A Collision of Worlds: The Legacy of Columbus

Who discovered America? As of this writing, Google gets the answer to that question wrong – while citing an article that gets it right. How can Columbus discover America if he was greeted on the beach? That would be like your friend arriving late to class, bursting through the door, and loudly proclaiming that he had discovered you, your teacher, and your peers. Columbus is certainly consequential. You can accurately say that he discovered the Americas for modern Europeans – but he was late to an already lively party. That party was in full swing, and, it can also be said that Columbus kicked off an unprecedented new era in American history characterized by conquest, colonialism, and exchange.
This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. Why did Columbus think sailing west would lead him to Asia?
  2. What was Columbus’s reaction to the indigenous peoples he encountered?
  3. What is the Columbian Exchange?
  4. In your opinion, was the large-scale death of Native Americans in the wake Spanish arrival an example of genocide?
  5. How successful were early English efforts to profit from the Americas?
  6. Listen to the children’s book as read in the video below. Compare and contrast the story told within to the one related in the text on this page. How do you account for the differences? Is it possible to understand Columbus from the storybook alone?

The Age of Discovery

During the fifteenth and the sixteenth century the states of Europe began their modern exploration of the world with a series of sea voyages. The Atlantic states of Spain and Portugal were foremost in this enterprise though other countries, notably England and the Netherlands, also took part. This period is known by historians as the Age of Discovery, or the Age of Exploration.

The Silk Road and spice trade routes later blocked by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 spurring exploration to find alternative sea routes.

The explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had a variety of motivations, but were generally inspired by the prospects of trade and wealth – in particular, Portugal and Spain were motivated to circumvent Italian and Muslim merchants who controlled overland and maritime routes linking Europe, Africa, and Asia. The earliest explorations around the coast of West Africa were designed to bypass these trade routes. The improved naval techniques that developed from these experiments allowed Europeans to travel further afield, to India and, ultimately, to the Americas.

In 1492, a Spanish-based transatlantic maritime expedition led by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in his native language) encountered the Americas, continents which were completely unknown in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Contrary to popular belief, most educated Europeans of this period knew well enough that the world was round, a fact established through mathematical conjecture in ancient times by the Greeks and many others. Columbus was the first to sail west in search of the east because he believed that previous estimates about the size of the Earth were too large – he gambled that he could reach Asia before he and his crew ran out of fresh water in the open Atlantic. He was wrong, but it is accurate to say that his error ushered in the modern world.

A replica of the Niña, one of three ships used in Columbus’s 1492 journey. Technological advancements such as the adoption of the magnetic compass and the astrolabe, improved rudders, and sails made the Age of Discovery possible. The compass was invented by Chinese. It had been used for navigation in China by the 11th century and was adopted by the Arab traders in the Indian Ocean. The compass spread along trade routes to Europe by the late 12th or early 13th century.

Columbus’s crew sighted land on October 12, 1492. Columbus called the island San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas or Turks and Caicos; the indigenous residents had named it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos this corresponds to is an unresolved topic.

The indigenous people he encountered, the Lucayan, Taíno, and Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. He called the inhabitants indios (Spanish for “Indians”). Noting their gold ear ornaments, Columbus took some of the Arawaks prisoner and insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. From the entry in his journal of 12 October 1492, in which he wrote of them: “Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.” Columbus noted that their primitive weapons and military tactics made them susceptible to easy conquest, writing, “these people are very simple in war-like matters … I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”

Landing of Columbus (12 October 1492), a painting by John Vanderlyn, is a heroic depiction of Columbus’s landfall in the Americas. Note the cowering, bowing natives in the shadows. In this light, Columbus is portrayed as bringing light and civilization to a hemisphere of savages. Long after his death, Columbus would become a hero to many, especially in United States during the latter part of the 1800s. This painting was commissioned for the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Since the late 20th century, historians have criticized Columbus for initiating colonization and for abuse of natives. Among reasons for this criticism is the poor treatment of the native Taíno people of Hispaniola, whose population declined rapidly after contact with the Spanish. As governor of the island, Columbus required the natives to pay tribute in gold and cotton. Modern estimates for the pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola are around 250,000–300,000. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, and 42 years after he died, fewer than 500 Taíno were living on the island. The indigenous population declined rapidly, due primarily to the first pandemic of European endemic diseases, which struck Hispaniola after 1519. There is also ample documentation that they were overworked – subjected to deadly forced labor in gold and silver mines, as well as on large plantations called encomienda on a massive scale.

According to Spanish colonist and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas’s contemporary A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, when slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to pay a hawk’s bell full of gold powder every three months. Natives who brought this amount to the Spanish were given a copper token to hang around their necks. The Spanish cut off the hands of those without tokens, and left them to bleed to death. Thousands of natives committed suicide by poison to escape their persecution.

The four voyages of Columbus began the Spanish colonization of the Americas. From the perspective of many non-Europeans, the Age of Discovery marked the arrival of invaders from previously unknown continents.

