Many people in the United States and Latin America have grown up celebrating the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage. But was he an intrepid explorer who brought two worlds together or a ruthless exploiter who brought colonialism and slavery? And did he even discover America at all? Alex Gendler puts Columbus on the stand in History vs. Christopher Columbus.
Lesson by Alex Gendler, animation by Brett Underhill.
Christopher Columbus (Italian: Cristoforo Colombo; Spanish: Cristóbal Colón; Portuguese: Cristóvão Colombo; born between 31 October 1450 and 30 October 1451, died 20 May 1506) was a Genoese explorer, navigator, and colonizer, born in the Republic of Genoa (today part of Italy). Under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, he completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. Those voyages, and his efforts to establish permanent settlements on the island of Hispaniola, initiated the Spanish colonizationof the New World.
In the context of emerging western imperialism and economic competition between European kingdoms through the establishment oftrade routes and colonies, Columbus’ proposal to reach the East Indies by sailing westward, eventually received the support of the Spanish Crown, which saw in it a chance to enter the spice trade with Asia through a new westward route. During his first voyage in 1492, instead of reaching Japan as he had intended, Columbus landed in a New World, landing in the Bahamas archipelago, on an island he named San Salvador. Over the course of three more voyages, Columbus visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Central America, claiming them for the Spanish Empire.
Though Columbus was not the first European explorer to reach the Americas (having been preceded by the Norse expedition led byLeif Ericson in the 11th century), his voyages led to the first lasting European contact with the Americas, inaugurating a period of European exploration, conquest, and colonization that lasted for several centuries. They had, therefore, an enormous impact in the historical development of the modern Western world. Columbus himself saw his accomplishments primarily in the light of spreading the Christian religion.
Never admitting that he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans, rather than the East Indies he had set out for, Columbus called the inhabitants of the lands he visited indios (Spanish for “Indians”). Columbus’ strained relationship with the Spanish crown and its appointed colonial administrators in America led to his arrest and dismissal as governor of the settlements on the island of Hispaniola in 1500, and later to protracted litigation over the benefits which Columbus and his heirs claimed were owed to them by the crown.