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Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

Updated on October 12, 2015

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

There has been many debates on whether or not Christopher Columbus should be seen as a hero or a villain. This report shows both arguments on this particular topic. Arguments for Columbus being a hero include his great discoveries, how these were valuable and what impacts these discoveries have had on the Spanish Empire and Europe. Arguments for Columbus being a villain include the native cultures of indigenous Americans and how they were treated by the Spanish and Europeans, and what impacts contact between the Spanish and native Americans have had on each culture. Christopher Columbus was a Genoese explorer, navigator, and coloniser, born in the Republic of Genoa. He is mainly known for discovering the Americas’. The Americas’ were classified as North America, Mesoamerica and South America. Christopher Columbus’ expeditions to the Americas’ began when the King and Queen of Spain sponsored Columbus in 1492 to find a new, quicker way to get to Asia. They sponsored him because the Queen (Queen Isabella I) of Spain wanted to spread Christianity to Asia and because they wanted to take control of the trade routes before the Portuguese did. On his expedition he stumbled upon the Americas’. From that day forward the conquest of the America’s began. Reasons for this conquest included bringing more land, riches and products to the European (particularly the Spanish) Empire, and also more souls for Christendom.

What were his discoveries?

Christopher Columbus sought a shorter route to Asia, but instead he found the Bahamas and Caribbean islands off North America, claiming them for Spain. He became the first explorer and trader to cross the Atlantic Ocean and sight the land of the Americas, on 12 October 1492, under the flag of Castile, a former kingdom of modern day Spain. On his first voyage, the land he first sighted was Watling Island in the Bahamas. There Columbus found numerous new products. He returned to Spain laden with gold and new discoveries from his travels, including the unknown tobacco plant, the pineapple fruit, the cacao bean, tomatoes, corn, rubber, maize and many more. The success of his first expedition prompted his commissioning for a second voyage to the New World, and he set out from Cýdiz in September 1493. He explored Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and various smaller Caribbean islands, and further ensuing explorations yielded discoveries such as Venezuela. Through all this, Columbus believed that he was travelling to parts of Asia. He believed Hispaniola was Japan, and that the peaks of Cuba were the Himalayas of India. Columbus died on 20 May 1506, still believing that he had found the route to the Asian continent, but instead he had found The Americas’.

Source 4: A map of Christopher Columbus’ voyages from Spain to The Americas. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2012)
Source 4: A map of Christopher Columbus’ voyages from Spain to The Americas. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2012)
Source 2: John Vanderlyn’s painting, ‘Landing of Columbus’, commissioned in 1836/1837.
Source 2: John Vanderlyn’s painting, ‘Landing of Columbus’, commissioned in 1836/1837.
Source 6: Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín - The First Landing of Christopher Columbus in America (1862)
Source 6: Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín - The First Landing of Christopher Columbus in America (1862)

Source 4 (a secondary source) shows discoveries of Christopher Columbus. In source 4 you can see a map showing Christopher Columbus’ voyages from Europe to the undiscovered areas of the Americas’. The map show the dates of each voyage and the route he took to get to the new areas of The America’s. This map does have quite a few limitations. It does not show when the different areas were discovered, only dates of his travels, and it does not show the goods, people and diseases he discovered, only the places he discovered. But is still supports my answer to the above focus question.

Source 1,2 and 6 (all secondary sources) show the 1st landing of Christopher Columbus in America. The America he discovered. In the pictures they all show Christopher Columbus and his crew landing on America for the first time. You can also see that there are Native Americans’ and they all seem quite timid and confused. Once again these sources do have several limitations. They do not show specifically what parts of America he discovered and what goods, types of Native Americans and diseases were in that area he discovered. It only shows the fact that he discovered The Americas’. Even so these sources still support my answer to the above focus question.

How were these discoveries valuable?

Christopher Columbus’ discoveries were valuable, especially to the Spanish because they offered the potential for extreme wealth, power and colonisation due to the new land and products found in The Americas’. Because of these valuable discoveries, Europe was revolutionised by the new empires and the new sources of wealth and trade. Christopher's discoveries were also quite valuable because the new food he introduced transformed the diets of many Europeans forever in unimaginable ways. “Finally, and speaking only of what has taken place in this voyage … their Highnesses may see that I shall give them all the gold they require, if they will give me but a little assistance; spices also, and cotton, as much as their highnesses shall command to be shipped; and mastic, hitherto found only in Greece … I think I also have found rhubarb and cinnamon, and I will find a thousand other valuable things”, A letter from Christopher Columbus to the King and Queen of Spain. From this letter you can see just how valuable Christopher Columbus’ discoveries were. These findings could completely change everything about Spain making it the worlds strongest empire. He had many products to provide wealth and power. So many things of value.