For a long time it was generally believed that Columbus and his crew had been the first Europeans to make landfall in the Americas. In fact they were not the first explorers from Europe to reach the Americas, having been preceded by the Viking expedition led by Leif Erikson in the 11th century; however, Columbus’s voyages were the ones that led to ongoing European contact with the Americas, inaugurating a period of exploration, conquest, and colonization whose effects and consequences persist to the present.

Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean and continuing control of vast territory for over three centuries, the Spanish Empire would expand across the Caribbean Islands, half of South America, most of Central America and much of North America (including present day Mexico, Florida and the Southwestern and Pacific Coastal regions of the United States).

Five hundred years of European colonial expansion, kicked off by Columbus on behalf of Spain in 1492.

European overseas exploration led to the rise of global trade and the European colonial empires, with the contact between the Old World (Europe, Asia and Africa) and the New World (the Americas and Australia) producing the Columbian Exchange, a wide transfer of plants, animals, food, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases and culture between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. This represented one of the most significant global events concerning ecology, agriculture and culture in history. The Age of Discovery and later European exploration allowed the global mapping of the world, resulting in a new worldview and distant civilizations coming into contact, but also led to the propagation of diseases that decimated populations not previously in contact with Eurasia and Africa and to the enslavement, exploitation, military conquest and economic dominance by Europe and its colonies over native populations.

New World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Maize (Zea mays) 2. Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) 3. Potato (Solanum tuberosum) 4. Vanilla (Vanilla) 5. Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) 6. Cacao (Theobroma cacao) 7. Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)
Old World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Citrus (Rutaceae); 2. Apple (Malus domestica); 3. Banana (Musa); 4. Mango (Mangifera); 5. Onion (Allium); 6. Coffee (Coffea); 7. Wheat (Triticum spp.); 8. Rice (Oryza sativa)

The indigenous population of the Americas plummeted by an estimated 80% in the first century and a half following Columbus’s voyages, primarily through the spread of Afro-Eurasian diseases. This has been argued to be the first large-scale act of genocide in the modern era – the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation – although this claim is largely disputed due to the unintended nature of the disease introduction, which is considered a byproduct of Columbian exchange. Racial mixing was a central process in the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and ultimately led to the Latin American identity, which combines Hispanic, Native American, Arabic, Berber, and numerous African ethnicities.

Statues of Christopher Columbus are common throughout the world, especially in the United States. In the twenty-first century, veneration of Columbus has become increasingly controversial. This statue of Columbus is New York’s Central Park was defaced with red paint – representing blood on his hands.

English Competition in the Americas

At the time of Spain’s ascendancy, England was a relatively weak, small country on the periphery of Europe. In 1496, King Henry VII of England, following the successes of Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to discover a route to Asia via the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed in 1497, five years after the European discovery of America, but he made landfall on the coast of Newfoundland, and, mistakenly believing (like Christopher Columbus) that he had reached Asia, there was no attempt to found a colony. Cabot led another voyage to the Americas the following year but nothing was ever heard of his ships again.

No further attempts to establish English colonies in the Americas were made until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during the last decades of the 16th century. During this time, conflict between England and Spain grew, fueled mainly by English piracy and religious differences.

Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts (1591) and the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.

In 1562, the English Crown encouraged the privateers – pirates operating on behalf of a country – John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in slave-raiding attacks against Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa with the aim of breaking into the Atlantic slave trade. This effort was rebuffed and later, as the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth I gave her blessing to further privateering raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and shipping that was returning across the Atlantic, laden with treasure from the New World.

The Roanoke Colony was the first attempt at founding a permanent English settlement in North America. It was established in 1585 on Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina, United States.

The initial settlement was established in the summer of 1585, but a lack of supplies and bad relations with the local Native Americans caused many of its members to return to England with Sir Francis Drake a year later, leaving behind a small detachment. These men had all disappeared by the time a second expedition led by John White, who also served as the colony’s governor, arrived in July 1587. White, whose granddaughter Virginia Dare was born there shortly thereafter (making her the first English child born in the New World), left for England in late 1587 to request assistance from the government, but was prevented from returning to Roanoke until August 1590 due to the Anglo-Spanish War. Upon his arrival, the entire colony was missing with only a single clue to indicate what happened to them: the word “CROATOAN” carved into a tree.

The discovery of the word “Croatoan” carved onto a stockade board.

For many years, it was widely accepted that the colonists were massacred by local tribes, but no bodies were ever discovered, nor any other archaeological evidence. The most prevalent hypothesis now is that environmental circumstances forced the colonists to take shelter with local tribes, but that is mostly based on oral histories and also lacks conclusive evidence. Some artifacts were discovered in 1998 on Hatteras Island where the Croatan tribe was based, but researchers could not definitively say these were from the Roanoke colonists.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Age of Discovery
  2. Christopher Columbus
  3. The British Empire
  4. The Roanoke Colony