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Monday, October 10, 2011

Two Sides to Every Story: Christopher Columbus - Hero or Brute?

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Brute

I have wanted to write this post for over a month now after having a conversation with a coworker about Christopher Columbus, however I decided to wait for much better timing – and what could be better than Columbus Day! This post is designed to look at the two sides of the mythic man of Christopher Columbus – was he this hero who “found” America and should be celebrated every October? or was there more to this man than meets the eye? There are two distinct versions of Columbus – the one we celebrate and the one that we do not learn about even in history classes.

Hero of Myth
Columbus Discovers America
John Vanderlyn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The man we celebrate is the one who persevered to get this expedition to the Indies funded by the Spanish monarchs, sailed his three ships across a lethal Atlantic Ocean, and who ultimately found the island of Hispanola (thinking it was the Indies) and claimed it for Spain. He is celebrated as a great explorer and someone whom we should remember with a day off from work or school.  He is the man of our "Creation Story".

Cutting off the hands of the natives
Theodor de Bry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When we look a little closer at the real contributions of Columbus and his voyages we get to the grittier side. He didn’t really discover America – explorers had been dropping by for a long time before he arrived. He brought widespread death and destruction to the native populations from diseases, enforced slavery, and other brutal changes brought to their island. It is also believed that he was not even well liked by his own crews.

So how do we rectify these two very different men? If any of you are teachers, do you teach Columbus in class, and if so how? I’m just curious (when I was in grade school it was all celebrations and learning the rhymes and stories of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria sailing across the ocean to discover America. I think the only other thing I got was in high school when we had a new history teacher who actually talked of bringing over small pox). Does it make sense that we have a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of Columbus? We currently only have federal holidays that celebrate individuals in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and Christopher Columbus – should we maybe substitute someone in place of Columbus to celebrate with an individual day? Who would you suggest?

If you are interested in a book that examines how textbooks teach about Columbus, you should check out Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. He has a great chapter on Columbus and his voyages. This was one of the things that prompted this post. I do think that Columbus is someone that we should certainly teach about, however I think that we should give a better rounded lesson.

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Columbus is certainly a fascinating, if not perfect person. A lot of his failings were due to ignorance (maybe some of his successes, too). But his courage and perseverance is what I admire about him.

  2. Great post, Heather! I've been wanting to read James Loewen's book for a while and this is even more incentive to. I luckily had a history teacher in high school who encouraged us to look beyond the hero worship of historical figures (which is partly why I am fascinated by history now) and asked questions like, do you think Marie Antoinette was a victim or villain? Should Columbus get the credit though he wasn't the first to discover America? and others.

  3. Oh yes I am one of those people who dislikes Columbus only many years later after I first heard of him... I blame my awakening on Mitchell James Kaplan's novel which dealt with the Inquisition. I am sure there is a lot more to the story, as you imply, and perhaps it is not ALL Columbus' fault that Native Americans were obliterated, but again I wish there were a better way to teach our children rather than sugar coating the truth with nursery rhymes.
    To treat him as a sort of hero and honored with a national holiday is very short sighted, however, without the holiday perhaps we would not be reminded of the atrocities that other generations supported that we can now protest. Our biggest desire is that we hope that we have learned from our mistakes.

  4. Faith - I agree with you - his story is certainly fascinating.

    Siobian - I'm glad you had a history class like that. I had only one that was like that and it wasn't until my senior year in High School. Loewen's book is fascinating - although I have to read it in small bursts. I have another of his books - Lies Across America which is about things wrong at historical sites.

    Marie - I agree with you that we have to no sugar coat things with children. I mean, we don't have to give them the gory details right up front, but we can still teach the truth.

  5. I was mulling this one over today. I don't think we should have a Columbus Day because if we continue to celebrate it most people will continue thinking he discovered America. Yes he brought enough attention to the Americas to make the Europeans take notice and decide to colonize but he wasn't the first one here. Also he never even got close to the US! He explored the Caribbean and Central and S. America so why do we celebrate him here? I know when Collin learns about Columbus in school it will be the same drivel we all learned although I hope not :(

  6. Lovely post -- this is such a hard topic. My work honors Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus, and we do a lot of work on anti-racism and anti-oppression to highlight the lingering impacts of oppression and colonization in the US and North America. For me, I appreciate the awareness that what happened with Columbus and the other explorers wasn't as shiny or as inspirational as we like to believe, but it can be good/healing/interesting to have a national conversation about it!

  7. Holly - I'm mostly on the same page with you, he really didn't do anything for the US, more for Central America/Caribbean.

    Audra - That is a good angle to approach it from. I certainly think that Columbus should be taught, in a more straight forward way, because he was important, I just don't think important enough for his own day. This post has actually generated the kinds of discussions I was hoping for!


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