Was Columbus a Hero or a Villain?
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Since his death in 1506, Columbus’ life story has undergone many revisions. He is vilified by Indigenous rights groups, yet he was once seriously considered for sainthood. What’s the real scoop?
Columbus was neither a monster nor a saint. He had some admirable qualities and some very negative ones.
On the positive side, Columbus was a very talented sailor, navigator, and ship captain. He bravely went west without a map, trusting his instincts and calculations. He was very loyal to his patrons, the king and queen of Spain, and they rewarded him by sending him to the New World a total of four times. While he enslaved people from the tribes that fought him and his men, he seems to have dealt relatively fairly with those tribes that he befriended, such as that of Chief Guacanagari.
But there are many stains on his legacy as well. Ironically, the Columbus-bashers blame him for some things that were not under his control and ignore some of his most glaring actual defects. He and his crew brought awful diseases, such as smallpox, to which the men and women of the New World had no defenses, and their population is estimated to have declined by as much as 90%. This is undeniable, but it was also unintentional and would have happened eventually anyway. His discovery opened the doors to the conquistadors who looted the mighty Aztec and Inca Empires and slaughtered natives in large numbers, but this, too, would likely have happened when someone else inevitably discovered the New World.
If one must hate Columbus, it is far more reasonable to do so for other reasons. He was an enslaver and trader of enslaved people who heartlessly took men and women away from their families in order to lessen his failure to find a new trade route. The practice of enslavement was common and legal in Europe at the time, and the trade of enslaved people was very lucrative. Columbus never forgot that his voyage was not one of exploration, but of economics. His financing came from the hope that he would find a lucrative new trade route. He did nothing of the sort: the people he met had little to trade. An opportunist, he captured some natives to show that they would make good enslaved people. Years later, he would be devastated to learn that Queen Isabella had decided to declare the New World off-limits to enslavers.
During his fourth voyage, he and his men were stranded on Jamaica for a year when his ships rotted. No one wanted to travel there from Hispaniola to save him. He was also a cheapskate. After promising a reward to whoever spotted land first on his 1492 voyage, he refused to pay up when sailor Rodrigo de Triana did so, giving the reward to himself instead because he had seen a “glow” the night before.
Previously, the elevation of Columbus to a hero caused people to name cities (and a country, Colombia) after him and many places still celebrate Columbus Day. But nowadays, people tend to see Columbus for what he really was: an influential man with a mixed legacy.