The Genoese explorer became famous for having “discovered America” on behalf of the Spanish Crown in 1492, when he was trying to reach Asia from the West. However, if Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) is indeed a key actor in the systematic exploration and colonization of the American continent, his importance has been largely overstated by the historiography of the 19th century.
The date has remained engraved in all our schoolchildren’s heads: on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. The Genoese explorer, who disembarked in the current archipelago of the Bahamas, believed that he had established a western route between Europe and the Asian continent (“the Indies”).
The stakes, then, were enormous: at the end of the 15th century, voyages of exploration were multiplying all over the world, financed by the European empires in search of new trade routes. Maritime navigation had been revolutionized by the discovery of the astrolabe and the caravel, allowing for more distant expeditions than ever before, and Europe had just accepted the idea of a round Earth. The first exploration routes were then undertaken towards the South, bypassing Africa, then towards the West across the Atlantic.
From Viking expeditions to Amerigo Vespucci
“Christopher Columbus based his route on a miscalculation, explains Virginie Adane, lecturer in modern history at the University of Nantes and specialist in colonial America. In trying to find a new route to trade with “the Indies”, i.e. Asia, he reduced the distance between the Asian continent and Europe. It is this route that he sells to the Queen of Spain, Isabella of Castile.” In 1493, he returned to Europe in full glory, the holds filled with foodstuffs and natives brought back from the “Indies”. Making the Spanish sovereigns dream of the riches of the American coastline, he had a second voyage financed, from 1493 to 1496. A third and then a fourth expedition followed, until 1504. He died two years later in Valladolid, probably without knowing that he had discovered a new continent.
“It is interesting to look back at the very notion of “great discovery”, and the fact that we are so attached to Christopher Columbus”, notes Virginie Adane. For the Genoese was far from being the first European to set foot on the American continent. Scandinavian expeditions ventured there long before him, from the 10th century until the 13th century, while Portuguese and Danish explorers were able to establish possible pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contacts.
In the fifteenth century, other explorers arrived on the east coast of America at the same time as Christopher Columbus. Giovanni Caboto, known as John Cabot, an Italian explorer in the service of England, who aspired like Columbus to discover the western route to India, landed off Newfoundland in 1497, just after Columbus’ first voyage. He pushed his expedition much further north than the Genoese, thus becoming in the eyes of the British the true discoverer of the “new land”.
As for the famous Amerigo Vespucci, he is remembered thanks to the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who used the name “America” for the first time, in 1507, inspired by his name. An explorer among others, contemporary of Cabot and Columbus, the Italian navigator stood out for being probably the first to speak of the “New World”, when Columbus still thought he had arrived in Asia.
The advent of the Columbus myth
But then, why did we make Christopher Columbus the discoverer of America? For several reasons,” answers Virginie Adane, “which go back to the end of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people were trying to formalize history and give it a meaning. In 1776, the United States became independent and it became embarrassing to say that the origins of the colony were British explorers. But Christopher Columbus was a Genoese. And his story is all the more interesting because he will be recalled and dismissed by the Queen of Spain for his exactions in the colonies.” For the American tradition, the situation of the explorer, disowned and betrayed by the Old Continent, is similar to that of the United States, which claims to be the victim of the tyranny of King George. The icing on the cake was that his Genoese origin appealed to the Italian immigrants who arrived in the 19th century. “The history of Columbus, in the eighteenth-nineteenth century, is also that,” summarizes Virginie Adane, “the young America, a new nation that tries to emancipate itself from a too English narrative.”
In 1828, a “History of the Life and Travels of Christopher Columbus” was written by Washington Irving, one of the first American writers. The book quickly became a bestseller. It brings the myth of Columbus into history as an enlightened mind, a proponent of the round Earth against the medieval obscurantists. “Nowadays, historians are trying to deconstruct this part of the Columbus myth, at the same time as they are trying to deconstruct the notion of the “discovery” of America. To speak of “discovery” is to say that we landed on an empty and unpopulated continent, which was not the case. It is a very Eurocentric notion, which obscures the presence of indigenous populations and confiscates their word.”
Columbus explorer, Columbus colonizer?
The notion of discovery poses another problem: it tends to separate exploration from exploitation. The discoverers thus appear as idealists, eager to extend the domain of knowledge, while the exploiters set up brutal and aggressive colonization. We have been able to argue recently that Columbus was a discoverer and not a colonizer,” says Virginie Adane. In reality, he was a colonizer, and very quickly. You can’t separate the two. Just after he arrived in the current Bahamas in 1492, Columbus went to the island of Hispaniola, which corresponds to current Haiti. “His objective then is to increase the power of the Spanish queen, therefore to find wealth to exploit. First of all, he looked for gold. But failing that, he quickly envisages reducing the local populations to slavery. He notes in his logbook that with 50 men, it is possible to subjugate the whole of the Arawaks.” Duly noted. Columbus was arrested by the Queen in 1500 and forcibly returned to Spain.
But the damage was done: like the Taïnos on Hispaniola, the indigenous populations were decimated by armed conflicts with the Spaniards, forced labor, and microbial shock, because the Europeans were passive carriers of pathogens to which the Indians had never been exposed, and which decimated them in a few decades. The colonial violence was denounced by the Dominican monk Bartolomé de Las Casas, who left for the New World in 1502 and revealed the dark side of the Discovery. On the great Terra Firma,” he wrote, “we are certain that our Spaniards, by their cruelties and their harmful works, have depopulated and devastated lands full of men endowed with the reason which are today deserted. […] Men, women and children have died unjustly because of the tyranny and infernal works of the Christians.”