Christopher Columbus and His Legacy: Positive vs. Negative

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Upon completion of first grade, it is likely that children in America will have learned about the famous maritime explorer and navigator, Christopher Columbus. Born in 1451, Columbus was a Genoese captain commissioned by the king and queen of Spain to find a route to the Indies. However, he sailed the opposite direction of his intended goal by crossing the Atlantic and landing in the Americas, resulting in the discovery of the New World for Spain. Like all major figures in history, Columbus has left behind a legacy that people will always remember him for. The nature of this legacy in question is what remains controversial. It can be summed up with two opposing camps: those that view Columbus with a positive, respectful regard that he changed history for the good and those that polarize him into a negative category, as an individual who had no true achievements of his own and ultimately caused unwarranted harm to human life.

One of the main issues with Columbus is whether he should be seen as a hero, or as a pitiable individual. Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morrison championed the former, saying, "Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of [a] new age of hope, glory, and accomplishment," (Morrison 223). By discovering the New World, Columbus set into motion the fervor for European discovery in the Americas and beyond. Defenders of Columbus assert it was him that brought Western Civilization to North America—the catalyst for the flourishing of colonies that would ultimately culminate with the establishment of an important nation, the United States. Aware that Norse voyages beat the voyages of Columbus in transatlantic contact, supporters maintain their view of his achievement because his discovery was the first recorded and fully documented account, something the Vikings did not achieve. On the other side there are those that devalue the achievements of Columbus and emphasize his morality as their basis for his negative image. 19th century historian, Justin Winsor was among the first to share this view. Winsor and other fellow members of his camp believe Columbus did not change world history, and that labeling it as such is dubious, "It is extremely doubtful if any instance can be found of a great idea changing the world's history, which has been created by a single man. There are always forerunners whose agency is postponed because the times are not propitious," (Winsor 43). Essentially, they believe that a single person cannot be credited for an achievement of this caliber because it requires an individual to be at the right place and time, and that someone would reach this point sooner or later. Negative critics also point out that if he did change history, it was "the beginning of the bloody trail of conquest across the Americas," (Hans 29). Columbus had paved the way for a series of Spanish conquistadors to hit the Americas. Because of this, longstanding civilizations such as the Aztecs and Incans would fall, and thousands would perish. Though not intentional, Columbus would also bring disease with him, along with those following him, which would kill countless Indian tribes—some to the point of extinction. Columbus and his cruel treatment of natives are also frequently emphasized by critics; he had enslaved many natives and sold them for money despite being explicitly told not to by the royalty of Spain. Further, land that had been with Native American tribes for generations would be displaced by Columbus, which gets into a whole new argument of its own in judging the justification of Columbus for this act.

With Columbus bringing Europe to North America, a question surfaces as to whether Native Americans had a right to not be dispossessed of their land. Proponents of Columbus say that the Indians are unworthy whilst opponents say they have an equal claim to their land. Native Americans had been living in North America for centuries when Columbus came. Indian chief,...
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