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Influential people who pushed forward exploration: Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus portrait


Image: Sebastiano del Piombo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Often touted as the discoverer of the New World, there was once a time when Christopher Columbus was widely praised by anthropologists for his contributions to the western world we know today. Older understandings even claim the “discovery” of the Americas as a great triumph, one in which Columbus was a hero who brought the means of great wealth to Spain and other European countries.


 However, perception has radically changed in recent years, concentrating on the devastating destruction caused by the European conquest of the Americas. This new, alternative view of the impact Columbus had on the discovery of the new world, focuses on the impact of the slave trade and imported disease on the indigenous people of the Caribbean and America. 


Today, Columbus is rarely seen as a hero, instead purely focusing on his sincerity & abilities as a navigator and explorer. There has even been much political debate between these two perspectives which further cements his impact on the western world today, be it good or bad.


leif eriksson arrival in the americas


Image: Hans Dahl (1849-1937), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


The rediscovery of the Americas

Though Columbus was the one who opened the gates for the colonisation of America, he was not the first to discover the continent. Many archaeologists agree that the Vikings of Leif Eriksson most likely had discovered the continent in the past and set up settlements nearly 500 years before, around the year 1000. Thus, though a major contributor to the creation of the Americas we know today, Columbus was not the first to arrive in the Americas like originally thought.


ancient martellus map 




Smaller than you think

Columbus’ journey to the new world was largely fuelled by his belief that the world was much smaller than initially thought and that it was possible to sail to the East Indies through a yet undiscovered North-western route. Many people at the time believed that to the west of Europe was entirely open ocean till the East Indies thus making it impossible to traverse. They had never even considered a whole new continent. 


Though Columbus’ idea was not an entirely new one, he certainly was the first to so fervently lobby for its expedition to the East Indies through the west of Europe. After trying for years to get a kingdom to fund his expedition, he was finally sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain in 1492.


His first expedition landed him in the Bahamas in which he established a colony in what is now known today as Haiti. This was the first settlement since the Vikings 500 years before, after which he returned to Spain in 1493. He brought a number of exotic goods from plants to birds and gold as well as some Native American captives. Word of his voyages quickly spread throughout the European world but also marked the beginning of the enslavement and colonisation of the Native American population.


Europeans conquering natives painting


Image: John Vanderlyn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Hero or Tyrant?

Many early settlements were the direct result of Columbus’ discovery of the American continent, with his general discovery giving rise to colonisation by other European nations. He basically kick-started modern globalism which caused major demographic, commercial, economic, social, and political changes. This fact alone has been celebrated by the western world for years. 


However, even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that took place within the colonies under his rule. Torture, dismemberment and brutality was often used for even the smallest of crimes under his governance. 


As such, one should look at Columbus’ fame with a grain of salt, admiring more in his absolute determination towards the discovery of a western trade route with the Indies. Treating his discovery of the Americas as with many other discoveries, a coincidence.


 columbus presenting goods returned from the new world


Image: Eugène Delacroix, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


A singular goal

Columbus never truly renounced his belief that he had reached the Far East through his voyages as seen from his naming of the indigenous people he encountered as “red Indians”. Furthermore, he had continued to seek passage to the East Indies in his following expeditions. Thus, it was not exactly clear if Columbus was aware that he was on an entirely different continent entirely and the ramifications that his discovery would entail.


Lessons to be learned

Columbus was a man dedicated to his craft as an explorer, with many flaws as with us all, he committed many unforgivable atrocities that will go on to be remembered and criticised for years to come. However, if there is anything to be learned it's that we can only live our lives as best we can. Though a brilliant explorer, Columbus was also a brutal tyrant when given power to rule and he was judged by the people of the time similarly. His achievements as an explorer was besides who he was as a person and should be treated as such. Not as a hero but a deeply flawed individual who contributed greatly to the western world we know today.

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