Christopher Columbus: A Hero For One And A Villain For Others

Bigotry. Racism. Slavery. Words that seem to be used quite often in a generation full of passion to understand different concepts. This new concept and need to dig for more facts and information, to take a stand and scream your opinion, it all leaves a huge impression. One result is the overnight change of being a hero one day, and the next looked at as a monster. Everyone’s idol can change to a racist bigot in a matter of minutes. Christopher Columbus has long been known as a hero and the great explorer who discovered the Americas, at least that’s what we were taught in school as children. What many don’t know is that was only the beginning of the story.

Born 1451, in Genoa (present-day Italy) Christopher Colombo is known as a master navigator whose four voyages, between 1492 and 1504, opened the means for European exploration and colonization of the Americas. Columbus began his sailing career early, sailing to Iceland and Ireland with his merchant at the young age of 26. In 1479 he met and married Filepa Perestrello, and they had their son, Diego in 1480. Felipa died in 1485, and Columbus settled with his mistress Beatriz Enríquez de Harana of Córdoba, by whom he had his second son, Ferdinand, in 1488.

August 3rd, 1492, after going through hell to find funding, tired of being denied by the royal family, Columbus set out for his first major voyage with his crew filling three ships - The Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. They sailed for two long months, until they spotted the place of the first Caribbean landfall, called Guanahani, (present-day Bahamas) planting the royal banner consisting of a Christian cross and the initials of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, claiming the territory for Spain. However, Columbus spent little time there, being anxious to press on to what is present-day Japan. He thought that he had found it in Cuba, where he landed on October 28th, but he convinced himself by November 1st that Cuba was the Cathay mainland itself, though he had yet to see evidence of great cities, yet he turned back southeastward to search for elsewhere.

Adverse winds carried the crew to an island called Ayti, (present-day Haiti) on December 6 Columbus renamed it La Isla Española, or Hispaniola. There, Columbus found at least enough gold and prosperity to save him from ridicule on his return to Spain. The accidental running aground of the Santa María on December 25, 1492, provided extra planks and supplies for the rest of the quest.

On January 16, 1493, Columbus left with his remaining two ships for Spain. The journey back was a nightmare. In mid-February, a terrible storm engulfed the fleet. The Niña was driven to seek harbor at Santa Maria in the Azores where hostile Portuguese authorities temporarily imprisoned the group. After securing their freedom, Columbus sailed on to Lisbon. There, he was set to interview with King John II. These events left Columbus under the suspicion of collaborating with Spain’s enemies and cast a shadow on his return to Palos on March 15. Columbus was determined to take back both material and human cargo to his sovereigns and for himself, and this could be accomplished only if his crew continued looting, kidnapping, and other violent acts, especially on Hispaniola. Although he did control some of his men’s excesses, these developments blunted his ability to retain the high moral ground and the claim in particular that his “discoveries” were divinely ordained. Further, the Spanish court revived its latent doubts about the foreigner Columbus’s loyalty to Spain, and some of Columbus’s companions set themselves against him.

The gold, parrots, spices, and human captives Columbus displayed for his sovereigns at Barcelona convinced all of the need for a rapid second voyage. Columbus was now at the height of his popularity, and he led at least 17 ships out from Cádiz on September 25, 1493. Colonization and Christian evangelization were openly included this time in the plans, and a group of friars shipped with him. The presence of some 1,300 salaried men with perhaps 200 private investors and a small troop of cavalry are testimony to the anticipations for the expedition. Sailing again via Gomera in the Canary Islands, the fleet took a more southerly course than on the first voyage and reached Dominica in the Lesser Antilles on November 3. After sighting the Virgin Islands, it entered Samaná Bay in Hispaniola on November 23.

An expedition to Navidad four days later was shocked to find the stockade destroyed and the men dead. Here was a clear sign that Taino resistance had gathered strength. More fortified places were rapidly built, including a city, founded on January 2 and named La Isabela for the queen. On February 2 Antonio de Torres left La Isabela with 12 ships, some gold, spices, parrots, and captives (most of whom died en route), as well as the bad news about Navidad and some complaints about Columbus’s methods of government. While Torres headed for Spain, two of Columbus’s subordinates, Alonso de Ojeda and Pedro Margarit, took revenge for the massacre at Navidad and captured slaves. In March Columbus explored the Cibao Valley (thought to be the gold-bearing region of the island) and established the fortress of St. Thomas there. Then, late in April, Columbus led the Niña and two other ships to explore the Cuban coastline and search for gold in Jamaica, only to conclude that Hispaniola promised the richest spoils for the settlers. The admiral decided that Hispaniola was indeed the biblical land of Sheba and that Cuba was the mainland of Cathay. On June 12, 1494, Columbus insisted that his men swear a declaration to that effect — an indication that he intended to convince his sovereign he had reached Cathay, though not all of Columbus’s company agreed with him. The following year he began a determined conquest of Hispaniola, spreading devastation among the Taino. There is evidence, especially in the objections of a friar, Bernardo Buil, that Columbus’s methods remained harsh.

As a result of those voyages, and in addition to destroying ancient civilizations, he murdered approximately eight million Red/Brown people, raped and tortured millions of them, and robbed them of millions of acres of land. Columbus ignored the King and Queen’s order that he “abstain from doing … (the inhabitants) any injury.” For example, he created in 1495 the “tribute system” requiring every person over 14 to provide him with a “hawk’s bell” of gold every three months. Those who complied were given a “token” to wear around their neck. Those who didn’t comply, as Columbus’ son Fernando reported, were “punished by having their hands cut off” and “left to bleed to death.” About 10,000 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic were victimized. Many of the indigenous people were — while alive — “roasted on spits and burned alive”, and the invaders “hacked the children into pieces.” Also, Columbus’ men “tore the babes from their mother’s breast by their feet and bashed their heads against the rocks. They ‘split’ the bodies of other babies, together with their mothers on their swords.” Columbus, in order “to test the sharpness of their blades,” directed his men “to cut off the legs of children who ran from them.” And if Columbus’ brigade ran out of meat for their vicious dogs, “Arawak babies were killed for dog food.” Columbus not only pioneered a new form of mass murder, but he also pioneered a new form of slavery, which he transformed into a race-based and generational form of brutal labor.

Economically, Columbus was a great addition to Spain and his kingdom, he brought gold and servants, and declared land for Spain. Although today's generation claims he is a villain, and although that may be true, everything happens for a reason, and Columbus made a major mark in the history of explorers.

16 December 2021
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