemisphere. Rather than adopting Columbus’s westward plan, Portugal banked on reaching Asia by voyaging around Africa.
Rejected by Europe’s major naval power, Columbus looked to Portugal’s emerging rivals, Spain’s Queen Isabella (1451–1504) of Castile and King Ferdinand (1452–1516) of Aragon. When Isabella and Ferdinand married, they united Spain’s two largest kingdoms and ruled jointly. Isabella initially rejected Columbus’s proposals as fantastical and expensive. Columbus persisted for seven years, however, eventually winning Isabella’s approval on his third official proposal. Ferdinand later claimed credit for convincing Isabella to set aside her misgivings about Columbus. The Catholic sovereigns financed Columbus, offered him the title of governor for the lands that he claimed for Spain, and provided him with a modest fleet of three ships: the Niña and Pinta, two caravels, and the Santa Maria, a square-rigged vessel.
Columbus’s ships crossed the Atlantic in twenty-nine days. The crew aboard the Pinta first spotted land on October 7, 1492, and made landfall three days later. Columbus encountered the indigenous Taíno (or Arawak) on Guanahani island, which he renamed San Salvador. During his first voyage, Columbus scouted various other islands throughout the Caribbean, including Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Cuba.
Columbus did not understand or accept that he had arrived on lands unknown to contemporary Europeans. Instead, he steadfastly claimed to have reached Asia. The inexperienced navigator believed Cuba’s mountains to be India’s Himalayas, and he thus dubbed the indigenous people Indians.
Having lost the Santa Maria off the coast of Cuba, Columbus set sail with the Niña and Pinta for Spain on January 4, 1493. Encountering wicked storms and bad luck, he did not return to Castile until March.
Columbus found much glory when he entered the royal court. Spaniards marveled at the many unknown items he displayed from his first voyage, including a tobacco plant, a turkey, and a pineapple. He also showed several kidnapped natives, whom Columbus suggested would not interfere in Spain’s colonization efforts.
Columbus’s second voyage to the Western Hemisphere, which lasted from 1493 to 1496, showed the brutality and limits of European imperialism. Columbus had seventeen ships and 1,200 men to colonize the Taíno and Arawak territory. He created an elaborate design for the colonial capital, which he named Isabella. The town and expedition, however, largely failed.
Columbus navigated and charted islands in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. He also advocated enslaving the indigenous populations. Though Isabella and Ferdinand shunned the idea of outright enslavement, Columbus ultimately took 1,600 Arawaks into bondage. He dispatched around 550 of these Arawaks to Spain, but almost half died during the journey. Those who did survive spent a lengthy time imprisoned as Spain’s legal system decided their fate. Ultimately, Spain ordered that they be shipped back to their native lands.
Columbus continued to petition the monarchy to consider their new colonies as a source for slaves. They, however, consistently refused. The monarchs’ refusals over unconditional slavery, however, did not mean that they did not expect the indigenous to labor on their behalf as repayment for their conversion to Christianity.
Perhaps the greatest brutality during the second voyage resulted from the Spaniards’ search for gold. Though they found some precious metals, Columbus’s men could not locate the massive reserves that he had imagined existed. On the island of Haiti, Columbus imposed an unrealistic quota system on the indigenous population. The governor ordered the hands chopped off of any adult over the age of fourteen who failed to reach his quota in the gold mines. Even with this viciousness, Columbus failed to collect much gold during his second journey. He left behind, however, several permanent colonies for Spain.
Columbus’s third journey to the Americas was notable for two reasons. First, a young Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566) traveled onboard one of the six ships. Las Casas would later gain fame for chronicling the abuse of indigenous people at the hands of Spain’s colonists. Second, royal authorities arrested Columbus on August 23, 1500. Many of the colonists had grown angry with Columbus and his unfulfilled promises of wealth. Spain’s monarchs eventually released Columbus, but stripped him of his title of governor.
Columbus’s final trip to the Western Hemisphere lasted from 1502 to 1504. During this voyage, Columbus continued to hunt for gold and other material treasures. He made landfall in Central America, probably along the coasts of the modern-day nations of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Bad weather, though, ultimately resulted in Columbus spending most of his final year in Jamaica. He returned to Spain on November 7, 1504, and never returned to the Americas again.
Columbus spent the last few years of his life fighting court battles in Spain. The seafarer sued the Spanish Crown, demanding it honor its original contract with him, which guaranteed 10 percent of the profits from his explorations. The court battles ultimately extended across five decades, with Columbus’s heirs losing the fight.
Legacy of Christopher Columbus
Columbus’s entry into the Western Hemisphere radically changed the direction of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Ideas about imperial expansion had already become part of Europe’s most powerful kingdoms. European society quickly recognized that they could use their existing technology to colonize lands previously unknown to them.
