Columbus’ Explorations of America
History is full of myths. The historical opposition between myths and facts stirs our imagination, leading us into the wonderful time of discoveries and explorations. Christopher Columbus remains one of the most mystic and confusing figures in history. He has made invaluable contribution into the development of historical and geographic research, and over centuries, his name has been associated with exploration of Americas and the discovery of what we not call the United States. History suggests that the age of exploration would not even start if not for Christopher Columbus’ early discoveries. In reality, the historical consequences of Columbus’ explorations are more than controversial. Columbus’ explorations of America remain a mixed blessing that set the future course of international history and geography, shaking the eternal balance between the indigenous Indian people and the land they had inhabited for centuries.
What Used to Be Called America?
In order to objectively evaluate the significance of Columbus’ voyage to America, it is essential that researchers and professionals have full understanding of what we mean by the word “America”. It should be noted, that numerous nationalities and peoples inhabited the Western Hemisphere since unknown times. Researchers believe that before Columbus’ arrival to the American continent, those people did not maintain any contacts with other world regions, and might have possibly been unaware of the existence of Africa, Europe, or even Asia (Heat-Moon 33). Those territories witnessed the rises and falls of well-developed civilizations, among which the Inca and the Aztec took special place. Ancient civilizations never displayed any desire to form a single geographical entity; and only with time, the five distinct geographical territories (North America, the Andean region, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic, and Middle America) were united under a common name “America” (Allen 102).
Christopher Columbus’s Explorations: Either Blessing or Curse?
When Columbus was trying to convince Spanish Queen to provide sponsorship and to support his desire to travel, he might have had no idea of what was waiting for him ahead, The need for his voyage was justified by the Queen’s striving to find and conquer the new lands, although Columbus was initially pursuing different goals, and was more interested in looking for a new route to China. “There are many theories concerning Christopher Columbus and the origin of the idea that, because the world was round, a person could set sail from one side and journey back around to the other” (Axtell 81). However, these theories are nothing more than myths; by the beginning of the 15th century, everyone knew that the Earth was round, although scientists lacked information about the real size of the globe (Axtell 84). Now, in the 21st century, these ideas gradually lose their relevance under the growing controversy of Columbus’ discoveries: the age of Exploration has turned into the Age of critical discoveries, of which America was the most important. Simultaneously, Columbus’ discoveries generated unbearable civil tension between the Spanish newcomers, their desire to establish new colonies, and the indigenous Indian population that inhabited the American territories.
Columbus left Spain on August 3, 1492 (Paine 1045). The details of his journey are well documented. “The fundamental difference between Columbus’ voyage in 1492 and those of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama is that the Portuguese explorers had knowledge that the areas they were traveling to existed” (Paine 1045). Everything was different with Columbus: he suddenly found a new land, and he could hardly find a common language with the people who were completely unknown to him. The first step on the land of San Salvador was marked with Columbus’ intention to claim the territory for Spain against the desire of people who had already inhabited that territory. Such actions reflected the essence of Columbus’ voyage, which did not pursue the need for new geographical discoveries but was aimed at conquering new lands for Spain. Columbus did not want and could not objectively evaluate his position in the new continent; the name of Spanish throne and the bureaucratic traditions of the European countries contradicted to the eternal values of the Native American people (Vizenor 29). Although the provisions of natural law suggest that the first person on a new land can call this land his property, in case it is not inhabited by other people, Columbus refused to recognize the fact of San Salvador belonging to an unknown population (Allen 56).
Certainly, Columbus vividly described the Taino tribes, being the first to call them “Indians”, and renamed the majority of the American islands and objects. However, the majority of those names were later forgiven or replaced by Amerigo Vespucci, and Columbus’ contribution into the development of the American exploration becomes even more contradictory through the prism of European traditions and customs that were imposed onto the Native American people. Columbus’ first impressions about America are reflected in his diary: “I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them [natives] as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can easily be made Christians” (Heat-Moon 80). Unfortunately, Columbus has initially distorted the historical balance between the two different nations, having positioned himself as a representative of a superior country looking for cheap labor force and golden natural resources.
