Why Does Controversy Surround Christopher Columbus?
Not only was Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) wrongly credited with discovering the Americas in 1492 (the Vikings are thought to have reached North America in the tenth century), he subjected native peoples to harsh treatment, and he was an incompetent governor. During his second voyage, in 1493, he established a Spanish settlement called Isabela on the island of Hispaniola (an island in the Caribbean; present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), which he had claimed for Spain on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Governing the colony with his brothers Bartholomew and Diego, Columbus instituted a tribute system that required Taino males over the age of fourteen to deliver a certain amount of gold to the Spaniards every three months. Those who did not pay the tribute would receive severe punishment such as having their hands cut off. Another policy of Columbus's government was forced labor. Colonists were assigned Tainos to use as they liked for performing strenuous tasks, such as farming or mining. Native American offenses against the Spanish were punished with hanging, burning at the stake, beheading, or amputation (cutting off of arms and legs). Meanwhile the Spaniards acted without restraint or humanity, often attacking or killing Taino men, women, and children on a whim. The Spanish also sent Tainos to Spain to be sold as slaves—thirty by Columbus himself and later three hundred by his brother Bartholomew.
In 1496, the first unfavorable reports about conditions at Hispaniola reached Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand V (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella I (1451–1504), who had commissioned Columbus's voyages to the New World (the European term for North and South America). They were displeased because little gold was being sent back to Spain—even though Columbus had promised to deliver vast amounts of gold and silver—and colonists were complaining about the incompetent government. The king and queen also were alarmed that hardly any Tainos were being converted to Christianity (the religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Christ; about 6 B.C.–A.D.30). One of the missions of Spanish exploration was to spread Christianity to "heathens" in undiscovered lands. Columbus returned to Spain in order to restore the monarchs' faith in him. Finally they permitted him to return to the New World in 1498.
Problems only grew worse on Hispaniola. There were constant tensions between the Spaniards and the Tainos, supplies were scarce, and people were sick with deadly diseases. Soon the colonists were openly challenging Columbus. In 1500 Ferdinand and Isabella appointed Francisco de Bobadilla (?–1502) to replace Columbus as governor of Hispaniola. When Bobadilla arrived at Santo Domingo (the main settlement on the island), he found chaos. The bodies of seven rebel Spaniards were hanging in the town square, and Columbus's brother Diego was planning to hang five more. Columbus himself was not in Santo Domingo because he had gone to another part of the island to subdue a rebellion. His brother Bartholomew was dealing with similar problems elsewhere. Bobadilla arrested the three brothers. After a hearing, he decided to send them back to Spain for trial. In chains, the men walked to the ships that would take them to Europe. Crowds of angry colonists shouted insults at the Columbus brothers as they passed. After being held prisoner for several months in Spain, Columbus was summoned before Ferdinand and Isabella. He tried to convince them of his innocence and asked for restoration of his titles as admiral and governor. They permitted him to keep the title of admiral, but they named Nicolás de Ovando the new governor of Hispaniola. In 1502 Columbus set out on one more voyage of exploration to the Caribbean. This final trip was beset with misfortune and humiliation. He actually had to be rescued after spending a year stranded on the island of Jamaica. Eventually he made his way back to Spain and asked to be sent to sea again, but Ferdinand refused his request. As a result, Columbus retired to a house in Valladolid, Spain, where he died in 1504.
Further Information: Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. "Columbus—Hero or Villain?" History Today. May, 1992, pp. 4–9; Jones, Mary E., ed. Christopher Columbus and His Legacy: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Lucent, 1992; Pelta, Kathy. Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History Is Invented. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 1991; Scavone, Daniel. Christopher Columbus. San Diego: Lucent, 1992.