Archive for Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus: a visionary or a tyrant?

October 14, 2013

If there is one figure in history who is misunderstood, underappreciated and shrouded in mystery, it is Christopher Columbus. Many believe that Oct. 12 is his birthday, but it is actually the day when the first land of the New World was sighted.

Even the events surrounding that sighting are clouded. Columbus claimed he was the first to see light of the new land, while others claim it was a common sailor. This is typical of the stories or, in some cases, myths surrounding Columbus’ life and accomplishments. What is fact is that he was an excellent, innovative seaman and captain who was willing to risk everything for his idea of sailing to the Orient.

Those who don’t like or respect him point out that discovering new knowledge and lands were secondary to his real motivating cause: finding gold and becoming wealthy. His was accused of being a heartless tyrant who tortured and killed natives in search of wealth. Persons in Scandinavian countries point out that he wasn’t truly the first man to reach the New World. That feat was accomplished by Viking Leif Erickson a couple of centuries earlier.

In my case, I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. He had a radical and dangerous idea that the world wasn’t flat and that he could find a route to the Far East, which would benefit trade. He also was a bit greedy in that he made a deal with Spain that he would get 10 percent of all the wealth he was able to bring back to Spain and be given the title “Admiral of the Sea.”

While there is no doubt that Erickson was first, he made no attempt to colonize the New World. Columbus was the first to establish permanent settlements, although a few perished due to battles with local natives.

Most believe he was born Oct. 31, 1451, in Genoa, Italy. According to tradition, his father was a merchant. There was a later rumor that he was an illegitimate son of a Pope, but that was never proven.

Anyway, he supposedly worked in his father’s business near the docks and fell in love with the ocean and sailing. He went to sea for the first time in 1476 and was almost killed in a battle with French pirates. He spent several years sailing in the Mediterranean learning his craft.

You’ve got to like his determination since it took him several years to finally sell the Spanish nobility on his idea. He sailed to the New World four times and started the first colonies primarily in the Caribbean. However, that’s where his troubles started. His cruel treatment and torture of the natives to discover the location of gold mines landed him in hot water. He was arrested and sent, in chains, back to Spain to stand trial. While he wasn’t thrown in jail, he did lose a great deal of money and his title, although he was awarded a small stipend.

Christopher Columbus’ health failed and he died on May 20, 1506. According to one website, his body was moved so many times that no one is completely sure of the location of his final resting place.

What lessons can we learn from his life? Certainly, he was an extremely brave man who was a visionary. He refused to give up his dream of sailing to a New World. On the other side, his greed and viciousness led to his downfall. On the whole, I believe Columbus was a great man and like all those of his time, he had flaws. Despite that, his accomplishments outweigh his faults and there is no doubt he changed the history of the world.

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