“Christopher Columbus -Imperfect Hero”
By: Irtefa Anwara Bibte-Farid
The 2005 essay contest winner was a sophomore at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her participation was sponsored by the Jack Jouett Chapter, NSDAR
History is not merely the knowledge of past actions. But also of their effects on the course of events. While the actions themselves remain unchangeable fo eternity, their interpretations change with each passing age. Every generation views history in the light of its own experience, drawing conclusions based on its own morals and understanding. The case of Christobal Colon, the discoverer of the New World, offers a perfect example.
Christopher Columbus has been a figure of controversy since October 12, 1492, to the present day. Glorified and criticized in his life, forgotten in his death, venerated in the nineteenth century, and condemned in recent history, Columbus’s reputation has traveled stormy seas throughout the centuries. By examining the different facades of Christopher Columbus, one can see the best and worst of humanity in this single man. Through his intuition, seamanship, and clear genius, Columbus won a place in the pantheon of the greats. But through his arrogance, greed, and mistreatment of the native Americans, he tainted his lasting legacy.
It is easy to note that once in America, Columbus acted according to the customs of the time. Getting there, however, was the triumphs of his talents. It was known at the time that the world was round, and that Greenland was not Ultima Thule; there was more land to the west. It was also known that seeds, wood carvings, even bodies got blown to the Atlantic islands from the west. Columbus merely synthesized the old data to fonnulate a new idea; the East can be reached by traveling west.
Having perfected his plan, Columbus procured the support necessary to fund his enterprise through perseverance and charisma. Although a foreigner and an unknown sailor, he persuaded the Spanish monarchs, not only to fund his undertakings, but also to share the profits reaped by his discovery. Sailors knew the world to be round, but he was the first one to venture west based on the knowledge. For safety, he had to reply on himself. An excellent sailor, his quick wit on the high seas saved his ships and his crew many times.
During his fourth voyage, while off the coast of Santo Dominigo, Columbus learned of Thirty Spanish ships ready to depart with a large cargo of gold. He notified them of a big storm brewing, but they ignored his warning due to the clear skies. However, they faced the full force of the storm in the open seas. Most of the fleet was lost, but Columbus saved all his ships. He proved himself as good a leader on land. While shipwrecked at Santa Gloria, desperation led many men to rebel against him. Those loyal to him suffered terrible hardships and illnesses. Although unable to stand up by himself, Columbus visited the ill men to console them, to bring them hope, and even to nurse them himself. Even under the most trying conditions, he gained the respect of his followers and proved himself a capable leader.
Christopher Columbus symbolizes the creative genius of the Renaissance for many, the ignorance of the medieval times for others. The accounts of his life by contemporary chroniclers offer no assistance in revealing te man behind the myriad myths. While Hernando glorified his father’s accomplishments, Bartolome de Las Casas portrayed Columbus as the instigator of the American Holocaust-the deliberate destruction of the native people. Nevertheless the same qualities molded him into each role. The stubbornness, perseverance: and ambition that allowed Columbus to make his dream a reality also forced him to defend his idea against all odds. They required him to keep searching for gold, and when that failed, find other means to advance the Spanish economy as he had promised. The slave trade sprang from his refusal to admit his mistake, the most influential one in history.
After 512 years of controversy, it is time we learn to separate the different aspects of Christopher Columbus. No amount of interpreting can wipe away his cruelties, and none can erase his achievements. Only by accepting his humanity can we give him the proper respect due to him without idolizing his character. He does not deserve to be canonized, but neither should he be condemned. “[T]he elements [were] So mixed in him that Nature might stand up/ and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!'” (Shakespeare 5.5.73-75). Christopher Columbus was not perfect, but he was a hero: a courageous leader who could deal with monarchs as equals, and one who could suffer to ease the suffering of his followers.
Columbus, Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus. Trans. Robert H. Fuson. Camden: International Marine Publishing, 1992.
Dyson, John. Columbus: For Gold, God, and Glory. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991
Koning, Hans. Columbus: His Enterprise. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976.
Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Logan: Perfection Learning Corporation, 1998.
Taviani, Paolo Emilio. Columbus: The. Great Adventure. Trans. Luciano F. Farina and Marc A. Beckwith. New York: Orion Books, 1991
Wilford, John Noble. The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy. New York: Random House, 1991
2006 – Catharine Magdalene Wingfield Clayton
2005 – Irtefa Anwara Bibte-Farid