“In 1492, Columbus sailed the blue ocean.”
This is a simple poem that was taught to thousands of young children when most history lessons were focused on names and dates. This simple lesson ignores the wider history of Christopher Columbus’ four voyages to the New World and the impact of these explorations on Europe and America. Columbus’ last voyage left Europe on May 11, 1502, and continued his search for a sea route to China, this time exploring the coastal regions west of the Caribbean. Although he failed to achieve his goal, his travels ushered in a new era of European exploration, colonization, and became a nightmare for the indigenous people of the Caribbean. His legacy is complex. “After five centuries, Columbus remains an enigmatic and controversial figure, variously described as one of the greatest navigators in history, a visionary genius, a mystic, a national hero, an unsuccessful administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist.”
Given the variety of perspectives on Columbus, it is not surprising that some try to simplify his story.
One of the benefits of participating in our We are teachers a blog is an opportunity to explore various topics in American history. I always learn something that I either did not know or forgot. Columbus’ voyages, especially voyages two, three and four, are no exception. For example, I didn’t know that 11-year-old Christopher Columbus’ first sailing experience was on a merchant ship. I also did not know that when he was 25 years old, he, clinging to the wreckage of his ship and hitting the shore in Portugal, survived the attack of pirates who destroyed and sank his ship. I was also surprised that, before Columbus secured financial support for his first expedition from Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, he embarked on a comprehensive self-study of mathematics, astronomy, navigation and cartography – subjects that he needed to master in order to realize his plan. .
These facts paint a picture of a determined, ambitious man determined to make his mark in a cruel and dangerous world. His experience may have contributed to his appreciation of the people he encountered in the New World as people he could use to his advantage. “They do not carry weapons, and do not know them, for I showed them the sword, they took it by the edge and hacked themselves from ignorance …”, he wrote in his diary. “They would make excellent servants… With fifty men, we could subdue them all and make them do whatever we want.” Although he was denied permission to enslave the natives at least once, Columbus and his people defied the restriction, enslaving hundreds throughout their career.
Columbus was not the first to look for a sea route from Europe to Asia. The problem has attracted European thinkers since early Roman times. The overland journey was long, difficult and dangerous. If the sea route were opened, he promised to make trade with Asian countries more profitable and gain access to goods that are not and are not produced in Europe.
Columbus’ insight was to get east by sailing west. His mistake was mathematical. He assumed the globe was smaller than it actually is, so his estimate of how long the journey would take was unrealistic. He also did not know that the Western Hemisphere blocked his path.
Impressed by the gold, spices, and captive men that Columbus had brought back from his first expedition, the Spanish crown authorized a quick turnaround for his next voyage with a considerably larger fleet of seventeen ships and 1,200 men. Also participating in the expedition were settlers, encouraged by the promise of large amounts of gold on the islands. The Spanish crown ordered Columbus to convert any natives he encountered to Christianity.
Upon his return to Hispaniola, the settlement he founded on his first landing, Columbus found it destroyed by disease and war with the natives. The new settlers he brought in quickly became disillusioned with the island’s exaggerated claims for gold. Columbus decided to return to Spain for supplies, leaving his brother Bartholomew in charge of Hispaniola. His third trip was just as disastrous. The Spaniards in Hispaniola accused Christopher and his brother of mismanagement. The new Spanish administrator arrived in September 1499, investigated the allegations, arrested Columbus, and sent him home in chains.
He tried to salvage his reputation on his fourth voyage, finally finding a sea route to Asia. Ironically, he landed on the coasts of Nicaragua and Panama, where future dreamers saw the best place to build an artificial canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Panama Canal is now the route that Columbus hoped nature provided.
Columbus’ expeditions wiped out the indigenous Taino population of the Caribbean. An age of exploration began which led to the triangular trade of the colonial era, with commodities produced by enslaved labor being sent to Europe, where rum and other manufactured goods were made and sold in Africa for the more enslaved Africans. Thus, his expeditions are important because they forever changed the relationship between Europe, Africa and America.
How should we tell students about Columbus?
Although I am no longer in class, every time I study a topic for a blog post, I evaluate how I would change my lessons. In the past, when I taught Columbus, I gave my students an excerpt from a book by historian David E. Stannard, American Holocaust. Stannard’s descriptions of Columbus’s relationship with the native peoples are gruesome. His descriptions of contemporary Europe are just as gruesome. The students discussed whether men from a place of violence would treat strangers non-violently.
Here is one way to modify this lesson. First, I would divide the students into groups to analyze each of Columbus’s four voyages and ask them to consider the goals of each voyage, as well as what he learned from each expedition. Next, I would assign Documents and Debate: Early Contact from Volume 1 of the TAH Core Document Collection for students to read and discuss how the treatment of Native Americans was discussed in the time of Columbus before subjecting them to the historian’s interpretation. Students should be aware that the debate about Columbus’ actions and thus his legacy began in the 1490s and continues today. They can freely read primary and secondary sources and draw conclusions about this person and his time.
Ray Tyler was a 2014 James Madison Scholar for South Carolina and a 2016 graduate. Ashland University Master’s Program in American History and Government. Ray is a former director of education at TAH and is a frequent blogger.