Characterization of Columbus

Christopher Columbus has long been celebrated as a hero, a brave adventurer, many cartoon exists showing him and his men who bear gifts to the indigenous peoples of the lands he “discovered”. Children’s books tell stories of friendship and growth. All the pictures show smiles and vibrancy. As society becomes moreĀ  culturally sensitive it delves deeper into its own sanitized history and begins to make reparations. Now for many Columbus is a figure who inspires disdain and even anger, especially for indigenous peoples living in modern day Latin America who have found themselves whitewashed out of our history books.

It is not difficult to perceive Columbus as a malicious villain when we read from his very own journal the disregard he had for the people he encountered and his motivation to continue on to greater civilization and treasure. His tone is dismissive and callous. It is easy to read Columbus as a tyrant driven by greed. However to do so is not representative of his life or intentions, regardless of the result.

Columbus did not set out to pillage, steal or injure. His mission was never an invasion, there was no war to be fought. He was seeking new trade routes, opportunity for his country, gratitude from the monarchy and perhaps even adventure. He was not only aware of his genuine whereabouts in the “indies”. He never could have understood the repercussions of his presence in new lands. Even if he changed the lives of “Indians” it was understood that the European way of life was that ordained by God. Columbus was also driven by an unquenchable religious fervor.

Religion drives colonization, without the threat of thousands of souls wallowing in damnation there is much less motivation to revolutionize the lives and societies of strangers. In the case of the heathen any action can be deemed acceptable no matter how extreme. All through history examples of such extreme cases can be seen from imprisonment, to cultural genocide of indigenous communities worldwide to violent executions by hanging and burning. Such cruelty have been undertaken not simply as barbaric tortures but under the assumption that there is no limit to what can be done on the path of salvation. Columbus would have labored under the same delusion, a delusion that today we know more generally as the white Jesus complex.

Columbus was under no circumstances a hero. He brought illness and destruction of entire civilizations with him. His accomplishment while interesting aren’t always the most palatable to celebrate, however he can equally not be generalized as a ruthless conqueror.


Filed under week one

3 Responses to Characterization of Columbus

  1. Jon

    Your post raises interesting questions of how to judge other people, especially perhaps when they are historical figures. Does the fact that Columbus may have been “deluded” (or ignorant or whatever) exonerate him? And in any case, is it important to come to some judgement in the end?

  2. Linda Wonneberger

    Hi Isabel,
    I found your analysis of Columbus’ character and the questions it raises very interesting!
    I like that you compare the views of those who consider him to be a hero with those living in Latin America today, I think the second perspective is often forgotten, or as you said ‘whitewashed’ out of history books. Certainly I have to admit that I never thought about how Latin Americans today feel about this topic.
    Furthermore, do I wonder on which grounds you are convinced that Columbus could not have been aware about the repercussion his discovery would have? Because I was wondering the same actually. However, to me it just seems strange that when inavding new lands someone could NOT ask themselves wether or not what they were doing is right? I think this would be a great topic for in-class discussion!

  3. Anna Shannon

    Hey Isabel,

    Really enjoyed your response to this week two’s topic of discussion. Especially this idea you’ve expressed of viewing Columbus as a ‘character’ in history, literature and artwork.

    When Columbus was writing his documentation for the crown, he was writing himself as the main character and hero of this pivotal part of history. So it’s intriguing to see how the progression of time along with the development of societal normalities have changed how Columbus’s ‘character’ is perceived.

    What do you think has changed in societal norms to evoke this global perspective shift on Columbus’s ‘character’?

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