By Gloria Cipollini Endres
As we prepare to celebrate another national holiday commemorating the first landing, on Oct. 12, 1492, by the Renaissance Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus on the Caribbean island he named San Salvador, many modern pundits are taking issue with his achievements, character and legacy. They strongly object, for example, to the word “discover” because, after all, there were already millions of indigenous people here, plus those Viking sailors who reached the North American continent earlier. They want to eliminate his images and change the name of the holiday and any place that honors him. Complaining about naming part of Delaware Avenue “Columbus Boulevard” is just one example. Behind their agenda is an attempt to denigrate his Italian Catholic heritage, while elevating an aboriginal culture to an unrealistic status. The mistake these protesters make is judging the man through the lens of modern mores and politics, where it does not apply.
Columbus did navigate a voyage of discovery. He was searching for a safer and faster route to the gold, spices, and other goods of the Orient. He hoped that this treasure would not only help defend and spread Christianity but also enrich his royal sponsors, himself and his descendants. The Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, promised to name him Admiral of the Ocean Sea if he was successful. His motivations were in descending order: God; Gold; and Glory.
Christopher Columbus may not have been the first human being to set foot on the American continents, but he literally opened a vast New World to the rest of humanity. According to the Order of the Sons of Italy, “The arrival of Columbus in 1492 marks the beginning of recorded history in America.”
Through storms, shipwrecks and failing health, Columbus made altogether four voyages to the New World. He continued to believe that Cuba was part of China, but during his third voyage, he discovered a river of fresh water flowing into the ocean from what is now Venezuela and understood that he had found a new continent. His ships just missed landing in Florida, so he never actually touched North America. He always believed that this new southern landmass was just hanging off China.
There have been concerns about the way Columbus treated the natives he encountered. Although he befriended the first people he met, he did capture others and brought them back to show the Spanish Court, along with gold jewelry, pearls, a tobacco plant, a pineapple and a turkey. The king and queen ordered him to return and establish friendly relations with the natives.
But when Columbus returned on his second voyage to Hispaniola, where he had left some of his men, he learned they had all been killed in a dispute with the natives. Indigenous people had their own violent traditions, including: tribal warfare, torture, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Slavery was widely practiced in the 15th century around the world, including by some Native American tribes. Columbus, against the wishes of the Crown, captured more than a thousand people from one tribe and handed them to another tribe as slaves.
Columbus did try unsuccessfully to enslave and transport about 560 people back to Spain. About 40 percent died en route and the rest were very ill when they landed. Some of the survivors were returned to the Americas. Ferdinand and Isabella vehemently ruled against continuing the slave trade. Columbus switched to a policy he learned from the Aztec tribute system, where he required residents of Cicao on Hispaniola to find and deliver a set amount of gold every three months. Punishment for not delivering was severe. Columbus also had to quell uprisings from both sailors and Spanish settlers who were disappointed and angry that they could not find riches in abundance. It was altogether a very violent time.
For seven years, Columbus contended not only with rebellions and poor health, but also arrest and punishment by the Crown for “mismanagement.” They finally gave him his freedom and new ships for his fourth and last voyage — still searching for the illusive westward passage to India.
Clearly, Christopher Columbus was both a man of his time and ahead of his time. Navigating an uncharted ocean (with no knowledge of longitude) in wooden ships with nothing to guide him but his compass, the stars, moon and sun, took uncommon courage. He gambled that he was going to find a route to the East Indies that would enrich his patrons, his church and himself. As Admiral of the Ocean Sea, what he accomplished instead was a transfer of cultures, plants, animals, human populations, technology and ideas between two hemispheres.
Native Americans exchanged food crops like: avocados, beans, bell peppers, cocoa, corn, peanuts, pineapples and potatoes for European wheat, barley and sugarcane. (The American potato later saved countless European lives during the next mini ice age because a tuber grows underground.) While Europeans enjoyed new animals like the turkey, the native people fell in love with the horse, as a beast of burden, and to expand their hunting territory. They also benefited from the importation of pigs, dogs, chickens, sheep, goats and cattle which Columbus brought on his second journey.
Sadly, included in that exchange, was deadly cross contamination. While the native people of the Americas succumbed to diseases like smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague and typhus, Spanish sailors returned to Europe with syphilis. A pandemic they called “The Pox” cost the lives of millions. Meanwhile, the deaths of so many native people caused a labor shortage that eventually prompted the importation of African slaves, which is why the populations of the Caribbean Islands remain primarily black.
European customs, technology, and languages overwhelmed the New World. From those first explorations and conquests emerged new civilizations and new nations. The voyages of Christopher Columbus ultimately laid the groundwork for what would later become the greatest nation in history, the United States of America. For that alone he deserves a parade on Broad Street.