Thinking about Columbus

This lithograph print, held by WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, depicts Christopher Columbus kneeling before Queen Isabelle of Castile, joint ruler of what is now Spain, and her court, to plead his case for making a voyage across the Atlantic. Initially presented in May 1486, Columbus spent six years – and trips to numerous courts in Europe – advocating his idea. Finally, in 1492, Queen Isabella was convinced to financially back his proposed voyage.

While many scholars talk about the economic motivations of Columbus, i.e., money and wealth for himself and Spain, Columbus also had religious motivations. It was those motivations, and their consequences, that have led to modern day debates about whether to celebrate Columbus Day. According to Arnold K. Garr, former chair of the department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, Columbus was a complex individual and “to say that Christopher’s chief motivation was economic distorts the truth and hides from the reader an important role that he said he played, that of being the ‘Christ-bearer.’” Both contemporary accounts and modern analysis reveal Columbus’s religious motivations. For example, Columbus wrote to Amerigo Vespucci that he was “the chosen instrument of God in bringing to pass a great event—no less than the conversion of millions who are now existing in the darkness of Paganism.” Columbus was also known to make annotations in many books, such as Marco Polo’s Description of the World and Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, the latter of which convinced him of a great urgency in needing to convert the world to Christianity before the Second Coming of Christ. Accounts from Columbus’s contemporaries support this view, including that of Bartolomé de las Casas, who likened Columbus’s “discovery” as “one of the most outstanding exploits reserved by God for the propagation of his holy Church”.

This is the motivation which spurred a big point of contention for Columbus, both in our time and his. In his own time, Columbus’s use of religion to justify his cruelty to Indigenous people, including the torture and enslavement of Arawaks and Tainos in the Caribbean, was criticized and investigated. In 1499, it resulted in Columbus’s removal from power as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies and being placed under investigation by the new Viceroy, Francisco de Bobadilla. In a 48-page report, Bobadilla informed Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Columbus’s actions, including testimonies from 23 people. Columbus was accused of cutting off people’s ears and noses for minor offenses, parading women naked through the streets, and selling people into slavery. As a result, Columbus was taken back to Spain in chains; he was later set free, but never recovered his power and titles.

Lithograph print showing Christopher Columbus kneeling before Queen Isabella at the Spanish court.



“Christophe Colomb a la Cour D’Isabelle II (“Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabella I”), lithograph print, held by WKU Department of Library Special Collections, 1929.5.124. The print features titles and description in French and Spanish.

Today, as the world grapples with America’s legacies of racism and racial-based violence, including that against Indigenous people, we’ve seen many cities eradicate Columbus celebrations and instead honor Indigenous Peoples Day. As Harvard’s Leah Shafer and Bari Walsh summarized in 2017:

“Just as the country grapples with the meaning and problems of Confederate monuments, so too are schools, towns, and even whole states grappling with “Columbus Day.” Many are deciding to rename and refocus the holiday, choosing to call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the people whose lives and cultures were irreparably damaged by the colonial conquest that the age of exploration ushered into being.”

According to history teacher Eric Shed, who directs the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program, confronting the problematic commemoration of Columbus builds skills that are fundamental for understanding history and engaging in critical thinking. These skills include recognizing complications and making deep explorations into the people that made history happen; analyzing dominant narratives and counternarratives in finding truth; and grappling with multiple perspectives, both contemporary to Columbus and modern-day ones. The questions we face in talking about Columbus are similar to questions we about Confederate monuments and the Civil War, and can help us explore and better understand the histories of marginalized people, including Black and Indigenous people of color.

To critically question figures like Columbus is not to forget them. It is, rather, to explore these figures as human beings, as people who made decisions that had potentially global consequences, and how those decisions – and the motivations behind them – changed the course of history. If not Columbus, who might have connected Europe and what is now the Americas? What would have been the consequences of a European nation other than Spain first encountering the Americas in the 15th/16th century? Such speculation helps build critical thinking, but it also opens doors into what Columbus did do in reaching the Americas at the exact moment of October 12, 1492. As Shed states,

“Columbus did not “discover America,” but his voyages began the Columbian exchange, a turning point in world history involving the massive transfers of human populations, cultures, ideas, animals, plants, and diseases. Turning points are powerful lenses through which students need to view our past.”

This lithograph, held by WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, illustrates this turning point. What if Queen Isabella had not funded Columbus? Would he have sailed at all? How is the world different because of this one decision by a Queen? And what does that mean for us, today, as we strive to live in such a diverse country with a long, and quite controversial, history? What decisions will we make that change the world?


Sources

Arnold K. Garr, Christopher Columbus A Latter-Day Saint Perspective, (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992), 29–37.

Leah Shafer and Bari Walsh, with Eric Shed, “The Columbus Day Problem” for Harvard Graduate School of Education, October 5, 2017. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/10/columbus-day-problem

Giles Tremlett, “Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean” The Guardian (UK), August 7, 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/aug/07/books.spain

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The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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