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Christopher Columbus: Positive and Negative Impacts

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    History is one of the most interesting topics to learn and comprehend due to the wide variety of connections, interpretations, perceptions, and perspectives that are apparent. Atlantic history is not much different in any way, shape or form. A prime example of this is one of the most controversial figures that clouds much of the content: Cristoforo Colombo, otherwise known as Christopher Columbus. Many opinions emerge when even discussing Columbus, and most are notoriously negative, accusing him of the most heinous and exaggerated crimes such as: genocide, miscalculations of the voyage itself (essentially calling him lucky or stupid), mistreatment of the Natives, mistakenly considering America as India, hurting the development of indigenous people, biological warfare, sex slavery, and enslavement of innocent people leading to the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. Although this paper will not argue the purity of Columbus because he did make questionable decisions, other individuals should be more at fault, and more perspectives must be taken into account in order to deeply understand why Columbus is significant. If not, history will then transcend into the blaming and lambasting of a certain individual to create a scapegoat and allow others to feel better for their “lack” of involvement and ignorance.

    To first begin, it is important to note the very flaws from the beginning. There are two majors ones that turn Columbus into the monster that most see him as. The main idea many readers seem to override relates to translation and language. Nearly the most significant evidence used to demonize Columbus was translated by none other than the “savior of the indians”, Bartolome de las Casas. Howard Zinn, one of the most influential American historians (especially on topics related to America’s dark side) even goes on to state that Las Casas is often the only primary source discussing Columbus. Thus, it is fair to look in on Las Casas motives when translating much of the most significant pieces of evidence that criticise Columbus. First off, many individuals like to quote Casas stating, “I have no doubt that if Admiral Columbus had believed that such dreadful results would follow and had known as much about the primary and secondary effect of natural and divine law as he knew about cosmology and other human learning, he would never have introduced or initiated a practice which was to lead to such terrible harm. For no one can deny that he was a good and Christian man” (History of the Indies). As many readers can see, even Las Casas addressed the fact that Columbus was overall a decent guy that was simply making some bad decisions. However, the largest problem that involves Las Casas is not him defending Columbus or reporting on what he had done, it is the large bias that is rather obvious if the context is right.

    Salvador de Madariaga, a known nobel prize nominee and Spanish historian/diplomat states “Las Casas writes, copy and paraphrasing the Diary”. Now, the writes and copies aspect is fine, however to paraphrase documents seems rather odd. Thus, background information is needed in order to assess Las Casas and his motives. First off, Las Casas was a known critic of the Spanish. Howard Zinn states, “for a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty” (Zinn 5). Although being a critic of the cruelty is fine, it is also rather shady to translate documents by paraphrasing, and also be that same critic. Moreover, and although there may not me much truth to this, there was another similar movement going on criticizing the Spanish for what the Spanish had done had done: Black Legend.

    The Spanish Black Legend is common knowledge, being taught in World History, as the exaggeration or creation of information that made the Spanish look were then they were. Moreover, many historians will even credit Las Casas as the creator of Black Legend. Now, of course there is no way to prove Las Casas would be apart of this, but it seems a bit more clear when realizing the Las Casas was not in Hispainola at the time of Columbus’ governernship. He did not arrive until 1502, when Nicolas de Ovando was the governor. More on Nicolas later, but overall when connecting all the dots, it seems as if Columbus could have easily been mistranslated. Just as an example, let’s take one of Columbus’ most infamous quotes that he apparently states, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased” (Hanover). Of course, this an awful set of words to say because it refers to slavery and conquest, but this is easily one of the worst translation chosen to make Columbus look evil.

    Thus, it is reasonable to look at a similar quote that Columbus states about the same topic when meeting the Natives.. “It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians” or “for with fifty men they can all be subjucated and made to do what is required of them”. These quotes seem like polar opposites that came from the same evil man. In this quote, Columbus goes as far as completing them, and hopes they would convert to Christianity. Moreover, there is a lot of debate over the word “servant”, but as far as it seems, he meant in terms of religion or the crown. Although this does not immediately give Columbus a pass for what he had said, because most claimed the religion card when conquering. But it does show that translations, especially if paraphrased originally, can be flimsy and manipulated to fit every sort of agenda depending on how said agenda views Columbus. In fact, Columbus is addressing this to the rulers of Spain, stating he only need fifty men to stay and take care of the island versus “conquering”. It seems to point to subjugation to the crown and not enslave depending on what translation or source the reader is looking at.

    Another similar case to this is when individuals quote or paraphrase the idea that Columbus was cutting of Natives hands and also selling women into a sex slave trade. However, when reading the actual source the paraphrasing seems a little misleading. Columbus states “… and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking looking for girls… I assert the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me”. He then goes on more and more essentially stating that he punished and was shaming other Spanish individuals who were doing this to the Natives. Although he may have been also hurting the Natives for punishment, largely here he is talking about punishing his own men for what they had done. In any case, this suggests that Columbus may not be as evil as many make him out to be, and others should be more at fault or deserve less credit for what readers give them credit for.

    Speaking of those who should be more at fault, and individuals who are given more credit than they should have: Nicolas de Ovando, Amerigo Vespucci, Leif Erikson and of course Las Casas. To first begin, many people have this understanding that Columbus was the catalyst to the Atlantic Slave Trade due to the “Columbian exchange”. Which was a trade system revolving around goods, slaves, and other items like fire arms. However, it is odd that he deserves all the blame for the consequences, but none of the credit for what he had accomplished. For example, Las Casas as said before, was known as the savior of the Indians, thus all the credit. Yet, no one mentions that he outright support of African slaves over Indian ones. Juliana Beatriz Almeida de Souza states “Las Casas is said to have prepared the instructions given by Cardinal Cisneros to the three monks which permitted the entrance of black slaves to America”. Las Casas literally was pushing for this Trans Atlantic Slave trade, and yet everyone wants to blame Columbus for all of it. No one critiques Las Casas because he later regretted his choices and that is fine to do, but in any case he still was a major reason as to why this slave trade even existed.

