Christopher Columbus — a Hero? Or Not.
The legacy of Christopher Columbus — in many people’s minds — entails bravery, heroism, courage and resolve. But does this man really deserve the reverent accolades that he receives? Does he deserve to have a day named in his memory? Did her really “discover America” as the legend has it? All of these question — an others — will be addressed in this paper.
We have a holiday to celebrate him. We were taught that he was a remarkable sailor and explorer who helped prove that the world was round. But for some people Christopher Columbus was anything but a hero. This paper shows why doubters are justified in their skepticism.
Brief Biography of Columbus
Columbus was Italian, but he served Spain when he set sail for India in 1492, according to his biography in Fordham University. Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. His father was a master weaver who had a wine shop and his father sailed from time to get supplies for his shop, and Christopher went with him, getting familiar with the sea and loving the adventure as well. When Columbus came up with the idea he called “Enterprise to the Indies,” he received the funding from Spain (Fordham.edu). Columbus sailed around many islands in the Caribbean, and landed on many as well, but the Fordham site says “he never fully understood that he had come upon a hitherto unknown (to most Europeans) continent.”
Columbus Didn’t “Discover” America
An editorial in the peer-reviewed journal History takes a strong position in regard to Columbus’s alleged feats of glory. First of all, this editorial (written 500 years after Columbus sailed “the ocean blue”) asserts what many people of good faith in the United States have asserted for hundreds of years. And that assertion points to the fact that the American continent was “peopled by millions — how many millions remains open to fierce controversy — of men women and children centuries before the Genoan captain rashly undertook to prove that the world was smaller in circumference than it really was” (Cornwell, et al., 1992, p. 1).
The so-called “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus was, in reality, “an invasion” by Europeans, Cornwell continues. The results of the invasion were disastrous with virtually no “beneficial consequences” for the aborigines, Cornwell explains. There is no way of knowing how many Native Americans “perished from the exchange of microbes” between the Europeans and the native peoples, but other authors have catalogued the diseases brought from Europe once Columbus opened the floodgates.
The diseases that author Russell Thornton lists (as having been brought from Europe) include: measles, smallpox,, the bubonic plague, cholera,, pleurisy, typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, mumps, whooping cough, colds, gonorrhea and chancroid, pneumonia, influenza, typhus and venereal syphilis and Thornton believes that another disease brought over from Europe may have been tuberculosis (Thornton, 44).
The disease that killed more Native Americans than any other brought by Christopher Columbus and those that followed him from Europe was smallpox, according to Thornton (45). The diseases Thornton references took a toll on Indian health but the diseases didn’t just hit people and then disappear. Thornton explains that these diseases came, “they spread, and killed again and again and again” (45). There might have been as many as ninety-three serious epidemics or even pandemics of pathogens from Europe that decimated Native Americans in time, thanks to Columbus opening the door to disaster for the Native Americans.
Meanwhile, Cornwell relates to the fact that after the Americas were “discovered” (or invaded) Native Americans were exploited by being put into forced labor — further “facilitating their annihilation” — until they were pushed aside so the African slaves brought over to the Americas could be put to work (Cornwell, 1). Given these rather dreary realities, Cornwell writes that it is “easy to see how the commemoration of 1492 has become an embarrassment to many American historians” albeit some of those historians hope that “Columbus Day” will pass by quickly and no one will really notice or remark on the fraud that Columbus Day truly is (Cornwell, p. 2).
Meanwhile history professor Lilian Handlin explains that times have truly changed in the sense that Columbus is not the revered and courageous explorer that he once was built up to be. Handlin writes in the peer-reviewed journal The American Scholar that one early American writer had cast Columbus in the image of St. John and another had portrayed him as the “seer of Patmos.” Later in American history Columbus was viewed as a “self-assured, iron-willed, bolddetermined” man who looked like Achilles (Handlin, 2001, p. 81).
Further research by scholars presented a negative image of Columbus, and he was labeled a “genocidal maniac responsible for the atrocities” that were committed against native peoples at Guanahani (Handlin, 82). Given the emerging image of a man not worthy of all the accolades, a man apparently responsible for hideous crimes against native peoples, the National Council of Churches declared a “year of prayer and lamentation” in 1992, fifty years after Columbus apparently landed near the American soil (Handlin, 82).
