Over the years, Christopher Columbus has received a bad rap from many different groups in the Americas. Some have blamed him for the destruction of the native traditions of the indigenous people who inhabited the lands that he has been credited for discovering. Others have sought to discredit his achievement by pointing to earlier points in history where Europeans, and some have claimed even the ancient Chinese, found the New Land years, even centuries, before his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The fact that people were actually here first, never bothered the 15th Century Europeans who claimed that new land had been discovered. The kingdoms sought to increase their riches and the Catholic Monarchs sought new souls for the Christian faith.
A source of income for European Kingdoms during this time came through the trade routes, and the route that brought the most riches came by way of the Silk Trade. Valuable goods such as silk, spices, and opiates were sought from China made their way through Western Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe, as well as parts of North and East Africa. The Silk Road did much to improve and advance the civilizations of that traded along 4,000 mile network of interlinking trade routes.
During the reign of the Mongolian Empire and before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Europeans enjoyed relatively safe land travel along the route. After the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would last until 1922, travel became difficult and dangerous for Europeans. An alternate route, to sail around Africa to reach Asia, was sought under the authority of King John II of Portugal, but Christopher Columbus, and his brothers, proposed a different plan to reach Asia, by way of the Indies, by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean.
Columbus submitted his plans to King John II twice, who liked it and backed the plan, but the King’s experts dismissed Columbus’s estimate distance of travel as being too low. Soon after 1488, the King lost interest in the his project because Bartolomeu Dias returned to Portugal with the news of his successful rounding of the southern tip of Africa. With a path open to Asia, Columbus’s theory seemed to be a far-fetched dream to the King.
Columbus shopped his plan around to Genoa and Venice, sent his brother Bartholomew to England to seek sponsorship from the court of Henry VII. All were not interested in the plan.
Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who ruled together as the Catholic Monarchs and had united several kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula through their marriage, granted an audience with Columbus. Their experts also felt that Columbus estimation of the distance from Europe to Asia through the West, was grossly underestimated. They were advised against the plan, however, in 1489, the Catholic Monarchs decided to keep Columbus on retainer. They paid him an annual allowance and commanded that all cities and towns under their rule to support him with food and lodging at no cost to keep him from taking his plan elsewhere.
After two years of negotiations and lobbying the Spanish Court, Columbus finally received approval from the Crown to move forward with plans to set sail to Asia. As Columbus requested of King John II of Portugal, the Catholic Monarchs promised Columbus that if he succeeded he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he could claim for Spain. He would also stand to receive a portion of all the profits that would come from the voyage.
Some believe that these terms were unusually generous because the monarchs didn’t expect Columbus to return and when he did, and continued to return, he was later arrested in 1500 and dismissed from all posts.
By the end of his third voyage from the newly discovered lands, Columbus, both physically and emotionally exhausted and suffering from poor eyesight and arthritis at 48 years of age, requested a royal commissioner to help him govern the West Indies. However, accusations of tyranny and incompetence on his part had already reached the Spanish Court.
Without a word in his defense, and the testimonies of those claimed that Columbus regularly used barbaric acts of torture to govern Hispaniola, Columbus and his brothers were arrested and sent back to Spain. Francisco de Bobadilla, a member of the Order of Calatrava, was appointed by the Court as governor and given complete control over the areas that were previously governed by Columbus.
Jailed for only six weeks, King Ferdinand ordered their release, and not long after, both king and queen pardoned the brothers, restored their freedom and wealth and eventually agreed to fund Columbus’s fourth and final voyage. However, Columbus’s role as governor would never be granted.
There is no evidence that Columbus even knew he discovered the Americas and still maintained that he had discovered islands off of Japan. He thought he was in the islands that were called the Indies, which were to be later called the West Indies. He sought governorship not to rule or to strip the people of their freedom, but to secure his family’s fortune. His aspirations and goals were no different than the aspirations and goals of the fortune seekers of our day. Unfortunately, these motivations have unintended consequences or they are attacked, out of greed and jealously, and stripped by a government that maintains the strings of power.
Christopher Columbus, in my opinion, was not a genocidal murderer or a land grabber. He was an opportunist, like the Catholic Monarchs, and like many people throughout history, and he seized on an opportunity that presented itself. He had the skills, the vision, and the discipline, and all he needed was financial backing to carpe-the-diem. Columbus may have been a great explorer, but it appears that he failed as a governor or that his rivals were able to persuade the Court that he was cruel and an incompetent ruler. His royal supporters, desperate to gain equal footing as a world power, seemingly reneged on their agreement, and served their own purpose. As is typical throughout history, the little man loses in the end and is later demonized for actions that came after his time.
Having been born in the western hemisphere in the late 20th Century, I have much respect for the men who blazed their own path and sought their own fortunes in a world where social class often dictated how comfortable your life would be. A world where one could not easily change their social status, but through military campaign and exploration. The rich and powerful stayed in their posh, safe surroundings and waited to exploit the fruits of the risk takers.
While the powers of royalty were slowly being transferred to the common man in Europe, with the Magna Carta for example, this westward expansion eventually led to the revolutions that would transform the western world from monarch rule to the democratic self-rule that we enjoy today. For this, another unintended consequence, we should celebrate Christopher Columbus for his achievements.