We all have different versions of how we remember learning about Christopher Columbus. In my second grade class with Mrs. Mocke I learned that Columbus was a brave hero who discovered America; however, when my younger sister was in same grade with the same teacher she was taught that Columbus was definitely a great explorer, but had a mean and dangerous side that treated the natives with active contempt. Throughout the last few decades we have been changing the learning system ideology on what to teach students about this remarkable explorer, but his contributions to history do not excuse that fact that he murdered and enslaved untold numbers of native Americans and exploited their land and labors.
There are many stories about the utter lack of respect Columbus and his men had for the Arawaks of the Bahama Islands. The Spaniards would use Indians to test the sharpness of their swords by “cutting slices of them” blatantly in the streets. (Zinn) They thought of themselves as superior to Indians and cut a population of 250,000 in half in less than two years through “murder, mutilation, or suicide.” (Zinn) Some refer to him and his crew as “the cult of Columbus who rose” which is rather fitting when you think about it; a cult is referred to as strange and sinister which accurately describes Columbus and his actions. (Handwerk) The degrading slicing and torture of the native inhabitants leaves us with a perplexing and sadistic spectacle which is difficult to contemplate. In addition to their direct murderous actions, they also brought disease with them that the local natives were not immune to, including the devastating smallpox. Diseases have been known to kill multitudes of people over generations, like the black plague, but the contagens typically spread through involuntary ignorance. The Spaniards were spreading their diseases with full awareness of the impacts; never once did they attempt to help the native Americans nor did they seek to avoid contact or leave when the local populations were afflicted.
In addition to the wholesale loss of indigenous life, the Spaniards also plundered the land all around them. The Indians referred to them as “fierce wolves and tigers and lions,” creating a sense of domination and predation.(Las Casas) All three of these animals are known to be extremely territorial, taking whatever they desire. The Spaniards brought in many non-indigenous animals to the Americas, like sheep and cows, that played havoc with the local ecosystems and the grasslands. This lead to a profuse shortage of resources and resulted in famine.
This disruption forced many of the Native Americans to move to different regions, and the Spaniards followed and ruined those farmlands and hunting grounds as well. The native Americans treated the land with an abundance “more respectful” while the Spaniards had no concern about the environment. (Weinberg) The Spanish approached the land with a mindset only of making a profit while the native Americans cherished their sacred lands and respected the balance that sustained their way of life. The Spaniards had no sympathy towards “the wonders of inanimate nature,” and perpetuated this disdain through countless acts of wrecking and over-indulging in natural resources. (Weinberg) Overall the spaniards proved to be ruthless and apathetic to the natural order around them.
While Columbus has proven to be a ghastly and immoral man, we have to give balance to the fact that he was a “very good sailor” and “very brave.” (Anderson) He sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for ten lengthy weeks through intense rains and winds that killed many of his sailors. We all have our own opinions about this fascinating figure, yet the inescapable conclusion is that he was an executioner of native Americans which easily outweighs his bravery and leadership.
Christopher Columbus murdered and enslaved thousands and destroyed and left the lands he “discovered” scarred and broken. After hundreds of years our opinions and transparency with the facts about the great Christopher Columbus have changed him into a less admirable man, unsympathetic to modern sensibilities and incompatible with contemporary morality.
- Handwerk, Brian. “Why Christopher Columbus Was the Perfect Icon for a New Nation Looking for a Hero.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 9 Oct. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-christopher-columbus-was-perfect-icon-new-nation-looking-hero-180956887/.
- Anderson, Melinda D. “Why Schools Should Rethink How They Teach About Columbus.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/columbus-day-school-holiday/409984/.
- Weinberg, Philip. Columbus 500 Years Later: An Environmental Perspective . scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1553&context=jcred.
- de Las Casas, Bartolomé. “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies..” National Humanities Center, Franklin W. Knight, Andrew Hurley, 2006, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/contact/text7/casas_destruction.pdf..
- Zinn, Howard, et al. A People’s History of American Empire: a Graphic Adaptation. Metropolitan Books, 2008