Source 5: Letter addressed to the noble Lord Raphael Sanchez, Treasurer to their most invincible Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, by Christopher Columbus, (14th March 1492)
Source 5: Letter addressed to the noble Lord Raphael Sanchez, Treasurer to their most invincible Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, by Christopher Columbus, (14th March 1492)
Source 3: Eugène Devéria: Columbus Before the Queen (1861)
Source 3: Eugène Devéria: Columbus Before the Queen (1861)

Source 5 (a primary source) shows how the discoveries of Christopher Columbus were valuable. In source 5, if you read through it, you can see that he has many goods such as rhubarb, gold, spices and cotton to give to make Spain a very wealthy and powerful empire. All of these finds were very valuable to not only Europe but the rest of the world. This source does not have any limitations with regards to information. Source 5 fully supports my answer to the above focus question.

Source 3 (a secondary source) shows how the discoveries of Christopher Columbus were valuable. In source 3 you can see that Christopher Columbus is before the Queen of Spain. There are many other people around her, adults and children. In the picture, you can see many of the found goods from the Americas’, like pineapples, cotton and corn. It would seem that this is some form of celebration to show their appreciation to Christopher for bringing so many valuable things to Europe. Making Spain a better empire. This image has the limitation of not showing exactly the whole story of what is going on. In saying that, this source supports my answer to the above focus question.


What impacts did Columbus’ discoveries have on the Spanish Empire and Europe?

Christopher Columbus’ discoveries had many impacts on the Spanish Empire and Europe. Some very good and some very bad. Christopher Columbus’ discoveries gave Europe, particularly Spain, wealth, minerals and an array of new foods. All of which made Europe, particularly Spain a better place to live. But with good, comes bad. His discoveries also gave many diseases that killed many people. One of these were syphilis. Columbus’ crew brought back syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease which killed million of Europeans over the generations. Back to the good, Columbus’ discoveries gave the Spanish Empire and Europe the opportunity to colonise even further. Another impact, especially great for the Spanish Empire, was that Christopher Columbus brought more souls to Christendom. The Queen at that time, Queen Isabella I, was of the Christian religion and it brought her great joy to see more people join the Christian faith. Believed to be the best impact of them allto the Spanish Empire and Europe was that they had majority of the control over the worlds trade as they had many spices, new foods and materials. After Christopher Columbus’ new discoveries, the Spanish Empire and Europe were so very powerful.

Source 5: Letter addressed to the noble Lord Raphael Sanchez, Treasurer to their most invincible Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, by Christopher Columbus, (14th March 1492)
Source 5: Letter addressed to the noble Lord Raphael Sanchez, Treasurer to their most invincible Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, by Christopher Columbus, (14th March 1492)

Using this source once again, source 5 (a primary source) shows how the discoveries of Christopher Columbus impacted the Spanish Empire and Europe. In source 5, if you read through it, you can see that he has many goods such as rhubarb, gold, spices and cotton to give to make Spain a very wealthy and powerful empire. All of these finds were very impactful to Spain and Europe. This source does not have any limitations with regard to information. Source 5 fully supports my answer to the above focus question.


What were the cultures of the Indigenous Americans’?

The primitive religions of the Native Americans was based on the culture of Animism. Animism was a commonly shared doctrine of the different Indigenous tribes of America. Animism is a religion based on the spiritual idea that the universe, and all natural objects within the universe, have souls or spirits. In this religion it is believed that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, trees, rocks etc. This belief and culture is also extended to natural phenomena such as thunder storms and rain and geographic features such as mountains, caves or rivers also possess souls or spirits. The Native Americans had no science to explain nature which led to their belief that the sun, rain, and other forces were controlled by spirits. In festivals, ceremonies and prayers they tried to gain the favour of these gods. A common custom across the Native Americans’ was that they smoked tobacco. Going into more detail, there were three major tribes of the Americas’. The Aztecs, Incas and Mayans.

The Aztecs. Aztec culture had a rich and complicated set of mythological and religious beliefs. These religious practices and artistic accomplishments as well as music, dance, dress, food, drink, sports and games played a large part in their every day lives. A major, rather remarkable part of Aztec culture was the ritual of human sacrifice. Art was very important in ancient Aztec culture. Aztec art was a way to record the importance of religion and warfare. Music and dance were performed to please the gods and also were tied into daily life and ceremonies. The music was usually accompaniment to Aztec dance, which was like a prayer ritual. Aztec dress was often made of beautiful fabric, though the quality of the cloth was dependent on the wealth and class of the wearer. The art of clothes making was an important craft of the Aztecs and contained bright colours and complicated designs. Aztec food was rich and spicy. Many of the Aztec foods used chilli in their spicy sauces. Hot chocolate and octtli were drinks of the Aztecs. Games and sports were important in the Aztec culture. They provided the Aztecs with entertainment and activity. Aztec games also had a religious meaning and could be played as a part of their ceremonies or during sacrifice. The Aztecs were located in Mexico, with there capital city being Tenochtitlan. Modern day Mexico City.

