Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain? Contrasting Images of the Man
Too much ambition and desire for self-fulfillment are the reasons why Christopher Columbus has been viewed in two sharply contrasting lights ever since he made his infamous voyages to the New World up to this day. Columbus is a man who has been posthumously been mired in a lot of controversy, being revered by some and derided by others for various reasons and at different times. The question that would come to any individual following his case is, was Columbus a hero or a villain? This paper examines the highlights of Christopher Columbus’s life to arrive at the conclusion that Columbus, despite the ills he committed in the process of the discovery of the New World which contribute to his negative image, can as well be viewed as a hero who played a significant part in the foundation of European settlements and eventual colonization of the Americas.
It is no doubt that Columbus was a great navigator and a pioneer. At a time when most European merchants could not come up with a way of circling the Muslim blockade to participate or take over the lucrative spices trade with China and India, he came up with a very daring proposition: why not sail westward so as to reach the east (Morison 2007)? Columbus, in his bid to sail westwards aiming to land in China or India, was influenced by a cartographer from Florentine named Paolo Del Pozzo Toscanelli and the works of Ptolemy (Adams 2009).
It is important to note that Washington Irvin’s (p 35) claim that Christopher Columbus set out to prove to scholars of the time that the world was spherical is based on unfounded misconceptions. Irvin claims that it was Columbus who proved the misinformed view in the medieval era that the world was flat. Before he began sourcing the resources that he and his crew would need on their sail into the west, Ptolemy and a host of other Greek theorists had fronted theories and cartographic proof that the world was indeed round. The matter which was in contention was its circumference. Columbus made use of Toscanelli’s work and calculated the circumference of the earth as 19000 miles. This was according to the real figure arrived at later 6000 miles too short (Adams 2009). Furthermore, he erroneously assumed that the Asian continent stretched further East than it actually does. His decision to go to sea was therefore very courageous as he had to his service a compass, the stars, three ships and a daredevil spirit.
Columbus is rightfully credited with the “discovery” of America, more so among Americans who are not native to the continent. This is to a great extent reasonable since he is indeed the person who the American continents and the highlands between them to the attention of European civilizations (Phillips & Phillips, 1992). His claim to this fame is however not that he got there first – many cultures and civilizations had already existed in America long before Columbus docked at its shores. Even the Vikings who were from the Western world had already arrived here. The difference between him and his predecessors is that he chose to stay and spread Western Civilization and Christianity to the New World. His vision and ambition for the lands he discovered thus altered history forever and defined the Americas as we know them today.
What brings to the fore a villainous Christopher Columbus are the things he did on land rather than in the sea. Christopher Columbus and the group of military men, Christian missionaries and settlers literary demolished the social institutions and lives of the people they found native to the Americas (Adams 2009). Furthermore, he attempted to deceptively lay claim to his obsession of discovering a sea route from the western coast of Europe to Asia by forcing his crew swear to lie that they had actually landed in China after sailing west.
To fulfill his lie that the New World was abundant with gold, he issued an order to every native over 14 years of age to find a specific amount of the precious metal every day. Those who could not had their hands chopped off; and many of the natives who fled his tyranny were hunted down and killed or starved to death (Phillips & Phillips, 1992). Rape and forced marriages became very common and the natives could not resist the scourge of the diseases brought by the westerners. Native population dropped tremendously by the turn of the 16th century. It is this paranoia that brought about his downfall as he was arrested and shipped back to Spain.
Christopher Columbus was a courageous and brave navigator who, armed with limited knowledge and equipment, embarked on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean very few sailors of his time would dare embark on. His obsession with finding a sea route to Asia by sailing west from the coast of Europe brought the New World to the attention of the western world. This eventually led to the colonization of the Americas (Adams 2009) and changed the history of the world permanently. However, ambition got the best out of him and he became a tyrant, enslaving American natives and destroying their institutions. He will therefore be a hero to some; and a villain to others especially as the devastation and re-invention of the Americas becomes increasingly analyzed.
Adams, C. K. (2009) Christopher Columbus: His Life and His Work. Charleston, SC
Irving, Washington (1830). Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. New York, NY:
Morison, S. E. (2007). Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. Read
Phillips, W. D., & Phillips, C. R. (1992). The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. New York,
NY: Cambridge University Press.