By 1992, enough was known about Columbus, Handlin continues, that he came to symbolize “colonialism, imperialism, pallocentrism, and elitism”; indeed, he became the “archetypal proponent of patriarchy and ecocide, a rapist who destroyed a gentler, nature-friendly, communal, peace-loving, and stateless culture” (Handlin, 82). The author explains that Columbus has become a “cross between a baby-seal poacher and Adolf Eichmann” (82).
Handlin explains that from the year 1600 to 1750, Columbus was what she calls “an irrelevancy to whom no one paid much attention”; however, in the second half of the 1700s, things changed “dramatically” (82). Columbus’ reputation became “sterling” and he became an icon and a symbol of great discovery. But that reverence turned to ridicule by 1892, when even those that had idolized him “gagged over the fact that the enterprise of the Indies was a Spanish undertaking,” and moreover, there was disgust at the fact that Columbus had sailed “in the service of the forces of darkness, the rack, and the Whore of Babylon” (Handlin, 82). Notwithstanding those negative aspersions cast at Columbus in Europe, in America, the reputation of Columbus was greatly enhanced by Washington Irving wrote a biography of Columbus called The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus which was “an instant hit among critics and readers” and made a lot of money for Irving (Handlin, 88).
But when reputations tend to go up due to false information, they surely must also come down, and Columbus’s reputation took a hit when Charles Francis Adams, Jr., with the Massachusetts Historical Society, got national attention when he ridiculed Irving’s book and ripped the Columbus legacy apart. Adams blasted Irving’s book: “The vein of platitudinous moralizing which runs through the book makes it difficult for a writer of the present day to take it seriously” (Handlin, 91). Apparently the negativity that Adams found in documents (that either Irving had not seen or that Irving chose to ignore) truly changed the way many in America viewed Columbus.
“Never, in the whole history of buccaneering, did any black visaged gang of ruffians, swarming over a vessel’s side, indulge in such atrocities” as Columbus had engage in, Adams wrote (Handlin, 92). The atrocities that Adams had discovered in previously undiscovered documents shocked him. “[Columbus engaged in] such general plunder, murder and cruelty as that stately band bearing the cross before them on October 21, 1492 they looted two continents,” Adams asserted (Handlin, 92).
Meanwhile, who embarrassing for scholars who were fully aware of the damage that Columbus had done to native peoples to have the president of the United States laud such a man. Author Gerald Vizenor quotes from then president Ronald Reagan, who signed a proclamation that set October 12 as a federal holiday in honor of Columbus: “Christopher Columbus was a dreamer, a man of vision and courage, a man filled with hope for the future” (Vizenor, 1992, p. 224).
The truth about Columbus, Vizenor asserts, is that he was “an untrue concoction, the ruse of his own representation. He is the overstated adventurer, to be sure,” and moreover Columbus is the “master of neocolonial celebrations in a constitutional democracy” (Vizenor, 225). The author of this article in the peer-reviewed journal Boundary 2 quotes from the book The Devastation of the Indies (by Bartolome de Las Casas):
“Here those Christians perpetrated their first ravages and oppressions against the native peoples. This was the first land in the New
World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill-use them, eating the food they provided with their sweat and toil” (Vizenor, 226).
In conclusion, the references in this paper clearly make the point that Christopher Columbus was not a hero at all, but a ruthless and dangerous interloper who invaded the Americas and plundered the natives. That the United States has a special federal holiday in Columbus’ name is an embarrassment to all those individuals that are truly informed as to Columbus’ true legacy. That federal holiday should be changed to honor someone like Patrick Henry or Thomas Paine, true American heroes.
Cornwell, Mark, Quinault, Roland, and Reid, Brian Holden. “Editorial.” History. 77.249 (1992):
Fordham University. “Christopher Columbus.” Retrieved July 13, 2012, from http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/medny/delgado.asp. 2007.
Handlin, Lilian. “Discovering Columbus.” The American Scholar. 62.1 (1993): 81-96.
Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 1987.
Vizenor, Gerald. “Manifest Manners: The Long Gaze of Christopher Columbus.” Boundary 2.
19.3 (1992)” 223-235.
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