In 1494 Spain and Portugal almost went to war over control of the world. Spain argued that the route and lands encountered by Columbus belonged to them. Portugal countered that Columbus could not have succeeded without Portuguese technology. Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) negotiated a settlement, the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), that pleased both Spain and Portugal. Essentially, the pontiff divided the globe on a line located 270 leagues west of the Azores. Any lands west of that line went to Spain, any lands to the east went to Portugal. Europeans had little idea of the size or shape of the Americas, but the line resulted in Portugal’s claims to Brazil and Spain’s initial dominance in North America. Alexander VI and the Iberian powers ignored whatever concerns the indigenous inhabitants might have had about this arrangement.
Most historians argue that Iberian subjugation of the Canary Islands became the model for the initial settlement of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. Establishing colonies in the Canary Islands created imperial apparatuses for controlling lands and populations thousands of miles away from the center of government. Ostensibly a mission of religious conversion, Christian invaders interpreted resistance as a divine sanction for their colonial enterprise. Moreover, authorities rarely recognized the rights of baptized Canarians. Within a short period, Iberians sold tens of thousands of Canarians into slavery and confiscated their lands.
Columbus’s immediate legacy, therefore, involved Spain importing these brutal methods to take control of indigenous lands in the Americas. By 1512 as many as ten thousand Spaniards lived in Hispaniola, supported by the forced labor of the original inhabitants. Puerto Rico, Cuba, and all the lesser islands soon fell to Spain’s conquistadors. The Arawaks and Caribs faced exploitation under the guise of religious conversion.
Starting around 1515, Spaniards began to construct sugar mills, importing both technicians and African slaves to replace the indigenous people dying from disease and mistreatment. In 1519 Hernando Cortés (c. 1484–1547) entered to the core of the Aztec Empire in the center of modern-day Mexico. By 1600 Spain’s imperial authority extended from the Río Grande del Norte to the Río de la Plata in southern Peru. Other European powers soon followed, including Portugal, Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
European invasion of the Americas brought profound suffering and death to indigenous groups. Overwork and lack of adequate provisions compounded the spread of disease as epidemics ravaged the Americas. The Mesoamerican population dropped from more than twenty million to as little as two million during the first century of contact. Populations on the Greater Antilles almost entirely disappeared.
Many historians frame Columbus’s legacy around notions of exchange. As already suggested, the most profound exchange that occurred involved the transmission of diseases. Europeans brought typhus, measles, strains of influenza, and smallpox to the Americas for the first time. Some debate exists about whether syphilis originated in the Americas and, therefore, had been previously unknown in the Eastern Hemisphere. Recent studies, however, suggest that Europeans already had experiences with syphilis before Columbus set sail.
Outside of disease, the exchange of different plants, animals, and cultural practices radically altered the landscape and diets of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. Native Americans had never seen pigs, sheep, sugar, or domestic cattle. Arguably the most important addition, however, was the horse. Horses had not roamed the Americas since the last Ice Age. Native Americans quickly adapted the horse to their needs, using them for hunting, transportation, and warfare.
American crops, likewise, transformed European and African life and nutrition. Columbus brought back nutrient-packed maze (corn) on his first trip. During the next century, American beans, squash, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes all became European staples. Tobacco became a prized commodity in Europe by the seventeenth century.
Columbus’s voyage also had tremendous significance for Europe’s minority populations, particularly the Jewish community. On March 30, 1492, less than a month before Columbus signed his crown contract, Isabella and Ferdinand issued a decree expelling Jews from Spain. Those Jews who did not convert to Christianity by August 2 forfeited their property to the royal couple and had to leave their kingdom.
Jews had already faced centuries of persecution throughout Europe. A sizable group opted to convert to Christianity, some out of religious faith, others for expediency. Their Christian neighbors, however, continued to disdain these conversos (converts), despairingly naming them marannos (literally, swine). Many conversos, often referred to as crypto-Jews, secretly maintained their Jewish faith and practices. This community, however, faced dire consequences if discovered. Under the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, these conversos came under intense scrutiny. Church authorities executed any conversos who showed signs of practicing Judaism.
Columbus benefited from both the Jewish community and also their persecution. While in Lisbon, Columbus consulted with prominent Jewish and converso scientists like Joseph Veinho and Martin Behaim (1459–1507). Columbus also received substantial funding for his expedition from a converso in Ferdinand’s royal court. Moreover, he employed numerous conversos in his crew, some just barely out of the Inquisition’s clutches. Many recently baptized Christians even held key positions in his first fleet, including Rodrigo Sanchez, the comptroller; Alfonso de la Calle, the second mate; Maestro Bernal, the physician; and Luis de Torres, Columbus’s interpreter. The purge of Jews from Spain, though, also provided part of the royal funding for Columbus’s various voyages. Seizure of Jewish property provided an immense budget for the second voyage, in particular. Much of the money for that expedition derived directly from the confiscation of Jewish lands and valuables, including some priceless synagogue artifacts.