The Incas. Every Inca citizen was assigned a very strict task in life, connected to their age, gender and social position. For example children over five years of age had the responsibility of carrying water up to the fields where grown-ups were growing crops. And women older than fifty had to weave cloth for making clothes. Even the physically and mentally disabled were given daily tasks that were attuned to their capabilities. All of the individual responsibilities were recorded by bureaucrats through a system called the Quipu. It was an intricate form of communication using colored strings tied into knots. This was the Inca alternative to writing since they did not develop a written language of their own. Emperor Pachacuti also created religious holidays for his people. Six times a month the entire empire was shut down for festivities, lectures and parades. The Inca were incredible builders and architects. Their irrigation systems, palaces, temples, and fortifications can still be seen throughout the Andes. They had an efficient road system which was mainly used for government and military purposes. Couriers would carry messages in the form of knotted cords all over the empire. A man named Pachacuti drastically reorganised the Inca religion. He claimed to be the direct descendant of the Inca Sun God Inti, which made his people extremely obedient. Their daily work tasks almost became a religious duty. Pachacuti created a cult around himself and the sun-god Inti. Every day the emperor would wear new clothes, the old ones from the previous day had to be burned, and he would only eat from golden plates. Inca society was a theocratic society, meaning that politics and religion were completely intertwined. The Inca religion combined features of animism, fetishism, and the worship of nature gods representing forces of nature. Inca rituals included elaborate forms of divination and the sacrifice of humans and animals. The Incas were located in Peru, with there capital city being Cuzco.

The Maya believed in many gods. They believed their gods could help or hurt them. They worshiped their gods every day. Religion was at the heart of everything they did. Gods lived everywhere, but especially in the heavens. The Maya believed in a heaven, an earth, and an underworld. Earth was for the living. Heaven was the home of the gods. A piece of the heavens was reserved for the Maya afterlife. They believed their ancestors lived in this little piece of heaven, but kept a watchful eye on their relatives still alive on earth. The poor buried their dead under the floor of the house, to make it easier for their ancestors to know what was going on. Nobles were buried in tombs, but they too believed that their ancestors watched over them. The Maya also believed in an underworld. This was the Place of Awe. The Maya underworld was not a good place. It was a place where demons lived. If the Maya people did not worship in the right way, the demons would be released and able to leave the underworld and attack the Maya people. This was a huge fear. The Maya held many religious ceremonies to make sure the demons and other evil creatures who lived in the underworld stayed in the underworld. Priests wore masks and costumes at these religious ceremonies to scare the demons. They wanted to appear stronger and more fierce than the demons, so the demons would stay away. No women in the Maya world ever looked in a mirror. It was too dangerous. The Maya believed that creatures from the underworld could reach through a mirror and yank you into the Place of Awe, but men would look into a mirror as an act of courage. The Maya believed in blood sacrifice. At some festivals, the Maya would cut themselves so they would bleed. This was one way they offered blood to the gods to keep their gods happy. Sometimes, they sacrificed animals, especially goats. On occasion, when the need was great and their problems were many, they also used human sacrifice. The Maya ate very well. They hunted wild turkey, deer, ducks, and monkey. They caught fish. They ate bird eggs. They grew sweet potatoes, corn, beans, chilies, and squash. Women had charge of cooking the daily meals, which usually were composed of maize, beans, and squash, plus whatever else they served. The Maya wove beautiful fabrics using cotton, hemp, and other fibres. Fibres were dyed and then woven into brilliant designs. Patterns included geometric, floral, animal, and human designs. The Mayans were located in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and a part of Mexico, with there capital city being Tikal.

A map of the locations of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas in the Americas.
A map of the locations of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas in the Americas.
Source 10:  Use of tobacco by Fra Bernardino de Sahagun from The Code of Florence 'Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana' in Spanish and Nahuatl, facsimile, 16th century.
Source 10: Use of tobacco by Fra Bernardino de Sahagun from The Code of Florence 'Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana' in Spanish and Nahuatl, facsimile, 16th century.
Source 9:  A description of the Spanish discovery of tobacco from “Tobacco: It’s History, Varieties, Culture, Manufacture and Commerce by E.R. Billings, 1875
Source 9: A description of the Spanish discovery of tobacco from “Tobacco: It’s History, Varieties, Culture, Manufacture and Commerce by E.R. Billings, 1875

Source 10 (a primary source) shows the customs in the cultures of Native Americans’. In source 10 the picture is of Native Americans’ smoking tobacco. Smoking tobacco was a very common custom among Indigenous Americans’. This source has the limitation of not showing the effects of the tobacco and what other types of things the Native Americans’ did in accordance with their culture. In saying that, this source supports my answer to the above focus question.

