Was Columbus a hero for the New World or a villain?Was Columbus a hero for the New World or a villain?

10 Answers | Add Yours

thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Thinking about Columbus as either a hero or villain seems to me to over-emphasize the role of individuals as "mythic founders". Given the amount of exploration going on in the Renaissance, it was extremely likely that various Europeans would end up in the Americas. Many different people and political and cultural factors affected relationships between the New World and the Old World.

To focus on Columbus as an individual seems to me to think of history in terms of celebrity culture and a limited number of "big names". While it's a useful way to start getting on handle on the past in high school, it's important as you continue your studies to look at more complex background issues.

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is a highly controversial question, and strong cases have been made on both sides of the argument. Perhaps the simplest answer to the question is that Columbus's activities are a simple historical fact and that, like most historical facts, his activities have had both positive and negative consequences. Among the positive consequences was the eventual establishment of the United States, arguably the freest and most successful nation in human history. (I am aware, of course, that even this argument is open to dispute and has in fact provoked great controversy.) In the long annals of human history, was Columbus a uniquely or unusually negative figure? I suspect not, but I am certainly willing to listen to arguments to the contrary!  :-)

stolperia's profile pic

stolperia | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Columbus was a product of the society and culture from which he came. Given the mindset and attitudes that surrounded him as he matured and prepared for his travels, what he did and the ways in which he did things were inevitable. I don't think that makes him either a hero - in the sense of doing something above and beyond what was expected of him in his position as leader of the explorers - or a villain - his dealings with the natives he encountered were reprehensible but completely explainable and justified in his mind because of the background knowledge he brought to the encounters. Hindsight is always clearer than awareness in real time.

kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Perhaps it is useful to separate what Columbus accomplished from what his behavior was.

What he accomplished: Columbus was a hero for being the first European in the "discovery" eras (Boorstein defines a discovery as something that can be and is replicated and leads to greater discoveries; in this sense, earlier Scandinavian exploration and settlements in the Americas were not "discoveries" because they didn't lead to further discoveries) to have the courage, the vision, and money (!) to apply the technology and actually make the first trans-Atlantic voyage.

How he behaved: Columbus was an ungenerous guest and destructive villain in the way he behaved to the peoples of the land he "discovered." The facts substantiate this view of how Columbus behaved.

So the answer is two-fold. Columbus was a hero in what he dared to do--and come back alive to tell about. Columbus was a villain for how he treated the people whose land he invaded. (One wonders how he might have behaved had he actually reached China ....)

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The either-or premise is problematic.  Perhaps Columbus wasn't that simple.  Judging people in distant history from today's moral standards is difficult at best, as Columbus was not alone in acting the way he did towards Native Americans, and both he and his beliefs were a product of the times.

I'm not letting him completely off the hook, but I don't think we can brand him either a hero or a villain with any kind of standard that is both accurate and logical.

wannam's profile pic

wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

If I had to chose, I'd say Columbus was a villain rather than a hero. To the Europeans, he failed in his mission to discover a passage to Asia. He continued to claim that he had discovered such a passage and refused to recognize the New World as new for quite some time. His sailors, who thought they were sailing off the edge of the globe, certainly didn't like him for putting through such trying sea voyages. His people brought diseases to the Native Americans. They took their land and, in most cases, treated them with little respect. Once, Columbus was portrayed as the great hero that discovered America and helped build the civilization we now know. However, I think the truth if it is very different. We now teach school children a less idealized version of events. In truth, Columbus probably wasn't well liked by anyone.
literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I think that my perspective on this subject has changed dramatically. I cannot attest to Columbus himself, but as for what history has portrayed him as up until high school. I have seen many students getting upset this week. The history teacher is going over the discovery of America. Students are coming out of the class angry that they have been lied to for so many years.

For them, Columbus is now a villain.

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I agree with #3. The question asks whether Columbus was a hero or villain 'for' the New World rather than 'for' Europeans. Certainly the so-called discovery of the New World made Columbus a hero in the eyes of Europeans, and is a major reason why he is remembered today. However, clearly he used the discovery of the New World to advance and enrich his own position. He set out determined to be famous and hoping to gain wealth, which would obviously be at the expense of any poor indigenous people groups he happened to stray across. Much more of a villain than a hero, then.

larrygates's profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I respectfully take issue with the post above. If one considers the historical record, one can hardly conceive of Columbus as anything but a villain. The post correctly notes that his "discovery" of the Americas was perhaps inevitable; so he deserves no particular credit for that. Additionally, the Americas were not considered a wonderful new land of opportunity by Europeans for some years after Columbus; in fact most voyages after Columbus were attempts to find a Northwest Passage around the Americas to Asia. Only the Spanish were interested in the Americas, and their only interest was gold.

From the moment he landed, Columbus' treatment of the Taino Indians whom he met was both atrocious and inexcusable. On his first meeting, he commented in his log:

They would make fine servants....With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Hardly the words of a hero. The Indians he carried back to Europe (a story every school child has heard) were actually kidnapped and carried away in chains. Upon returning for his second voyage, he released greyhounds and mastiffs on the Indians because of a skirmish with the men he had left behind. The dogs ripped the flesh from the limbs of the Indians. Later, he rounded up fifteen hundred Indians, chose five hundred of the "best" specimens, and forced them onboard ship to be sold in Europe as slaves. Over two hundred died en route. This was an attempt on his part to satisfy the investors to whom he had promised riches. When slavery was not a viable option, he forced the Indians to search for gold Every Indian over age fourteen was given a quota. If he/she did not meet the quota, his hands were cut off and he was allowed to bleed to death. Such being the case, he hardly qualifies as a "hero."

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I would argue that he was neither.  Columbus was just the European who happened to be the first to "find" the New World.  If it had not been him, it would have been someone else and all of the goods and bads of what happened to the New World would still have happened.  So I see him as neither a hero nor a villain.

If you want to look at him in one of these ways, I would argue that it depends on whose side you look at.  From the point of view of Europeans who came to the New World, the "discovery" of the New World was a wonderful thing.  It opened great new economic opportunities and later gave a group of Europeans the opportunity to set up the freest country known in the world at that time.  This would make Columbus a hero.

If, however, you want to look at it from the Native American side of things, Columbus is a villain.  His coming (and that of the rest of the Europeans) meant nothing good for Native Americans as a whole.  It meant wholesale death from disease and dispossession of their native lands.  There is little good in that.

We’ve answered 318,991 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question