The legacy of Christopher Columbus is one of American history’s most contested subjects. Columbus certainly opened the doorway to the Americas, but in initiating the world’s first steps toward globalism, he also instituted a centuries-long slave trade and fostered colonial realities which would forever weaken his indigenous hosts.
Below, we’ll explore three reasons to consider Christopher Columbus a national treasure and three reasons to deem him a national blemish.
Columbus the Destroyer
Columbus was brutal
From his first voyage West, Columbus displayed a propensity for cruelty and dehumanization. Columbus’s first report to Queen Isabella concluded that the Taino tribesmen of the West Indies were “dirty” and “fit to be ruled.” In keeping with his belief of native inferiority, Columbus established the New World’s first ecomienda, a tribute system which amounted to slavery for the natives he “inherited”; Columbus then popularized this system of feudal peonage himself by gifting land grants to Spanish settlers.
Slavery wasn’t Columbus’s only pastime – Spanish missionary Bartalome de Casas lamented that Columbus literally threw people to the dogs. Columbus’s brutality was so well known that the Spanish crown deposed him for floggings and extrajudicial executions of Spanish settlers. This is to say that the monarchs who led the Spanish Inquisition and literally burned people at the stake, felt Columbus was too cruel for a title in the Spanish court. Think on that.
Columbus’ success was accidental
Columbus’s accomplishments were not owing to his capabilities but to his penchant for ineptitude and miscalculation. Columbus’s initial mission was to discover an express route to Asia via the Atlantic. For reasons which are obvious today, Columbus never did discover such a route, nor did he discover the gold, gems, or spices that he’d promised in abundance to his Spanish patrons. He had no talent for geography. Columbus insisted Cuba was Japan. He was convinced that the Bahamas were islands off the coast of India (hence, the geographical misnomer “West Indies”). Even his first colony was established by default when he was forced to leave behind castaway crewmen from his wrecked flagship Santa Maria.
Columbus initiated a painful era of subjugation and eradication for indigenous peoples
Contrary to the view of the New World as a sprawling expanse of untraversed wilderness, the Americas were home to millions of inhabitants. Columbus’s arrival signaled a dramatic upheaval, and they were quickly decimated by European diseases and warfare, enslavement, and cultural and political subjugation. It’s estimated that within 20 years of Columbus’s arrival to Hispaniola (today’s Haiti), the native population had shrunk to 11,000 from 300,000. This Columbus-style “Euroization” of native populations continued for centuries and ultimately resulted in the eradication of hundreds of civilizations across the Western Hemisphere.
Columbus the Great Explorer
Columbus was merely a product of the times
Renaissance historian William J. Connell points out that it would be remiss to judge Christopher Columbus’ actions against modern standards. Whereas using war captives as slaves would be unthinkable today, it had been common practice in Europe since the time of Aristotle. And although modern societies deride any form of compelled conversion, for fifteenth-century Christians, bringing savages under Christ’s dominion was considered an act of mercy and piety. Columbus and his royal patroness, Queen Isabella, doubtless believed that they were saving the inhabitants of the New World from eternal damnation and bestowing upon them the gift of civilization.
Columbus ushered humanity into a new age
Through the course of his many voyages, and the news of his voyages, which inspired countless other expeditions, Columbus initiated the Columbian Exchange the transfer of ideas, plants, animals, technologies, and cultures across the Atlantic divide. These interactions greatly impacted the peoples on both sides of the ocean. In fact, the introduction of New World plants into European and Asian diets was foundational to the population booms that followed. Columbus’s voyages constituted the world’s first steps toward globalization. This process has transformed humanity, sometimes introducing conflict, but has also engendered cooperation and meaningful exchanges that have encouraged positive developments for people in every corner of the globe.
Columbus was a self-made man
Christopher Columbus’s auspicious rise to power and fame is a slice of pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps Americana. Columbus was born to a landless Italian wool worker and started working his way up on merchant ships as a teenager. He secured his own education, and studied cartography, mathematics, astronomy and navigation along the sea shores where he worked. Columbus was imperturbable in his efforts to find a patron to sponsor the voyage. He pitched his idea to monarchs in Portugal, France, and England before finally securing the support of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, who named him admiral and viceroy.
The Bottom Line: Christopher Columbus opened the world, connecting East and West forever, but the human suffering (and Columbus’s seeming indifference to it) had real and lasting consequences for those he “discovered.” Are his achievements enough to justify having a national holiday in his honor, or do his crimes warrant the repudiation of all things Columbus?