Source 9 (a secondary source) shows the customs in the cultures of Native Americans’. In the source, if you read through it, you see the custom of smoking tobacco in the Native American culture. This source has the limitation of not showing the effects of the tobacco and what other types of things the Native Americans’ did in accordance with their culture. But, this source supports my answer to the above focus question.


How were the Indigenous Americans treated by the Spanish?

The Indigenous Americans’ were treated terribly by the Spanish. The Spanish enslaved the Indigenous Americans’ and killed an extensive amount of them. Christopher Columbus and his men judged the Native Americans’ as primitive and godless. Because of this, they believed that they had the right to appropriate their land and exploit them by enslaving them. “It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women … They paint themselves black … white, others red and others of what colour they could find … They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance … They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them … slaves, as many of these idolators as their highnesses command to be shipped”, wrote Columbus in the journal of his first voyage. The Spanish introduced a tribute system to Indigenous Americans’ in the Caribbean (The Tainos’), were to supply a quantity of gold per head. If they could not do this, the Taino were to provide nearly 12kg of cotton per adult. Another failure would result in slavery, and in some cases mutilation. Many Indigenous Americans’ were murdered and raped. An example of just how cruelly the Spanish treated the Native American’s. The Natives were seen as inferiors to the Spanish and in conclusion were treated very brutally.


Source 7: Depiction of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in Las Casas's "Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias". The rendering was by the Flemish Protestant artist Theodor de Bry. (1552)
Source 7: Depiction of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in Las Casas's "Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias". The rendering was by the Flemish Protestant artist Theodor de Bry. (1552)

Source 7 (a primary source) shows how the Spanish treated the Indigenous Americans’. In the depiction above you can see several Spaniards. One killing a little boy, one burning bodies of hung Native Americans’ and in the background other Spaniards beating and stabbing Native Americans’. This source shows us how brutal and wicked the Spanish were against the Indigenous Americans’. Although this image is quite detailed, it does have its limitations. It does not show the effects on the Natives habitat, religion and emotions. In saying that this source still supports my answer to the above focus question.

What impact did the contact with the Spanish and Europeans have on the Indigenous Americans’ and their culture?

The Indigenous Americans’ really suffered from the contact with the Spanish and Europeans. Most of the Native Americans’ were raped, mutilated, murdered or enslaved by the Spanish and Europeans, and an outbreak of small pox also caused havoc on the native population, with large numbers of natives left dead. Many Native Americans converted to Christianity because they thought this was the only way to save themselves from dying from the Europeans' diseases, but this did not work. Indigenous Americans’ lost their religion, culture and their simple way of life. The native population of the Americas’ was destroyed not only by death but by a loss of culture.

Source 8: An image from the Florentine Codex complied in 1500s
Source 8: An image from the Florentine Codex complied in 1500s

Source 8 (a primary source) shows what impact the contact with the Spanish and Europeans had on the Indigenous Americans’ and their culture. In source 8 the picture is of Native Americans’ with small pox and it shows how devastating it was on the Indigenous population of The Americas’. The Native population would have never caught this terrible illness if they had not come in contact with the Spanish and Europeans. This illness was one of the major causes of the Native American culture collapsing. This source has the limitation of not showing the other ways in which the Indigenous culture was destroyed by the Spanish and Europeans. Even so, this source completely supports my answer to the above focus question.

Conclusion

From all of the above provided information, you can see why Christopher Columbus can be either seen as a hero or a villain. He can be seen as a hero because he made many discoveries, and many of these were valuable and provided many people with more wealth and better living conditions. But he can be seen as a villain because he destroyed the cultures and lives of the Native American population by murder and slavery, and took all of their resources and homeland. Christopher Columbus’ overall legacy to the world is an abundance of new resources and large sizes of land. The legacy of Columbus can be seen in the many places that bear his name. Up an down the continents of the Americas there are countries, cities, and rivers named after the famed explorer. From Columbus Ohio, to the country Columbia in South America. From the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest to the capital of South Carolina. Christopher Columbus, truly did a lot for the world. But in saying that, I believe he is a villain. I believe this because of all of the terrible things he did to all of those Native Americans’. Even so, Christopher Columbus changed the world we live in today, but at what cost?

Is Christopher Columbus A Hero Or A Villain?

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