The Legacy of Christopher Columbus

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 for 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. Even George Washington shares the honors of the U.S. Capitol. The D.C. tacked on to the end of the name stands for "District of Columbia".

A composite drawing of Columbus based on three extant portraits.

Yet this kind of honor was not given to Columbus in his lifetime. For many years after he died his history and deeds remained relatively obscure. Perhaps this was because as he closed his career he was considered somewhat of a failure. This was understandable as he had been a washout as governor of Hispañola. The people of the new Spanish Colony were disappointed in his leadership. The precise causes of the movement against him are much disputed even today. Some speculate that he tried hard to restrain the greed of the new settlers and they did not like it. He forced them to build houses and work to build up the city of Santo Domingo. Others say he was simply arbitrary and not a good administrator, taking every resource for himself and benefiting only his own family. In fact, a royal commissioner did find him culpable and sent him back to Spain in chains at the end of his third voyage. It is certain that he was a much better exporer than he was a viceroy.

Another strike against Columbus to modern sensibilities is his attempt to use slavery as a way to extract value from the new colony. When gold had failed to turn up in large quantities he tried to make a profit by making slaves of the local Arawak Indians. He was thwarted in his efforts by the government in Spain. Of course, slavery was already practiced in the new world, so he did not introduce it. Interestingly enough, on his first voyage he treated the Indians quite well.

Finally, many believe that Columbus was grasping, avaricious, and vain. Perhaps he was, but it was these qualities in another form that made him a great man. He was stubborn, persistent, and persuasive. Without his cajoling and prompting, discovery by Europeans of the New World may have taken another century. In spite of scientific evidence that the world was much bigger than he projected, and that the ocean between Spain and China had to be so large as to be impossible to transit in that age, he convinced the Queen and King of Spain to outfit him with ships for a voyage of discovery.

It is true that the exploitation of his discoveries would prove disastrous, at least in the short term, for the native populations. Disease was carried to the Americas. Slavery and war against superior arms could only lead to terrible lives for the native inhabitants. Yet in an age only one step out of the barbarism of the dark ages this was an inevitable result. It really did not matter who found the new world, there would be fighting and exploitation. What is often not noted is that many of the settlers from the old world also died horrible deaths from disease, starvation, shipwreck, exposure, and destruction at the hands of the local populations, not to mention fighting among themselves. Death and destruction were part and parcel of the age everywhere, including the pre-Columbian Americas.

The wealth extracted from her colonies would make Spain a huge power in Europe. It would also point the way for other countries of Europe to create their own colonial empires, Portugal, Britain, France, Holland, and even Russia would join the rush for resources. The European influence was not all pernicious. Modern ideas of manufacture, philosophy, medicine, science, and the free-market system, after the initial shock, would serve to make life better for most of the people it touched.

Like most great historic events, the finding of the Western Hemisphere by Columbus was both good and bad. It is the duty of the historian not to pick and choose facts that depict the man as either good or evil. Columbus was both a product of his age and a leader to the next age. He made mistakes, but his bold gamble changed the maps of the world.

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