Despite the invaluable historical information Columbus left in his diary, his exploration of America could hardly be justified by purely scientific needs. On the contrary, Columbus was seeking the means to combine the glory for the new discovery with the glory for expanding Spanish possessions all over the world. His second voyage in 1493 was driven by the growing Queen’s desire to expand Hispaniola’s colonies, and convert indigenous people to Christianity (Paine 1047). Undoubtedly, Columbus’ second trip was no less meaningful that the previous one; he was evidently trying to prove to the whole world that people had to expand their knowledge of geography. However, Columbus’ plans to continue his exploration of unknown Hispaniola’s lands were broken as soon as he reached the land to see that native population had completely destroyed the previously built Spanish colony. Columbus’ initial desire to explore the unknown land was quickly replaced by the feeling of revenge and the desire to prove his physical and moral superiority over the indigenous people (Allen 85). Although Columbus wrote that the Indians were free to mix with the Spanish newcomers and were openly welcoming the travelers, they later regretted their openness, having turned into the slaves who maintained the peace and stability in the new colonial environment (Heat-Moon 93). In this context, Columbus’ exploration was limited to the search for gold and the desire to establish new architecture of social relations with the national population. The records Columbus left after the journey do not provide an objective insight into what was happening in the newly discovered lands. Vizenor suggests that “Columbus had gathered enough evidence to suggest that future exploration could yield a healthy profit in gold and salvageable souls to make subsequent voyages feasible” (31). These ideas are reinforced by the details we find in Columbus’ diary: “I have been very attentive and have tried hard to find out if there is any gold here. I have seen a few natives who wear a little piece of gold hanging from a hole made in the nose” (Axtell 112). From the historical viewpoint, these records provide invaluable information about the appearance and traditions of the indigenous population; but they simultaneously prove the limited character of Columbus’ exploratory needs and intentions. He was becoming less interested in geography, and more concerned about the presence or absence of gold in the American lands.
The goal of Columbus’ third voyage was to bring supplies to the new Spanish settlements and to explore the southern American territories. Canary Islands, Porto Santo, and Madeira were the objects of Columbus’ exploration (Allen 39). By the end of 1499, Columbus already found himself in the center of the growing national turmoil, with native inhabitants refusing to follow his orders. The third Columbus’ journey was marked with the first human visit to South America, but in 1500 Columbus was intentionally taken back to Spain due to the growing political and military tension between the Spanish troops and the native population. Columbus opened the pathway to the new world, but that way was covered with deaths and sufferings of the Native American population. From the viewpoint of historical objectivity, Columbus has distorted the eternal balance between the Native Americans and the rest of the world, with exploration making Indians extremely vulnerable to external threats.
Columbus’ exploration of America turned into a mixed blessing: with dozens of Native Americans suffering the consequences of Spanish invasion, Columbus laid the foundation of the new age of exploration. We owe Columbus for the discovery of Southern American Trinidad; Columbus’ voyages opened the gateway to the development of the new geographical theory, where the American continent took special place and was identified in need for further exploration. Columbus’ exploration was similar to a contest, in which the search for gold prevailed over the natural scientific desire to look deeper into the Native American traditions and culture; it remains a controversial historical phenomenon that helped map the entire Atlantic coast, but led to the growing tension between the Indian population and the Spanish travelers. In the eyes of the national population those travelers soon lost their “exploratory reputation”, having turned into violent invaders threatening the stability and integrity of the American continent.
Allen, J.L. North American Exploration. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Axtell, J. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. Oxford University Press,
Heat-Moon, W.L. Columbus in the Americas. Wiley, 2002.
Paine, R. “Columbus, and Anthropology, and the Unknown.” Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute, vol. 1 (1995): p. 1044-1049
Vizenor, G. “Christopher Columbus: Lost Havens in the Ruins of Representation.” American
Indian Quarterly, vol. 16 (1992): p. 29-32.