Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

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For years now, Christopher Columbus has elicited a wide spectrum of opinions. For some, he was a ruthless man who was responsible for thousands of deaths and marked the beginning of a ruthless regime over people who were deemed inferior by self-righteous Europeans. For others, Columbus was a symbol of the beginning of a New World and crucial to the development of Western Civilization, kick-starting the beginning of the New World, capital N, capital W. Recent study and re-assessment of events has turned this idea on its head, however. Upon reading two drastically different articles, it was clear why agreement over Columbus’ legacy is so divided. One must dissect why exactly two such contrasting opinions exist to understand whether Columbus truly was a historical icon, or mass murderer.

In Christopher Columbus Discovers America, 1492, no real opinion is evident, and it only offers a retelling of events. Columbus is portrayed to be a resourceful leader, as he convinces his crew to continue under his leadership with fake journals, and provides an extra reward for whomever saw land first. The article’s choice of words, like how his deceptions with the diaries “quieted the crew’s anxiety” and how he frequently “promised” various rewards and deals with his crew, implies great leadership. He is doing what must be done in order to keep control and calm his “mutinous” crew down.

Columbus is also generous, since he, as mentioned, promises extra payment for the first person to find land, and also “gave gifts” to the Native people of the island. It is interesting that this gifting interaction and a short entry in his journal about how naked they are is all the article mentions of the Native people and their relationship with him. The only opinion Columbus seems to have of the Natives is how handsome their bodies were, with “very good countenances”. The article doesn’t divulge anything further. Nevertheless, Columbus is portrayed to be an effective, generous leader who led people into a new era.

Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus, an essay by Jack Weatherford, makes very clear, unlike its counterpart, its resume about the historic man. It starts off by comparing him to Disney’s Pocahontas (great movie, but in this context, a rather unfortunate insult). Columbus is very obviously, according to this article, the perpetrator of genocide and is the poster-child of false legacy. The article takes any possible positive notions about Columbus and disproves them, thus portraying him to be a desperate, dull, even stupid leader who used and killed other people for his own benefit. He is portrayed to be dull when, for example, Weatherford points out how he had continuously thought South America was part of Asia. Weatherford also writes Columbus as desperate, with a “pressing need to repay his debt” and a “frantic tone” to his diaries as he “raced from one Caribbean island to the next, stealing anything of value”. It is words like ‘debt’, ‘frantic’, and ‘stealing’ which highlight the article’s intent of portraying him as despairing.

Most of all, the article uses its choice for words and rhetorical devices like juxtaposition to really pin Columbus as a ruthless villain. Weatherford describes how Columbus used “human lives” to repay his debt to Queen Isabella of Spain, and treated Natives horribly by “cramming” them into ships and “parading them naked”, if not killing them indirectly through his blind eye to their treatment. The article shames America for having any previously positive view of Columbus, comparing the celebration of his ‘discovery’ of America with Martin Luther King, therefore contrasting a great and intelligent man who fought for freedom and civil rights, to a dull, desperate, vicious Columbus whose legacy has become, by the end of the article, completely tarnished. The text says “Columbus’ voyage has even less meaning for North Americans than for South Americans, because Columbus never set foot in [this] continent”. It is clear from this statement that Jack Weatherford holds no respect for the man, and very avidly proves Columbus holds no significance to North American history, since he never seemed to be a part of it to begin with.

The main difference between the two articles is how they tell the story of Columbus. The first, pro-Columbus article offers no real reasoning or opinion whatsoever, but merely takes snippets of the explorer’s journal to retell the events that “happened”. Meanwhile, the other article is ruthless in its examination of the controversial figure, stating from the very beginning that his voyage held no significance to our history.

It is fascinating that the pro-Columbus article is mostly made up of his own journal entries – the same man who made two different ones to deceive his crew and his employers in his success. The fact that more than half the article is text from Columbus himself is obviously going to mean bias, as Columbus would be in his own favor, and probably also made his trip and the treatment of his crew and other people much more sugar sweet than it may have been in reality. He also may have exaggerated the effectiveness of his leadership, since it makes it seem like he was responsible for every decision, with no influence from any other person. Meanwhile, the other article takes what American society has to say and turns it on its head with historical evidence, reasoning, and strong, emotion-evoking language.

This difference in communication is all about the agendas of the biased authors. The first article means to retell a story, and state what happened on his first voyage, using evidence from his own journal, therefore using a primary, albeit biased record in Columbus’ favor. The second article means to disprove the public’s notions of the man through logical reasoning and outside evidence, using secondary sources of recent historical discovery to prove his point. This reason in difference between the articles is a great learning experience, because it serves as a reminder to mind the context and the author/artist/photographer/etc.’s intent when examining certain sources, and also to look at different stand points and compare them, in order to come up with the most informed and open-minded opinion as possible.

Another point is that the first article leaves out that which may indicate anything negative in Columbus’ character. The text from Columbus’ journal about the handsomeness of the Natives was unfinished, and that Columbus had continued on to say that the people of the island would make great, intelligent slaves [Haberman & Shubert]. It’s important to remember, therefore, that it’s not just what the articles say, it’s also what they don’t say. This can probably be applied to the other article as well, which may have withheld anything about Columbus that may have indicated his intelligence or any good-naturedness.

Keeping all of these points about primary and secondary evidence in mind, I have decided that Columbus is neither good nor bad, hero nor villain. He is a man; a man of his time. He is an ambitious figure who was raised in a society where difference was discouraged (to put it lightly – I mean, look at the Spanish Inquisition). He had many… many flaws in judgment, which ended up being his motif for condoning genocide: so that he could be successful. However, I don’t agree with Weatherford’s implication that Columbus held no historical value whatsoever, aside from his exploitation and genocide of an entire group of people (a huge side step, but bear with me for a second). Had Columbus never ‘discovered’ South America, had people never believed he was a hero or villain or what have you; ideology in Western society would not be the same. Our conceptions of history shape present day society. We are inspired by our ancestors. Columbus is controversial, but one can’t completely deny he had no effect in the course of history, even if it was positive or negative depending on who you ask.

Hero? Definitely not, no self-respecting hero would encourage mass genocide and the kidnap, torture, rape, and enslavement of millions of people. Villain? Not quite – he wasn’t evil, per se, since ‘evil’ is a human construct and – again bear with me – he probably didn;t even think what he was ding was evil (that doesn;t take away from the fact that what he did was disastrous, of course). But, human? No doubt. I don’t think anyone, let alone Columbus, can ever be sorted as good or bad. Nothing is so black-and-white, because everyone is complex in all they do. Columbus is no exception to this rule of humanity.

People speak of mermaids and aliens and unicorns. One should hope, for the sake of those fantastical creatures, that they are never discovered by humans, if they exist. Humanity will most probably make a mess of it all… just as Columbus had done with his discovery of the New World. Capital N, capital W.


References

“Christopher Columbus Discovers America, 1492”. EyeWitness to History.com. Ibis Communications, Inc. 2004. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. [x]

Haberman, Arthur, and Adrian Shubert. The West and the World. Toronto: Gage Learning Corporation, 2002. Print.

Weatherford, Jack. “Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus”. Clergy and Laity Concerned. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. [x]

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