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At one point in history, centuries ago, the Americas were disconnected from cultured Europe. They were inhabited, yes, but their histories lost without a written language—their “civilizations” unable to make certain crucial steps forward. One man, Christopher Columbus, set out from Spain for Asia in 1492 and instead, ran into the Americas. The door between worlds opened, bringing positive and negative changes that were beyond the grasp of that one man. In recent years, it has become simple and even popular to indict Columbus for genocide after the fact. However, it is too easy to blame Columbus without also considering the necessary link of the continents, which, without Columbus and his skills, might not have been formed for quite some time. Columbus was both a hero and a villain, but was shaped accordingly with the worldly beliefs of the 1400’s.
Columbus was, in some ways, the celebrated hero of earlier times’ recognition. When he first landed on the island, he did trade with the Arawaks at first, as he wrote in his log—“they willingly traded everything they owned…which they exchanged for glass beads and hawks’ bells”. He was struck with wonder at what he had discovered, believing it to be India. This is how the natives got the name “Indians”. Columbus’ primary purpose was not to kill mass numbers of people; diseases brought from Europe were what killed most of the Indians. As there was no way for the explorers to know they would infect the Indians, we can hardly blame them for this transgression. No, Columbus’ priority was to find the gold that he had promised Isabella and Ferdinand, rulers of Spain. He “took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information” of the possible whereabouts of the gold. His motives were clear—in return for bringing gold back to Spain, Columbus would get 10 percent of the profits, governorships over new lands, and a new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. If his original goal was to look out for his own prospects, he certainly was a product of the Renaissance times: individualism struck home with Columbus. He had several great qualities that made the junction of the Americas to Europe possible. As the historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in his book Christopher Columbus, whatever defects he had were parts of qualities that made him significant: “his indomitable will, his superb faith in God…his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement. But there was no flaw…to the most outstanding of all his qualities—his seamanship.” All doubt aside, Columbus was an excellent, experienced seaman and strategizer. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his book, A World Restored, “History is the memory of the states”, and Spain remembered Columbus as a bringer of fame and fortune.
Of course, there is the other, darker side to Columbus, one that is indeed rife with vice. After all, whatever aspirations Columbus had for himself and Spain gave way to a mass murder that lasted at least 30 years. It started with Columbus’ desperate attempts to find the mass amounts of gold that did not exist in the Americas. He forced Indians to bring him a certain amount of gold each month, and gave them copper tokens when they did. Any Indian without a token could be executed, and was, at any time. The gold was not there; the Arawaks began dying out. They put up a meager resistance, but in two years, half of the 250,000 Indians on the island of Haiti were killed—through murder, mutilation, or suicide. A contemporary of Columbus, Bartholomé de las Casas, wrote about the atrocities in his History of the Indies: “Husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk…my eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.” A priest who owned a plantation at one time, he gave this enormous statistic—“There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, 3 million people died.” And so the notion of Columbus as action hero is silly and perhaps even dangerous in shaping ideals of today. The author of A People’s History of the United States says
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Christopher Columbus, Age of Discovery, Colony of Santo Domingo, Spanish West Indies, Apocalypticists, Columbus, Ohio, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Columbus, Georgia, La Isabela, Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Columbuss letter on the first voyage
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