Four Things We Get Wrong About Columbus

120px-Portrait_of_a_Man,_Said_to_be_Christopher_ColumbusI know that when I was small, we learned that Christopher Columbus was the man who discovered America! That he did this against all odds, and with very little support, and that he was a great man.

Well….perhaps this is not exactly true.

1. He thought the world was flat

So, this was a super outdated idea, even when Christopher was a small boy. Scientists had known for at least 100 years that the world was round, and had a good idea about just how far around it measured.

What Columbus got wrong was how big the earth’s circumference actually was. He thought that it was a tad smaller than it actually is, and that this would make it easier to get to Asia. However, even contemporary scientists, cartographers, and navigators expressed concerns over his math skills and even flat out told him that he was wrong. Chris persisted however, and never actually made it to Asia.

2. He came in peace for exploration and trade

© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Nope, he wanted money and jewels and gold, and lots of these things. Sure, in the process he discovered a route to the Caribbean. But along the way, he raped and killed the native inhabitants of those islands. He and his men, and the men that came later, spread deadly diseases for which the Caribbean tribes had no immunity. And he and the Spanish exploited the people and resources of all the lands they colonized for wealth and power, with complete disregard to the societies that already existed.

3. Columbus was a hero in his own time

According to TodayIFoundOut.com, Columbus committed acts so against human ethics that he was removed from power, forced to return to Spain, and imprisoned. So what did he do? He raped women and girls; he sold many native people into slavery; he sold females, some as young as nine, into prostitution. And he killed a whole bunch of people, just because. So, no, he wasn’t exactly considered an awesome person during his own life.

Yes, he was initially given the title of viceroy and governor of the lands he had “found,” but he was also quickly put under investigation for crimes against the local population and then removed from power.

4. He discovered America

So, by definition, you can’t “find” something that other people have already found and populated. That would be like Romans “discovering” the British Isles, even though the Celts and Gauls already lived there. The Taino and Arawak people lived on the islands that Columbus supposedly found in 1492. They welcomed him, shared their knowledge and their wealth, and received enslavement, rape, and dead by disease and murder as a “Thank you.”

Might Columbus have been the first European to walk upon that particular place in the Americas? Sure, we can give him that. And his journey did touch off what would become the Columbian Exchange: the trade of goods, foods, and people between Europe and the New World.

However, Vikings has already sailed to and created temporary settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 1000s, or more than 400 years before. So, North America was already a thing by Columbus’s birth.

So, just to be clear:

Today, on the second Monday in October, we celebrate a man who:

  • sailed to the land he “discovered” because he couldn’t do math correctly
  • raped, murdered, and abused the native population of that land
  • was removed from power because of those actions
  • was looking for wealth and power
  • who helped bring deadly diseases to those lands and decimated the native Caribbean population

Why? Because he helped establish a trade route between the Caribbean and Europe.

Please teach your children the REAL (age appropriate) history of Christopher Columbus, and not the myth. We need children who grow up informed and educated about the realities of European exploration and colonization in the New World.

~Meg

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2 thoughts on “Four Things We Get Wrong About Columbus

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s definitely important to have a more well-rounded understanding of our history, and I agree that most history school texts tend to gloss over some of the gory details of Columbus’ exploration, but a lot of that has changed in more recent textbooks. The concerning part is that the revisionist texts fall prey to presentism, or applying our present day values to an historical event or person; they don’t account for Columbus’ diaries letters back to Isabella and Ferdinand that clearly indicate that he thought he was doing a good thing by introducing Christianity to the people he encountered. Though if you read Carlo Cipollo’s text, Guns, Sails, and Empires, he argues that religion was merely a pretext.

    Columbus wrote how he believed that the natives he encountered did not appear to have a religion or government system, which under the European beliefs of the day meant that the land was unclaimed under Terra Nullius (akin to the British claim on Australia). He also wrote extensively about how he perceived the natives he encountered as innocents who couldn’t recognize the value of their goods (which was just a misunderstanding/ miscommunication on his part), and upon recognizing this, he wrote that he forbade his men to continue to engage in unjust trades, though this is not mentioned in contemporary textbooks that only want to highlight the negatives of Columbus. They also fail to address that the “raping and pillaging” was reactionary. None of this occurred on Columbus’ first voyage, but when he returned on his second trip to collect the ten men he left behind, they were all gone, and the natives refused to tell him what happened. Presumably, when away from Columbus’ watch they engaged in behaviors they should not have, and understandably the natives responded vengefully. There relationship seemed to deteriorate from that point.

    So, while Columbus’ men may have engaged in many negative behaviors, the natives weren’t entirely innocents. I definitely agree that it’s important to teach that history is nuanced; it’s dangerous for us to ascribe either wholehearted praise without reflection–as you pointed out, Meg–or blame. Two potential other texts to study are The Spiritual Conversion of the Americas and Colonial Spanish America: A Documentary History for some more light-hearted reading on this stuff.  

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    1. Awesome points! Things do change so much depending on which lens you are looking through. I’m sure though a Spanish Imperial view it looked one way at the time, but a completely different way to the Tiana and the Arawak people’s, and a third way to those of us reflecting on this period of time today.

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