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Is there an historical figure about whom so much acclaim and controversy has enveloped as Christopher Columbus? I recall the lessons that came with the approach of Columbus Day each October when I was in grammar 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 his pedestal. As 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 presented to so many of us, certainly through the last of the Baby Boomers (my part of that generation), goes like this:
“In 1492, Italian navigator Christopher Columbus set sail with three ships financed by the king and queen of Spain. He was seeking a fast route to trade-rich India, and in so doing would prove that the Earth was round. He didn’t reach 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 to Spain.”
It is unfortunate that history has recorded so little about the early life of Christopher Columbus. He was indeed born in the Kingdom of Genoa, but it is unsure if he was born in or near the city. However, by the standards of his time, Columbus was not an Italian.
In the fifteenth century, Italy was the name of the great boot-shaped peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea, but it was not a unified country. Instead, it was a quilt of small kingdom, principalities, and duchies, including Genoa, Venice, Naples, Florence, Rome, and many others. Each of these states was independent, and often hostile towards each other. At the time of Columbus, a Venetian would be quite angered if he were to be lumped with a Genoan as “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.
Columbus was, however, an expert sailor and navigator. Along with his brother Bartholomew, Columbus acquired maps from several countries and compiled the map that would show him the route to take to find his new world. To do this, though, he and Bartholomew became cartographic spies, for in the 1400s maps were highly guarded secrets, and stealing a map or information from a map often brought the death penalty. The Columbus brothers were so motivated by the allure of fame and fortune that they proceeded anyway.
Many people also know that Columbus had tried for many years to get the backing to make his voyage, and had been refused by one financier or king after another. By 1492, though, enormous political events would work to his favor. In that year, the Spanish had finally pushed the Moors out of their country. The new Spain was in need of wealth, both to recover from war, and to take a place in the world. European nations had grown wealthy by importing spices and other goods from India, but in the early 1400s the land route east of Europe had been closed by the Ottoman Empire. The Portuguese and others had learned a sea route that circled south of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. By the time Spain could become a sea power, the South African route was well known and offered little profit to the Spanish.
Here is where Columbus comes in. He promises King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he can establish a new and faster route to India, by sailing not south, but west. The possibilities for profit would be huge, but the national coffers are limited. Columbus would get three ships, but they would be small and far from first rate. There was nothing in his mission plan to “prove” the Earth was round; the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans had all demonstrated that fact many times, and it was widely known, if not common, knowledge in the 1400s.
DISCOVERY OR REDISCOVERY?
On October 12th, 1492, Columbus reached the Bahamas. He thought he had reached the eastern most islands of what we now call Indonesia, and therefore assumed the natives where Indians. The very fact that there were natives meant that Columbus hadn’t discovered anything new, though he had become the European to chart a route to the Caribbean and open it to European travel. Over the next few months, Columbus and his crews would visit and briefly explore several other islands, but never see nor land upon either North or South America. Columbus would not even know that there were those two great continents, and would go to his grave convinced that he had reached the eastern islands of India.
There were no spices, the main object of the Indian trade, on the islands. Undaunted, the Spaniards 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 along something that would bring a huge profit in Europe: slaves. In that, at least, he was correct. Slaves were extremely valuable, and Spanish slave traders would exploit Caribbean peoples almost into extinction (at which point they sought new sources in Africa).
Columbus led three more expeditions to the new Spanish colonies in the East Indies. Profits were huge, and with the blessings of the church, under the extremely repressive Spanish Inquisitors, slavery led to both depletion of local peoples and revolts by survivors. But the native peoples could not withstand 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 him arrested and returned to Madrid in chains. But once there, Columbus was acquitted, and left to retire a wealthy man. He was also given the hereditary title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” which has been passed down among his heirs through the present.
In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
By fourteen-hundred and ninety-three, he’d pilfered all that he could see.
Then back to Spain o’er ocean waves
To start his fortune selling slaves.
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write by Mfalme Odie