Spain’s expansion into the Americas, though, also provided unexpected opportunities for conversos and crypto-Jews. Colonization’s first century offered a literal escape from Europe’s Inquisition. Though officially forbidden from settling in Spain’s new colonies, conversos often found the royal court more than willing to sell exemptions. If one could not obtain royal sanction, captains in the imperial navy also showed themselves ready to provide transport for the right price. By the 1630s, conversos could be found in almost every town in Spain’s empire. Frontier locations, such as New Mexico or Florida, attracted a disproportionate number because of their remoteness from the Inquisitors’ grasps.
The Historical Columbus and the Columbus Legends
Though widely known today, Columbus’s name had almost been forgotten even before his death in 1506. In December 1500, Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512) published a sensational account of his travels across the Atlantic. Vespucci claimed credit for finally establishing that Europeans had encountered previously unknown continents in the Western Hemisphere. When an authoritative German cartographer printed the first major world map in 1507, he gave the continents the name America, a feminine version of Vespucci’s first name.
During the eighteenth century, however, Columbus’s fame experienced a resurgence thanks, in part, to the tensions between North American colonists and the British government. As early as 1700, British colonists used Columbia as another name for the Americas. After U.S. independence, the historical Columbus and the feminine coinage Columbia became symbols for distinguishing the fledgling republic from its European counterparts. King’s College in New York, for instance, found a new start as Columbia College. In 1791 the seat of government became known as the District of Columbia. Though 1692 passed with little fanfare, the leaders of the newly created United States made 1792 a year of fetes. Celebrating three centuries since his first journey, U.S. leaders declared Columbus the first “American” hero.
Columbus gained even greater notoriety with the publication of Washington Irving’s (1783–1859) threevolume biography in 1828. Publishers have issued over 175 different editions of Irving’s hefty study. In 1844 federal authorities commissioned a statute of the sailor for the U.S. Capitol building. His popularity continued to serge in the United States through the second half of the nineteenth century. Between 1830 and 1860, the U.S. Catholic population grew from three hundred thousand to over three million. These foreign-born immigrants faced intense hostility by nativist Protestants who believed Catholicism irreconcilable with U.S. nationalism. In response, the Catholic Church used Columbus as a symbol of Catholic legitimacy in the nation. A renewed mythology developed around the explorer as a man who brought Christianity to the Americas. A prominent Catholic fraternal group, for instance, assumed the name the Knights of Columbus in 1882. The immigration of Italians, which added roughly another four million Catholics to the United States between 1880 and 1920, increased the worship of Columbus. Because of Columbus’s connection to Genoa, Italians felt a special claim to him. The increased fervor around the explorer resulted in spectacular celebrations in 1892 to mark the four hundredth anniversary of his sailing.
Through the twentieth century, scholars and activists became more critical of Columbus and his legacy. By 1992 almost equal attention was being given to the devastating consequences that befell indigenous and African populations following Columbus’s journey five hundred years earlier. Though he became an iconic hero, conjecture abounds about Columbus’s ancestry. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Spanish historian Celso Garcia de la Riega speculated that a fifteenth-century Galcian family named Colón might have been Columbus’s progenitor. Moreover, de la Riega suggested that the Galcian Colóns had married into a seemingly Jewish family, leading the historian to propose that Columbus had been a Jew or a “New Christian.” Scholars have also pointed to Columbus’s frequent references to the Hebrew Bible in his logs and letters. Moreover, he used the Jewish calendar for his personal records. His private letters also tantalize modern historians with their frequent references to such Hebrew Bible figures as King David and Moses.
Other theories developed that questioned the traditional story that Columbus hailed from Genoa, Italy. Among these propositions were theories that Columbus was Greek, Basque, and Portuguese. The most astounding and least plausible story proposed that Columbus was really Native American, had been blown by a storm to Europe, and proposed his naval venture as a means to return home.
Though this type of wild speculation continues, few new historical documents related to Columbus actually surfaced during the twentieth century. In early 2006, an international team of genetic researchers launched an ambitious DNA research project. Composed of scientists from Spain, the United States, Italy, and Germany, this team hopes to use the known remains of Columbus’s brother and son to end the controversy about Columbus’s origins.
- Cohen, J. M., ed. and trans. 1969. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narrative Drawn from the Life of the Admiral by His Son Hernando Colon and Other Contemporary Historians. Hammondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- Crosby, Alfred. 1972. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Phillips, William D., Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips. 1993. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Provost, Foster. 1991. Columbus: An Annotated Guide to the Scholarship on His Life and Writings, 1750 to 1988. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics for the John Carter Brown Library.
- Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1990. Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Colombian Legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Schlereth, Thomas J. 1992. Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism. Journal of American History (Discovering America: A Special Issue) 79 (3): 937–968.