Our historical view of Christopher Columbus is conditioned by two competing mythologies.
According to the first myth, Columbus was a heroic Italian explorer who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America. His first voyage to the New World was funded by the jewelry of Queen Isabella of Spain. This bold captain, the first European to reach America, dared to sail off the edge of a world thought to be flat.
Yet this myth is easily busted.
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras posited a spherical earth in the sixth century B.C. — a theory later confirmed by Hellenistic astronomers. By the 11th century, the Persian astronomer al-Biruni had calculated a measurement of the earth’s radius that was only 10.4 miles off the accurate modern reckoning of 3,959 miles. The major challenge faced by Columbus was not the fear of sailing off the edge of the world, but rather the incapacity of ships of his era to travel the entire distance from Europe to China over, presumably, blue ocean. They simply could not contain sufficient fresh water and supplies to provide for the crew.
Columbus’ voyages were not financed by Queen Isabella’s jewels but rather by loans from mainly Italian bankers. And Leif Erikson, another bold European captain, apparently established a Norse settlement in Newfoundland about 500 years before Columbus.
According to the second, more recent myth, Columbus was a demon of unknown origins and indeterminate age who was consumed by a rapacious lust for gold and love of slavery. He deliberately launched a genocidal war against the native Americans. He was a religious fanatic who falsely claimed to have discovered the New World more than 10,000 years after the migration of Asian people across the Bering Strait.
Yet this myth does not really hold up either.
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Columbus’s date of birth, or even year of birth (1450 or 1451?), has not been conclusively proven. Overwhelming evidence, however, suggests he was the son of Domenico Colombo and his wife Susanna Fontanarossa, who were both from the Republic of Genoa in what is today Italy. His father worked as a weaver in the wool trade.
Columbus’ diary is filled with references to God and gold; he was Catholic and he sought a tangible return on behalf of his speculative investors. Columbus was comfortable with religion and the institution of slavery, but no more so than the majority of his contemporaries.
In 1493, when Columbus returned on his second voyage to the island of Hispaniola where he had left a small garrison, he found that it had been wiped out by the native Taino people. This skirmish marked the beginning of a long and violent history between European and native peoples in the Americas. Over the next 30 years, 90 percent of the Taino population would be tragically killed, but they were primarily victims of disease, not a deliberate policy of extermination. It is absurd to lay the blame for all the subsequent depredations by European settlers on the shoulders of Columbus.
When we strip away these two Columbus myths and try to approach the historic Columbus in the context of his times, we are left with a more complex and more fascinating figure, who was neither an angel nor a demon. At the end of the day, Christopher Columbus was one of a handful of global historic individuals who changed our world for good, for ill, and forever.
To biologists, he is known as the father of the Columbian Exchange. Both Old and New Worlds were transformed by Columbus’ voyages. As a result of the Columbian Exchange, Europeans received tomatoes, potatoes, cocoa, tobacco and boatloads of silver from the New World. Before Columbus, spaghetti Bolognese did not exist and pizza lacked tomato sauce. His voyages led to the eventual introduction of chocolate to the rest of the world. Imagine a world without chocolate!
Those living in what became known as the Americas received horses, pigs, the lowly earthworm and Christian missionaries. Lacking immunities, they also received new diseases, such as the smallpox that eventually ravaged the indigenous population of two continents.
Not all exchanges are fair.
It is the historic Columbus that we should remember and even celebrate today, Columbus Day.
The writer is Christopher Kelly, co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with Almost Every Country on Earth.”