    Another similar example to Las Casas, is Nicolas de Ovando the governor of Hispaniola after Columbus’ reign. Although Columbus was violent towards the natives, it comes nowhere near Nicolas de Ovando brutality. John K. Thornton states, “The licentiate Suaso, writing in 1518, described great massacres of Indians by Ovando, and even argued that internal migrations, presumably to work in mines, caused great loss of life, reducing the population, he said from more than a million to 11,000”. Now, it is okay to criticise Columbus for what he did in terms of decisions, but it seems odd to only have Ovando mentioned in history so few times, even though he potentially murder close to a million Natives.

    The massacre Thornton is quoting from include both the Jaragua Massacre and the Higuey Massacre, both led or started by Ovando. To paraphrase what happened in the Jaragua massacre, essentially Natives attacked and killed around eight Spaniards. So, Ovando responded with an arm of four hundred men, went to the Higuey territory, and brutally stabbed around six hundred Natives. Jaragua was rather similar in brutality. Essentially, they captured the Natives and tied them up, leading to a cruel burning. To quote directly from Ovando’s perspective, “Governor Ovando was uneasy and did not participate as a joyful guest. He hung back. He had determined to terrorize the Indians into submission and obedience.

    Since there were always many Indians and few Spaniards, it became customary to spring a trap and massacre many to put the fear of God in them every time they heard the name of Christians thereafter”. Ovando was much more cruel than Columbus had ever been, and he killed much more natives. It is odd to blame Columbus for his harsh treatment of the Natives, but rarely mention anything about Ovando. Moreover, to tie it back to a similar vein of Las Casas, he was the first to oversee and be apart of the transaction of the first African slave in America. Although those slaves did not technically come from Africa because they had to be Christian. However, they still were the first black slaves in North America. Moreover, many readers like to argue that just like Las Casas, he was eventually against the use of black slaves. This was only because many were running away and he was afraid of a revolt taking place. And, even then he eventually ordered more because they were making him a large profit. Thus, it feels like a combination of Las Casas and Ovando caused much more hurt then Columbus ever could.

    Now, before getting into the last two individuals, it is best to state that this is more to clear up misconceptions which in turn can defend Columbus. Overall, many people consider Columbus idiotic and not particularly smart due to his miscalculation of how long it would take and assuming he had landed in India, and thus considering the Natives Indians. However, historians are very aware that Columbus was headed for Japan. Carla Phillips, a historian that worked at the University of Minnesota, states in her book The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, that he believed Japan was west of the Canaries Islands, which is where he was headed. Essentially, he was looking for a faster route to Asia, that did not force voyagers to go around Africa. Obviously, as most note in Atlantic history, the wind patterns are treacherous and were considered largely unpredictable, and Columbus had miscalculate the voyage and got lucky to land of Hispaniola, which he thought was an island off of Japan. Thus, this is where most people consider Columbus idiotic because any educated person knew how long the voyage was. However, it is not like Columbus had did the calculation on his own. He had the help and recommendation from one of the greatest cartographers of the time: Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. In his letters to Columbus, Toscanelli tells Columbus that the voyage is “not only possible, but feasible, profitable, and honourable”. Thus, it is hard to blame Columbus for an error that one of the most educated also made.

    Finally, a few minor misconceptions people have about Columbus relate to Amerigo Vespucci and Leif Erikson. Both of these men are in some way now more credited for the discovery of America, over Columbus because they arrived first (well some say Vespucci published his findings first). Although it is known speculation that Vespucci made up or exaggerated much of the voyages and claims he had made. Thus, the only reason he received credit for the discovery was due to a German map maker naming (Martin Waldseemuller) calling the New World America. However, he still credits both Amerigo and Columbus for doing so in the upper left corner of the map. It only makes sense then that Columbus deserves credit too then. Leif Erikson is a different story because he undeniably set foot in North America/Greenland. However, he was there for around a year and never returned, and largely the settlement was forgotten about due to various potential reasons like The Little Ice Age. Although they deserve credit for this initial discovery, ultimately Columbus’ discovery was more impactful due to the numerous connections, colonizations, etcetera that were caused by him and not the Vikings.

    In conclusion, Columbus may have been a shady man who made bad decisions. Ultimately, there was other individuals who were just as horrible (or worse, Ovando) or attempting to ruin is reputation. History, especially in that of the Atlantic, is largely overlooked and complicated, and thus blaming one individual for hundreds of years of horrible genocide or disease is oversimplifying information that needs to be further researched. History often repeats itself, as the saying goes, thus it is important to identify the connections, and other various context that caused years of pain, rather than blaming one individual who was simply just like any other voyager or arguably less harsh then the likes of Cortez or Pizarro. In any case the best way to explain the bias against Columbus is he deserves all the blame for what happened to groups like the Natives and Africans, but none of the credit for the vast connections he had essentially created, propelling American History into the forefront. It is ignorant to say Columbus has no large effect in American history, due to the vast amount of cities, a country, a (previous) holiday, and even a depiction of his female self in the famous image of Manifest Destiny. Not every individual needs to be put into a black or white area, because in the end every individual is complicated, and Columbus was one of them. He is neither good nor bad, but he had more influence than most average Americans ever will.

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